April 21, 2012: A decade ago China began deliveries of a 6x6 wheeled vehicle mounting a 100mm anti-tank gun. Called the PTL02, the 19 ton vehicle was basically a WMZ551 (ZSL92) infantry fighting vehicle with a larger turret to accommodate the 100mm gun. Since a more powerful, 105mm, version arrived three years ago the PTL02 has largely been relegated to infantry support. Commanders have been happy to have it, as they now possess a powerful support weapon for blasting bunkers, machine-guns, and other obstacles. This was what the PTL02 crews expected to be doing even before the 105mm model appeared. Army leaders have apparently concluded that these self-propelled guns were ultimately going to be more useful for infantry support than fighting tanks.
The new "assault gun" version of its ZBL 09 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle will eventually replace the PTL02. The new vehicle has a turret containing a 105mm gun, for providing direct fire support for troops. There was already an artillery version, carrying a 122mm howitzer in a larger turret. There are several other versions and apparently more on the way. China has been quite pleased with these wheeled armored vehicles and has put a lot of effort into developing new models.
The basic ZBL 09 is a 21 ton vehicle that has a crew of three and carries seven passengers. The vehicle is 8 meters (25 feet) long, three meters (9.2 feet) wide, and 2.1 meters (6.5 feet, to the hull roof) high. It's amphibious and has a top water speed of 8 kilometers an hour. On roads top speed is 100 kilometers an hour, and max road range on internal fuel is 800 kilometers. The infantry carrier version has a turret with a 30mm autocannon. There are also artillery versions carrying either a 105mm or 122mm howitzer.
The ZBL 09 entered service in 2009, and some combat brigades are being equipped with it, to operate somewhat like the American Stryker brigades. China has been developing new wheeled armored vehicles for over a decade. Until recently these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more from the West. Still, some of the more recent (five years ago) Russian type designs were interesting and instructive.
Back then, for example, the 18 ton, 6x6 WMZ551A model was given a new turret. The vehicle has a crew of three and can carry nine more troops. Using technology and weapons obtained from Ukraine, the new vehicle has a 30mm autocannon instead of 25mm. More importantly the new turret has an improved fire control system (containing a laser range finder and a vidcam that shows the vehicle commander what the gunner sees). This is apparently related to earlier Chinese efforts to upgrade its BMP1 tracked infantry fighting vehicles with BMP3 turrets from Russia. These also have the 30mm cannon. The main problem with all these upgrades was money. The government wanted Chinese-made weapons to be used, as they are cheaper and supply is more assured. But the Chinese manufacturers didn't want to move up to the 30mm autocannon design just yet. Many Chinese generals believed that the Chinese 25mm autocannon is sufficient. All that has changed.
There was always agreement that an improved fire control system was a good thing. But there was not much space available inside a BMP. Some export models of the BMP3, when equipped with a thermal imager, had to mount some of that gear on the outside of the vehicle. There was also agreement that wheeled armored vehicles for the infantry might be a better investment.
The Chinese have been observing American success in Iraq with the Stryker and LAV wheeled combat vehicles. Chinese designers eventually concluded that the roomier internal layout of Western vehicles did serve a useful purpose and the ZBL 09, and all the electronics installed in it, are an example of what the Chinese learned. It was also noted that it was easier to put a large (100mm and up) gun on a Western style wheeled armored vehicle. The extra space made many things possible, and China is experimenting with most of them.