China’s confusing tank development on the path of Soviet Union

If you look at the overall, China’s current main battle tank (MBT) development and production strategy, it is similar to the former Soviet Union; when developing modern MBTs in parallel with old and outdated tanks.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was a leader in the development and production of main battle tanks (MBTs). There are Soviet MBTs that only produce and equip elite units, but are not exported due to their high cost, such as T-64 or T-80; However, there are MBTs that are produced in large quantities, at low cost, for mass equipment and export, such as T-72 MBT.

Type 59 tank
Type 59 tank

China’s battle tank manufacturing industry was built with Soviet help in the mid-1950s, with the main MBT being the Type 59 (a copy of the T-54) with more than 10,000 produced. Currently, Type 59 is still the most numerous type of MBT in the Chinese Army.

After the 1990s, thanks to the development of the country’s economy, it was possible for China to develop a number of relatively capable MBT designs. Currently, China has three distinct tank designs, produced for its Army, and two other tanks produced specifically for export.

The most modern Chinese MBT is the Type 99A, which entered service in 2011 and, according to some assessments, is the most capable, third generation battle tank in the world.

Type 99A Tank
Type 99A Tank

The Type 99A features advanced composite and explosive reactive armor, a digital communications system, a 125mm cannon that can fire a variety of specialized ammunition, and a laser anti-tank missile jammer. The turret is angled with composite panels and modular armor, providing a high level of protection.

With China prioritizing the development of the Navy and Air Force much more than the Army; largely due to China’s geography, it is possible that any possible attack by the West, will come by sea; Therefore, China did not deploy large numbers of Type 99A for its armored units, due to the very high price.

To replace the very outdated Type 59, which does not meet the requirements of modern warfare, China has developed a cheaper MBT model that can be equipped in large numbers for the Army of this country, which is Type-96 (similar to the T-72 main tank in the former Soviet Army).

Type 96 tank
Type 96 tank

In terms of deployed numbers, the Type 96 is one of the largest tanks in the world in the post-Cold War era, second only to the Russian T-90, with 2,500 units in PLA service, including 1,500 variants. improved Type 96A and 1,000 original Type 96.

China’s third and fourth tank designs are the VT-4 and Type 15, the VT-4 is a medium-weight tank, developed on the Type-96, purpose-built for export. and the Type 15 are light tanks, built for combat in mountainous terrain and amphibious assaults.

The MBT VT-4 has been exported to Thailand, Nigeria and Pakistan at a relatively low cost, but has armor equivalent to 700mm of uniform steel (RHA). The double-layered armor protection consists of composite armor and explosive reactive armor, providing high survivability; along with it is a relatively advanced fire control system.


The Type 15 tank is about 40% lighter than the Type 99 and is the only modern Chinese tank that does not use a 125mm cannon, but uses a 105mm cannon like the old Chinese tanks, the Type 59.

The Type 15 relies on weapons such as laser-guided anti-tank missiles and kinetic armor-piercing bullets to offset the vehicle’s size and weight. The Type 15 is prized for its ability to operate effectively in the mountainous areas of western China, giving it a particularly important advantage over neighboring India.

Although a number of MBTs with relatively advanced features have been developed, it is noteworthy that China continues to produce improved versions of the Type 59 MBT series. The most notable variants are the Al Zarrar which is manufactured by China. developed for Pakistan and Al Kafil-1 was developed for Iraq.

Put into service since 2004, the Al Zarrar tank has many improvements, such as using an engine with 22% more capacity than the Type 59; equipped with 125mm smoothbore cannon and modern fire control system. About 500 Al Zarrars have been produced for the Pakistani Army, but the Al Zarrar is no longer in production.

As the successor to the Al Zarrrar and representing a further radical improvement of the Type 59, which is almost imperceptible compared to the original, the Al Kafil-1 was assembled in Iraq, using components. of China. However, in the war on terror, many Al Zarrars were destroyed; Currently, Iraq is importing T-90S tanks from Russia.

Currently, China has more classes of tanks produced than any other country. With most countries producing only a single class, for example the American M1 Abrams or the Korean K2 Black Panther. Russia, the successor to the Soviet Union, also produced only two tanks, the T-90 and the T-14.

Currently, China is producing three MBT models for its Army and two more exclusively for export. However, maintaining too many MBT samples in an armed force, will lead to difficulties in ensuring logistics and techniques; at the same time it is difficult to concentrate resources to invest in upgrading.

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