The process of re-equipping the PLA Army continues, with a focus on the objectives of completing basic mechanisation and improving informatisation by 2020. Legacy equipment, such as the ZTZ-59 tank and PL-59 howitzer, is now being cycled out of frontline units, although it is unlikely that all of it will be replaced by the 2020 target date. Additional heavy combined-arms brigades in the Central and Northern theatre commands are now finally receiving the long-awaited ZTZ-99A main battle tank. However, the Eastern and Southern theatre commands will likely continue to operate lighter tank designs – primarily the ZTZ-96A and ZTQ-15 – because of the terrain in those areas. The Central Theatre Command’s 161st Air Assault Brigade has begun taking delivery of the Z-20 medium transport helicopter – an indigenous version of the US Black Hawk design.
China’s collection of over 6,000 tanks, while numerically impressive, is inflated by increasingly outdated iterations of 1950’s Soviet T-series tanks like the T-54.
2020 Inventory, Main Battle Tanks: 5,850: 300 ZTZ-59; 650 ZTZ-59-II; 600 ZTZ-59D; 200 ZTZ-79; 300 ZTZ-88A/B; 1,000 ZTZ-96; 1,500 ZTZ-96A; 600 ZTZ-99; 500 ZTZ-99A; 200 ZTQ-15 Light Tank: 350: 250 ZTD-05; 100 ZTS-63A
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken active measures over the past several decades to renew their aging lineup, culminating with the Type 99 that can give competing U.S. and Russian flagship tanks a run for their money.
But as the Type 99 evolved in the direction of greater firepower and expanded armaments suite with the recent Type 99A, the need became apparent for a lighter, mobile modern tank that can effectively operate in China’s plateaus, forests, and water-heavy regions.
Enter the Type 15. Sporadic sightings of the light tank were previously reported by Chinese citizens, but its existence is now formally confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry.
“We’re following the overall plan and focusing on key equipment – we have made major achievements in our equipment build-up. As for the Type 15 light tank, according to my information, it has been handed over to our troops,” The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian as saying.
The Type 15 has a 1,000 horsepower engine, about twice that of the Type 62 tank it is replacing. It boasts a 105 mm gun capable of firing armor-piercing shells and guided missiles, as opposed to the 85 mm gun of its Type 62 predecessor.
Type 15 tank uses new autoloader and 105mm APFSDS. In a recent plateau exercise of China’s Tibet Military Region, pictures of Type 15 light tank tail cabin automatic loader loading armor-piercing projectiles were unveiled. This ammunition is China’s new generation of 105mm hull armor-piercing projectile. Its performance is very powerful, and it can pose a threat to all Indian tanks at conventional combat distances.
Due to the use of full-load ammunition, Type 15 light tank did not follow the turntable type loader on other Chinese battle tanks but instead used the tail cabin-type automatic loader to directly supply the bomb from the tail of the gun. This is the first time in the history of the development of tanks in China – all tanks previously developed, including the most advanced Type 99A2 main battle tanks, use a turntable automatic loader.
It can be clearly seen from the published pictures that the body of the new-generation 105 mm armor-piercing projectile used by Type 15 light tank is very long, indicating that the core of the projectile cannot be short. Everyone knows that the APFSDS uses a core to penetrate the armor, so the better the core material, the longer the length, and the stronger the armor-piercing ability.
The new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time should use tungsten alloy cores, which can pose a sufficient threat to all second-generation tanks and some third-generation tanks at regular combat distances. Even in the face of T-90S, it remains a considerable deterrent and can penetrate the front of its body. Although the T-90S turret is equipped with contact 5 explosion reaction armor, which has a certain degree of weakening of the shelling armor-piercing shell; however, since the new-generation 105 mm APFSDS has enough armor-piercing margin, the probability of the frontal breakdown of the T-90S turret is not small.
In general, Type 15 light tank not only has good plateau adaptability and powerful maneuverability, but also is equipped with a new generation of domestically produced 105 mm APFSDS with good armor-piercing ability, and is supplemented by a fast reloading tail cabin-type automatic loader, which has a comprehensive combat capability in the plateau area comparable to that of a heavy main battle tank, making it very suitable for rapid interpenetrating operations in the plateau area.
For Type 15 light tank, whether the previously equipped tail fin-stabilized armor-piercing projectile (APFSDS), or the new generation of 105mm APFSDS that appeared this time, it uses a full-body bomb, that is, the core is directly inserted in the cartridge Inside, it can maximize the length of the core and enhance the armor-piercing ability, according to Ordnance Technology.
Military expert Song Zhongping put the difference bluntly to the SCMP: “The Type 62 tank is lagging behind. The Type 15 tank has much better protection capability and manoeuvrability.”
The Type 15 is less powerful but also significantly lighter than the Type 99, at 35 tons versus the 58 tons of its larger cousin. Its lighter frame is accompanied by a hydro-pneumatic suspension system. Also found in Japan’s Type 10 tank, it dynamically adjusts ground clearance to maximize maneuverability and combat efficacy on uneven terrain.
Having established the Type 15’s design purpose and catalog of improvements, the pressing question becomes where and when the PLA plans to deploy it. The Type 15 was already making headlines in 2017, during the China-India border standoff in the Tibet region. A major political impetus for the Type 15 was the need for a tank that can operate in the high-altitude Tibetan hills, in preparation for a prospective resumption of Sino-Indian hostilities.
Being that the Type 15 is specifically adapted for navigating sea-based obstacles, we can also expect to see it in maritime theatres. In point of fact, China has been actively bolstering its military presence around the disputed zones off its southern coast. The Type 15 is a prime contender to modernize and consolidate the PLA Navy’s armour division by replacing the aging Type 59 and Type 63 tanks still in service.
An almost-identical iteration of the Type 15, the VT-5, will be making it to export markets. It will face stiff competition from Japan’s aforementioned Type 10, especially after the lifting of Tokyo’s self-imposed arms export ban. The Type 10 weighs a tad more at 40 tons, but boasts a slightly greater horsepower of 1,200. The Type 10 also offers an indigenously-produced gun compatible both with standard 120 mm NATO ammunition as well as proprietary armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds.
Still, the two are close enough in performance that their appeal will be heavily shaped by prices and external diplomatic forces. While China has a track record of leveraging its remarkable economies of scale to edge out its arms competitors, it remains to be seen if the Type 15’s export variant will fall into this trend.