China’s Most Powerful Battle Tank Marks Ten Years in Frontline Service: How Powerful is the Type 99A

The year 2021 marks ten years since the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s most capable class of the battle tank, the Type 99A, first entered service, with the new armoured vehicle joining the country’s ground forces from 2011. 

Although developments in China’s ground forces have received far less attention than its Navy, Air Force or Rocket Force, the progress made in modernising armoured warfare capabilities has been considerable. 

China currently produces more classes of battle tanks than any other country - including the VT-4, Type 15, Type 96 and Type 99A. 

Of these, the Type 99A is overall the most capable in terms of combat performance, although due to its very high cost and the prioritisation of funding for the Navy and Air Force the tank has only been produced in limited numbers, with the cheaper Type 96 relied on by most frontline units. 

Type 15, meanwhile, is relied on for amphibious and mountain warfare operations due to its much smaller size, while the VT-4 is a design similar to but larger than the Type 15 which is being produced solely for export. 

China faced a major disadvantage in terms of the quality of its frontline armour for most of the Cold War, with neighbouring North Korea, the Soviet Union and India all boasting superior Soviet-designed tanks such as the T-62 and Chonma Ho while China relied heavily on the ageing Type 59 design. 

The country gained access to the most advanced Soviet armoured warfare technologies following the end of the Cold War and invested heavily in bridging the disparity in capabilities resulting in the commissioning of the Type 96 tank from 1997. 

The tank was built to be able to go head to head with the Soviet T-72 and T-80 - which by many accounts were the two most capable tank designs in the world at the time - after an extensive study of T-80 tanks and possibly some T-72s acquired from Soviet successor states. 

The Type 96 design would later be updated, with the Type 96A entering service from around 2008 and boasting a range of new technologies including, among others, laser defence systems and electro optional jammers, new FY-4 explosive reactive armour and an upgraded 800hp engine. 

Only around 300 Type 99A tanks are thought to have been produced, and at 55 tons they are considerably heavier than the 43 ton Type 96 or than its 46-ton Russian competitor the T-90. 

With heavier tanks generally requiring more maintenance and being more costly to operate, this likely contributed to the decision to limit the numbers of Type 99A tanks produced - along with the reportedly very high cost of manufacturing the vehicles. 

For a world-leading tank design, relatively little is known about its capabilities in part due to secrecy surrounding the program. The tank boasts many of the same technologies as the Type 96A but has a much more powerful 1500hp engine and superior armour protection. 

This includes a turret with arrow-shaped applique armour, composite panels, spaced modular armour and a JD-3 infrared jammer. 

The Type 99A also benefits from digital maintenance systems similar to those which have recently begun to be installed on the latest generations of Western tanks and has a much better range and fuel efficiency than most Western or Russian competitors. Although the tank currently uses a 125mm main gun, some reports indicate that the possibility of a heaver 140mm or 152mm gun has been considered - with the tank’s chassis considered large enough to accommodate such a weapon. 

It is unlikely that the Type 99A, now in service for ten years, will ever be produced in very large numbers as Type 96 has been, and the PLA is likely to instead enter a new generation of more capable tanks into production in its place in the coming years. 

These could be more capable Type 99 variants - possibly designated ‘Type 99B’ - or else an entirely new tank design which would likely be more expensive still and would be produced in similarly conservative numbers. 

The possibility of a successor design being a fourth-generation tank - something only Russia, South Korea and Japan have been able to develop so far - has been raised by a number of analysts. 

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