Top 5 Chinese Tanks: Roles and Capabilities of All Five Models in Production Today

China has had a major industry for the manufacture of battle tanks since the mid-1950s, with its most prolific product the Norinco Type 59 tank having seen over 10,000 units built for both domestic uses and for export to well over a dozen clients across three continents. 

Although the country's Cold War-era tanks were relatively modest compared to the most advanced foreign designs, and particularly the latest armour developed across the border in the Soviet Union, the rapid modernisation of the Chinese economy and its emergence as the world's largest from 2017, facilitated the development of some of the world's most capable tank designs. The country today has three separate tank designs in production for its own armed forces and a further two in production exclusively for export.

1. Type 99A

China's prime battle tank is the Norinco Type 99A, which entered service in 2011 and which is by some assessments the most capable pre-fourth generation battle tank in the world. The tank features advanced composite and explosive reactive armour, a laser communications system, a 125mm cannon with a range of specialised munition types and a ‘laser dazzler' designed to jam laser-guided missiles. 

Its angular turret with composite panels and spaced modular armour provide a very high level of protection, and the tank is considered by some analysts to be the most survivable in the world from its weight range. The Type 99A also benefits from digital maintenance systems similar to those which have more recently begun to be installed on the latest generations of Western tanks, which allows the PLA to maintain higher combat readiness rates. The Type 99A's features led it to be ranked as the world's most capable battle tank in 2020 outside South Korea and Russia - both countries which place a much greater emphasis on their ground forces than China.  

With China having prioritised it's Navy and Air Force for more than its ground. forces, largely for geographical reasons as any possible Western attack is expected to come by sea, the country has not invested heavily in deploying the Type 99A across its armoured units due to its very high cost. 

2.Type 96

In parallel to the elite tank, the country also produces Type 96 which is the most widely used by frontline units in the PLA Ground Forces. The Type 96 is lighter and easier to operate than the Type 99 and is also considerably cheaper to produce while benefiting from many of the same technologies. 

It is the only modern Chinese tank to have been tested in combat and was deployed by its only export client the Sudanese Army against T-72 tanks deployed by South Sudan. The tanks destroyed four T-72s for no losses and had a significant performance advantage. In terms of the numbers deployed, Type 96 is one of the most numerous post-Cold War tanks in the world second only to the Russian T-90, with 2,500 in service in the PLA including 1,500 enhanced Type 96A variants and 1,000 of the original Type 96.

3.VT-4 

China's third and fourth tank designs, the VT-4 and Type 15, and closely related designs developed in parallel, with the former being a sophisticated low maintenance medium weight tank built exclusively for export, and the latter being a lightweight design built for mountain and amphibious warfare. 

The VT-4 has seen exports to Thailand, Nigeria and Pakistan and reportedly made a strong impression for its advanced performance, with the tank benefitting from many shared subsystems and technologies from the Type 99. The tank is relatively cheap to manufacture, but can reportedly penetrate 700mm of armour which only a small fraction of operational tanks in the world can do. Dual-layer protection including composite and explosive reactive armour provides a high degree of survivability to complement the tank's firepower.  

4.Type 15

The complementary Type 15 is approximately 40% lighter than the Type 99 and is the only modern Chinese tank not to use a 125mm cannon with the smaller vehicle accommodating only a 105mm cannon. The tank relies on specialised munition types such as laser-guided anti-tank missiles and kinetic energy penetrators to threaten modern armour and compensate for the size of its armament. Type 15 is prized for its ability to operate effectively in mountainous regions in western China, which provides a particularly important advantage over neighbouring India which lacks any similar mountain-friendly tanks. It notably has a very advanced hydro-pneumatic suspension system that dynamically adjusts ground clearance to maximise manoeuvrability and combat efficacy in rough terrain.

Despite developing some of the world's leading armoured warfare technologies, China had notably continued production of heavily enhanced derivatives of the tried and tested Type 59 in enhanced variants as a low cost and low maintenance export product. The most notable variants have been the Al Zarrar developed for Pakistan, and the Al Kafil-1 developed for Iraq.  

5. Al Zarrar tank

Entering service from 2004, the Al Zarrar tank revolutionised the performance of Type 55 and was 22% heavier than the original tank. At 730hp, its engine was almost 50% more powerful, and it accommodated a much heavier armament - a 125 mm smoothbore gun. Although small and very easy and cheap to maintain and operate, the Al Zarrar boasts formidable firepower facilitated by modern fire control systems and laser range finders and benefits from modular composite armour and explosive relative armour for improved survivability. Approximately 500 were manufactured for the Pakistani Army, but the class is no longer in production today.

As a successor to the Al Zarrrar, and representing a further radical improvement of the Type 59 that was almost unrecognisable from the original, the Al Kafil-1 has been built under license in Iraq using Chinese components and appears to feature an entirely new turret with additional reactive armour, rear side anti-RPG chain protection, and a remotely controlled weapon station armed with a heavy machine gun and grenade launchers. It remains uncertain to what extent the design has been upgraded. 

The hull has received greater protection with new reactive armour and additional rear armour and also features new mudguards. The Al Kafil could be the most likely modern Chinese tank to see combat in ongoing counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq. The tank's name indicates that there could be plans for a successor, the Al Kafil-2, which would likely also be developed in China and assembled in Iraq.

China has more tank classes in production today than any other country, with almost all tank producers manufacturing just a single class - for example the M1 Abrams in the U.S. or the K2 Black Panther in South Korea. Russia, which is the closest competitor, produces two tanks, the T-90 and T-14, as well as a very small number of 2S25 Sprut-SD light tanks designed to be deployed from the air by parachute. China currently produces three tanks for its own armed forces and a further two exclusively for export. 

As Chinese tank technologies continue to advance rapidly, the possibility remains significant that its designs will provide overwhelming superiority. While modernisation of armoured units has hardly been a priority, a successor to the Type 99A is speculated to be in advanced development stages and could be truly revolutionary surpassing even top-end foreign designs such as Russia's T-14 and South Korea's K2.

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