April 24, 2013:
Four years ago China revealed an assault gun version of its ZBL 09 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle. This version has a small 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.
The Chinese Army has been recently referring to this vehicle as a wheeled light tank. It’s unclear if this means a new doctrine about how the ZBL 09/105mm is to be used or if the vehicle remains assigned to infantry support work with some extra training for 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 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 ideas 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 was 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 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.