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by James Dunnigan
September 2, 2004
An item we published on August 5th about China's tanks had some errors and omissions. Here is the corrected version.
September 2, 2004: China currently has the largest armed forces in the world, including the largest army, numbering about 2.5 million men. It also has one of the largest armored forces in the world. With about 10,000 tanks in its entire inventory, this makes for a very significant armored threat. However, the catch to this is that the vast majority of these armored vehicles are obsolete designs, like much of the equipment in the PLA’s (People's Liberation Army) inventory.
Most of the tanks in the PLA consists of the Type 59 main battle tank. This is basically a Chinese copy of the 1950s era T-54/55 Russian tank. Currently, the PLA has about 5,000 if these tanks in its inventory. This sounds like a lot, but it is actually a major disadvantage for the PLA because the Type 59 became obsolete a number of decades ago. But China did upgrade the Type 59s, as the Type 59D, adding a British designed 105mm gun and modern fire control equipment. Chinese tank generals think highly of them, but even with added armor, the Type 59D is still easy to destroy. But using modern ammunition, possibly of Israeli design, the Type 59Ds 105mm gun is far deadlier than anything on, say, a T-72.
Improved versions of the Type 59s, such as 300 Type 79s, made by NORINCO are also used by the PLA, but this an obsolete design. An earlier design, the Type 69, was used for only a few years before the 200 in use were scrapped. China did export 2,000 Type 69s to Iran and Iraq in the 1980s
Despite the fact that the majority of the PLA’s equipment is obsolete, changes are beginning to take place, especially since the government has, in the last 10-15 years, begun a major program of modernization. Since this program was begun, the PLA has run this program so that it will have a number of “core” units comprised of the best trained troops equipped with the latest weapons that the PLA is able to acquire. Thus, in the event of war, it will have at least a few units equipped with state-of-the-art gear put on the front lines instead of just a massive, poorly-trained armed force with obsolescent equipment. Such a force, especially if fighting a Western-style military, would be severely mauled.
Over the years, the PLA has made some major improvements in its ground forces. The Type 79 tanks include a much improved fire control system, featuring British Marconi technology and passive infrared sights or thermal imaging. The tank’s gun has a upgraded Type 83-1 105mm gun.
Further enhancing China’s armored forces are the Type 80/88 (500 delivered) 96 (400 delivered) and 98 series tanks.
The Type 98s are currently the most advanced battle tank in the People’s Liberation Army’s service. Production of this tank was begun in 1997. Currently, over a thousand Type 98s have been delivered to the PLA, mostly to equip “core” units whose equipment is largely the latest and greatest the PLA has to offer.
In addition, China has over a thousand 22 ton light, amphibious tanks. Some have 105mm guns and are very useful in wet, coastal areas of China.
China has good reason to pay attention to the quality of its armored forces. Taiwan, the primary potential enemy for the People’s Republic of China, has a quality armor force. Among the equipment in Taiwan’s tank arsenal are M60A3s with Thermal Sights. This is the latest upgraded version of the M60, with a ballistic computer, laser rangefinder, and a shoot-on-the-move capability. Taiwan currently has 376 such tanks and its personnel is significantly superior to those of the PRC.
China’s arsenal of modern tanks is still smaller compared to the overall size of its armored forces. However, as the modernization program continues its course, it is likely that, in a number of years, modern tanks will form the majority of the PLA’s armored fighting units, along with other areas of its armed forces.