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Meet the ‘Backbone’ of China’s Deadly New Tank Force

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Asia Defense

Meet the ‘Backbone’ of China’s Deadly New Tank Force

Chinese military experts agree that the ZTZ-96B will become the mainstay of the PLA’s tank corps.

Meet the ‘Backbone’ of China’s Deadly New Tank Force
Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is slated to induct large numbers of a new variant of the third-generation ZTZ-96 (Type-96) main battle tank (MBT), designated ZTZ-96B, into its ranks, Chinese military experts with close ties to the PLA have noted. The upgraded ZTZ-96B will become the new mainstay of China’s armored ground force, which consists of over 7,000 main battle tanks.

“The Type-96B is the strongest variant of the Type-96 family and is truly an advanced, third-generation main battle tank,” Ghao Zhuo, a Shanghai-based military analyst told China Daily. “The PLA will use it to replace the old tanks such as the Type-59 and Type-69 models.” The PLA operates over 5,000 Type 59 and Type-69/79 models of all variants, manufactured

The Type-96B is an improved variant of the Type-96A MBT, manufactured by China’s top tank maker China North Industries Corporation (Norinco). Over 2,500 Type-96A MBTs are estimated to be currently operated by the PLA.  It is unknown how many of those underwent upgrades to the Type-96B variant. As I noted elsewhere (See: “China Reveals New Main Battle Tank”), there is little information publicly available about the upgrades.

“According to unconfirmed Chinese media reports, the ZTZ-96 B variant is equipped with an improved communications system and could have been fitted with a new engine. Improvements have purportedly also been made to the tank’s exhaust system, suspension, and running wheels,” I explained in July. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly speculated that the tank also features a new improved ventilation system but detects no other visible changes to the MBT’s turret, optical sensor or the main 125 millimeter gun.

According to a Norinco post on its WeChat social media account, the tank is equipped with an improved high-performance 125-millimeter smoothbore gun, a more powerful engine, a brand new transmission gear and an upgraded fire-control system. As I explained previously, China first publicly revealed the new MBT variant at this year’s International Army Games, organized by the Russian Ministry of Defense and held from July 30 to August 16:

Last year, China lost to Russia in the competition (See: “Russia Beats China in This Year’s International Army Games”). China participated with four ZTZ-96A MBTs. In 2014, Chinese PLA tank crews complained that the Type 96A with its 780 horsepower diesel-engine is underpowered in comparison to Russian T-72B3 MBTs (See: “Russia to Host World Military Games: China Brought its Own Tank”).

Consequently, it could be possible that the new MBT variant brought to Russia has been fitted with a new 1,200 horsepower liquid-cooled diesel engine. However, this is speculation. Should Chinese tanks perform better during this year’s games it might be an indication that the ZTZ-96s engine underwent an upgrade.

All three PLA tank teams made it into the semifinals, which were kicked off on August 9. Regardless of the outcome of the competition, Chinese military analysts believe that the ZTZ-96B is more likely to become the new workhorse of the PLA’s armored force than more advanced Type 99 (ZTZ-99) and Type 99-A third-generation MBTs of which around 600 are currently in service, citing the tanks’ high price tag and China’s still limited production capability.

“Therefore, the Type-96B, with a better price and satisfactory capabilities, is very attractive to the Chinese and foreign militaries. It is the best option for the PLA to modernize its armored forces,” Huang Guozhi, the senior editor of a Chinese defense magazine said. China’s export of MBTs has also been steadily increasing over the years and it is actively promoting new tank models. (See: “Can This Chinese Tank Beat Russia’s T-14 Armata?”).