Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Chinese Armor at Zhuhai

At the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition (Airshow China) 2016 in Zhuhai, the Chinese military and the state-owned defence company Nornico, which manufactures pretty much all Chinese armored fighting vehicles, have presented a number of current and new vehicles.

VT-5 tank fitted with ERA and slat armor

Among the vehicles is a new tank, which has supposedly been designated VT-5. This appears to be an export designation, it seems to be very unlikely to be the final designation for the Chinese Army version, if it chooses to adopt the VT-5. Supposedly the VT-5 is the export version of the Chinese light tank currently only known as the ZTQ light tank. Usually a tow-digit number should be added behind the na,e- The ZTQ has been operational with the Chinese Army in Tibet for an unknown amount of time. First photographs of the ZTQ started to appear beginning in 2011, but the existence of the tank was first officially confirmed in 2016 - the exact name is still unknown to Western media. The new Chinese light tanks are supposedly weighing only 35 metric tons - about as much as a fully loaden Boxer A1 - and are claimed to be optimized for fighting in mountainous terrain.

The VT-5 features two additional fuel drums for extending the road range
The VT-5 is armed with a 105 mm rifled gun, which can penetrate up to 500 milimetres of steel armor at unknown range (most likely 2,000 metres) with APFSDS ammunition according to Chinese sources. It is currently not known, if the VT-5 is fitted with an autoloader or is crewed by four men. It is also fitted with a coaxial machine gun (MG) of unknown calibre and a roof mounted independent weapon station, which might accept (heavy) MGs or automated grenade launchers. The VT-5 has an advanced fire control system (FCS), which features separate sights for gunner and commander. The commander's fully traversable independent periscope should give the tank the capability of operating in a hunter/killer configuration.

ZTQ tank in China

Different armor configurations have been used on the VT-5 and the ZTQ. The current version of the VT-5 transported to Zhuhai is fitted with a TUSK-like armor package consisting of slat armor and explosive reactive armor (ERA), that covers the sides of the vehicle aswell as the hull front. On most of the hull sides and the hull front, relatively thick ERA tiles are installed. The turret sides, aswell as the hull flanks at the engine compartment are protected by slat armor only, which seems to be a rather odd design decision. This might imply, that the ERA provides sufficient protection to resist some types of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and anti-tank mines which utilize explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) to penetrate the vulnerable side armor of armored fighting vehicles. Most types of conventional ERA fail to protect against EFPs.
Another explanation might be that the lower hull is used to store the ammunition in a carousell autoloader and hence it requires additional protection for better crew survivability - however there is no known application of carousell autoloader for unitary 105 mm ammunition known to have entered service in China or anywhere else. The ERA and slat armor at the front and sides of the hull and turret should provide protection against rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and to some extend against anti-tank guided missiles, which are fitted with a single stage shaped charge warhead.
The turret front of the VT-5 is not fitted with ERA nor with slat armor, which implies it is fitted with composite armor offering enough protection to resist most types of single-warhead RPGs. Three dual-banks of smoke grenade launchers on each side of the turret further enhance the tanks survivability.

ZTQ tank with ERA at the wedge-shaped turret front

The ZTQ tank of the Chinese Army has been fitted with a different armor package. The turret is fitted with a wedge-shaped applique armor module, onto which ERA bricks are mounted. If the wedge-shaped module is made of some type of composite armor or a simple steel plate to allow mounting the ERA at the ideal angle is unknown. While the hull front is fitted with apparently the same ERA type as the VT-5, the side hull is not fitted with ERA, while the side of the turret is not fitted with slat armor. The original batches of the ZTQ photographed in 2011 and the following years had simple steel armor at the hull side and no side-skirts. Later photographs featuring the tank show a layer of bolt-on armor at the hull sides of unknown nature aswell as relatively thin steel side-skirts.

In terms of mobility, the VT-5 and ZTQ light tanks are supposedly performing better than the heavier Type 96 and Type 99 tanks. The lower weight can lead to a higher power-to-weight ratio when fitted with a decent engine. The light tanks are fitted with the same type of steel tracks with optional rubber pads as the Type 96 main battle tank and at least the VT-5 can be fitted with two additional fuel drums at the rear of the hull; most likely this feature is also found on the ZTQ tank. The drivetrain includes six roadwheels, which probably are fitted on a torsion bar suspension, and three return rollers.

Rumors claim that the ZTQ light tank didn't perform as expected by the Chinese Army, so it would not be introduced into service and hence was cleared for export. However it seems that these rumors are most likely wrong, given that photographs show a larger number of ZTQ tanks in Chinese service - enough for one or multiple companies at least. China has been willing to export tanks and other equipment that is one par or in some cases even superior to the current equipment used by the Chinese Army. This seems to be the same case with the VT-5 tank.

VN-12 fitted with ERA

Another vehicle that made it's appearance at the Airshow China is an upgraded version of the VN-12 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV). The VN-12 was first presented at Zhuhai two years ago in 2014. It is an improved export version of the Type 97 (ZBD-97) or the upgraded ZBD-04A, fitted with a different turret and bolt-on applique armor. It is not known if this armor is a kind of (ceramic) composite armor or consists of (spaced) metal plates. This might enough to provide ballistic protection similar to STANAG 4569 level 4 or 5 at the front and level 3 or 4 all-round. According to Chinese sources, the ZBD-04A is proteted against 30 x 165 mm API ammunition fired from 1,000 metres distance along the frontal arc and against 14.5 mm API ammunition from 200 metres distance at the sides - the VN-12 might have the same protection level. A new feature of the VN-12 vehicles at Zhuhai is the addition of explosive reactive armor at the hull front, sides and at the turret. This should be enough to protect against most types of RPGs and ATGMs with single-stage shaped charge warhead, but it seems unlikely that the ERA is capable of defeating tandem charge warheads.

VN-12 without ERA in 2014

The turret of the VN-12 might be the main difference compared to the Type 97/ZBD-04A. Instead of using a BMP-3-like turret, the VN-12 is fitted with a turret that is conceptual closer to the BMP-2's turret or the ones used on Western IFVs. The tandem arrangement of 100 mm low-recoil gun and 30 mm autocannon has been dropped in favour for a single 30 x 165 mm autocannon. The turret includes a coaxial machine gun, an advanced fire control system with separate sights for gunner and commander enabling hunter/killer operations, aswell as twelve smoke grenade dischargers (six mounted on each side of the turret) and two launchers for the Red Arrow HJ-73D anti-tank guided missile. This missile is an upgraded version of the old Soviet 9M14 Malyutka (AT-3 Sagger) with new SACLOS guidance, an improved warhead and propulsion.

ST1 (left) and two VN-12 IFVs (center, right)

Another version VN-12 seems to be fitted with the turret of the Type 86G IFV, an upgraded version of the Type 86 (the local production variant of the BMP-1). The Type 86G turret is also armed with a single autocannon chambered in the 30 x 165 mm calibre, but it seems to be a considerable downgrade to the VN-12 turret in other aspects. It has a lower protection level, features a worse fire control system and is only fitted with half as much smoke grenade and ATGM launchers. The gun is not fitted with additional external bars for stabilization when firing on the move.

Type 96B with RWS
Also at the Airshow China are the current Chinese export tank, the MBT-3000, and the new Type 96B main battle tank, an upgraded version of the Type 96. Both these tanks have been fitted with a new type of remote controlled weapon station (RWS), which can accept weapons at least up to a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun. Usually such weapon stations are equipped with a CCD camera, a laser rangefinder and a thermal imagers. The main feature of the Type 96B compared to the previous Type 96A is the improved Type 150 engine with a maximum output of 1,000 horespower. In Chinese nomenclature, a Type 150 engine uses cylinders with a diameter of 150 mm; the original Type 96 and the Type 96A already featured "Type 150" engine's of different construction (based on further developments of the T-34's engine), but offered only 730 and 800 horsepowers repsectively. The Type 96B's engine is developed from the engine of the Chinese premier tank, the Type 99. As of September 2016 only an initial batch of just twelve Type 96B tanks was in service with the Chinese Army.

Type 96B (left) and MBT-3000 (right)

The MBT-3000 is based on a further evolution of the MBT-2000 export tank, which itself is a highly modified Type 90-II tank. The MBT-2000 is also known as VT-1(A), while the MBT-3000 is also known under the designation VT-4. Thailand decided to purchase the MBT-3000 following continuous troubles with the previously ordered T-84M Oplot-M tank, while Pakistan has tested the MBT-3000 and the T-84M Oplot-M. The MBT-3000 is featuring technology from the Type 99(A) and Type 96A tanks, supposedly it might be better than the Chinese Type 96B in some aspects - it is at least somewhat more mobile, featuring a more powerful 1,300 hp engine. Like the Type 96B, the MBT-3000 is protected by composite armor and explosive reactive armor at the frontal arc. The turret sides are protected by slat armor and ERA, while the side hull is protected by steel-reinforced rubber skirts. The MBT-3000 can supposedly be fitted with the GL5 softkill active protection system. Both tanks are equipped with 125 mm smoothbore guns and autoloaders.

Also present at Zhuhai are a number of already existing wheeled and tracked vehicles. These include the amphibious ZBD-2000 light tank, a number of wheeled mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) four-wheeled vehicles, 8x8 wheeled vehicles, artillery systems and self-propelled anti-aircraft systems. The ZBD-2000 has been in service for quite a while, but being a modern light tank with 105 mm gun that is amphibious makes this vehicle unique for the modern day military forces.

At least two wheeled 8x8 vehicles with large calibre guns are on display at Zhuhai. One of them is apparently the ST1, a vehicle based on the eight-wheeled VN-1, the export version of the ZBL-09 vehicle. The Chinese Army itself operates - among others versions - the ZTL-09 and PLL-09, both based on the ZBL-09. The PLL-09 is fitted with a 122 mm mortar, while the ZTL-09 is fitted with additional armor and a 105 mm rifled gun. The ST1 is either fitted with a 100 mm smoothbore or (more likely) a 105 mm rifled gun and based on the VN-1 export vehicle. The turret of the ST1  appears to be identical to that used on the WMA301 "Assaulter" operated by the Djiboutian Army. .

The other interesting 8x8 vehicle is a new wheeled gun system, which is apparently based on the new VP10 chassis. It features bolted-on applique armor, which suggests a level of all-round protection comparable to STANAG 4569 level 3 (protection against assault rifle and normal sniper ammunition) or most likely STANAG 4569 level 4 (protection against 14.5 mm armor-piercing rounds from 500 metres distance) at least. Supposedly the older Chinese ZBL-09 might reach the level 5 protection requirements (protection against 25 mm APDS) along the frontal arc when fitted with applique armor. The exact designation of the new wheeled gun system is currently unknown. It is supposedly armed with the new 125 mm L/60 gun, which has been developed by the 127th Ordinance Institute of the Chinese Central Northern University. This smoothbore gun was revealed last year and can achieve muzzle velocities of up to 2,000 metres per second firing unknown ammunition. It was assumed that this gun was just developed for research and ballistic tests, so in theory the new VP10-based vehicle could also mount a 130 mm field gun. Another option would be a conventional 105 - 125 mm tank gun. An odd design decision is the inclusion of firing ports and small windows in the rear sections of the hull. This either means that the new gun system is just a mock-up based on an APC or IFV version of the VP10 - or that the vehicle is indeed intended to be a mobile gun system (MGS) with dismount capacity!

Both the ZBL-09 and the VP-10 are amphibious vehicles

Sources like have reported that China has developed an 8x8 tank destroyer with the new 125 mm L/60 tank gun. However there are numerous noticable differences between the tank destroyer and the VP10-based MGS: the gun length appears to be different (albeit this might be a result of different chassis size), the chassis is not fitted with applique armor, the spacing of the wheels aswell as their size is different and the shape and location of the turret is different. Based on this the VP10-based MGS is not said tank destroyer fitted with the 125 mm L/60 gun, but China might use the same gun for multiple vehicles.

Not seen yet at China Airshow 2016, but certainly worth mentioning, is the CS/VN3C 4x4 scout vehicle first seen at China Airshow 2014. While being relatively small and lightweight, the vehicle is fitted with a 30 x 165 mm autocannon, a 5.8 mm coaxial MG and six smoke grenade dischargers (three mounted at each side of the turret). The vehicle can be fitted with the Red Arrow 73C ATGM according to Army Recognition. The CS/VN3C is protected by welded steel armor and can be fitted with bolt-on armor for a higher protection level. Carrying a crew of three, the vehicle is still capable to transport up to four soldiers - based on the small physicial size there probably is not enough space for four soldiers according to NATO standards - which can use two firing ports to engage enemy infantry.

The CV/VN3C vehicle is amphibious, but this might not be the case for the variant with improved armor protection. It can be airlifted by an Y9 aircraft, implying a weight of (significantly) less than 25 tonnes. No actual details on armor protection have been released, but it seems likely that at least a protection level comparable to STANAG 4569 level 3 can be achieved when fitted with additional armor.


  1. It appears like the VT-5s suspension is actually hydropeumatic. Just compare the height of the return rollers in this:

    And this:

    Here you can see that during transport the tank appears the be lower, at least the road wheels are higher up. The return rollers are practically touching the roadwheels. While in the photo of it traveling on it's own power we can see that the return rollers are positioned much higher compared to the roadwheels. This suggests the suspension can vary it's height. And as far as I know, only hydropeumatic suspensions can do this. I have never seen a torsion bar do this.

  2. Your theory might be correct. I have read in a forum focused on Chinese military, that the ZTQ tank might be fitted with a hybrid suspensions (combining hydro-pneumatic feautres as well as torsion bars) that has been already tested (and supposedly also fielded) on a version of the PLZ-05 self-propelled gun. If this is true, it is a bit hard to call it either hydro-pneumatic or torsion-bar suspension, because it combines both designs.

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