February 7, 2017:
China has apparently developed another variant of its ZBD/ZBL 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle; the ZTL-11. This one appears to be a modified ZBL 09 infantry vehicle for the Chinese Marines. Photos have appeared of these vehicles painted in the distinctive colors of the Chinese marine vehicles. This confirms older rumors that the Chinese marines were going to get modern amphibious armored vehicles. Unlike the U.S. Marines (and many American allies), who use armored vehicles designed specifically for amphibious units, the Chinese are simply modifying an existing amphibious armored vehicle.
The basic ZBL 09 is a 21 ton vehicle that has a crew of three and carries seven passengers. Other specialized models, like the ST1 assault gun have a crew of four and weigh over 25 tons. All ZBL 09 variants are 8 meters (25 feet) long, three meters (9.2 feet) wide, and 2.1 meters (6.5 feet, to the hull roof) high. These vehicles are amphibious and have 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. The infantry version of the ZBL09 entered service in 2009, and a growing number of combat brigades are being equipped with it, to operate somewhat like the American Stryker brigades.
China has been developing new wheeled armored vehicles since the 1990s. Until recently, these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more ideas from the West. Still, some of the more recent (since 2009) Russian type designs were interesting and instructive. The Chinese marines already use some of these ZBL vehicles.
In 2015 China offered for export another new variant in its line of ZBL 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle; the VN1 vehicle launched bridge. This is an old concept that goes back to World War II. What it amounts to is a 15-20 meter (46-66 foot) bridge than can quickly be deployed from the vehicle over obstacles allowing similar (in size and weight) vehicles to quickly cross.
China introduced the ZBL line of armored vehicles in 2006 after more than a decade of development. The first model was a personnel carrier but other variants quickly followed. For example the ZBL 09 is equipped as a tank-destroyer with a high velocity 105mm gun. This appears to be a variant on the 2007 version that had a lower velocity 105mm gun that was intended to give infantry front line artillery support. The Germans called this an “assault gun” when they invented the concept (as the “Sturmgeschütz” during World War II. These vehicles are particularly useful for infantry attacking as an assault gun could quickly take out enemy opposition with one or two shells.
The assault gun version of its ZBL 09 had a smaller turret than the ST1. The larger turret of the ST1 is apparently to hold the additional recoil and fire control equipment for the more powerful and longer range 105mm gun. In 2009 there was already an artillery version of the ZBL 09, carrying a 122mm howitzer in a larger turret similar to the one used by the ST1.
Since 2012 the Chinese Army has been using the ZBL 09 with the turret and 105mm gun as a wheeled light tank. That appeared to indicate that an anti-tank version was already in the works. The ZBL 09/105mm assault gun could, with some extra training, be capable of shooting up other armored vehicles. The 105mm gun carried is not powerful enough to destroy most modern tanks, but could knock out most other armored vehicles.
The Chinese have observed NATO 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.
The ZTL 11 is another aspect of a Chinese effort to modernize and upgrade its amphibious forces. China has been doing this since the late 1980s and the U.S. has taken to paying a lot more attention to what the Chinese are doing here. China has had amphibious ships and soldiers trained to operate from them since the 1950s. A “marine regiment” was organized in 1953, and expanded into a division but was disbanded by 1960. The current “Marine Corps” was officially established in 1981, after several years of planning, recruiting, and training. These marines were meant to handle the most difficult landing operations so that army troops (trained to use amphibious craft) could follow.
Currently the Chinese marines are a small force. The actual “marines” are 12,000 infantry. There also two army divisions trained to undertake amphibious operations and who regularly train with the marines. This is not, in a Western sense, a "marine corps" but the Chinese “marines” have come to be considered elite troops. In the West the nature of China's amphibious forces has been misunderstood for decades.
The U.S. Navy has come to view the Chinese marines as tip of the spear for any Chinese amphibious operations. While China has other special operations forces, only the marines regularly practice operations at sea. The marines have been used against Somali pirates and to provide security for Chinese aid efforts in dangerous areas. As China practices to use military force in the South China Sea or other disputed offshore areas, the marines always tend to be present. So American intel tracks the Chinese marines carefully, for these amphibious troops will often be the first in if China decides to fight.