Infantry: China Keeps It Simple


August 27, 2019: China considers ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) too expensive, or at least not the kind of weapon they should, or can afford to, distribute to all their infantry units. Recognizing that any Western (or Indian) force would have a lot of armored vehicles since the 1990s, China has issued its infantry a growing variety of unguided anti-tank and bunker-busting weapons. These were all in addition to the old standby; copies of the Russian RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).

In the late 1990s, Chinese infantry began receiving the PF98 "Queen Bee" 120mm recoilless rifle. This is a tripod-mounted, 120mm tube for firing 6.35 kg (14 pound) anti-tank rounds out to 800 meters, or 7.55 kg (16.6 pound) anti-personnel rounds out to 1,800 meters. The PF98, when loaded and ready to fire, weighs 19 kg (42 pounds, including firing tube, sight and round of ammo) and is 1.7 meters (67 inches) long. This can be fired from the shoulder, but the tripod is supplied to make the weapon useable for extended periods.

China claims that the HEAT anti-tank round can penetrate the armor of any tank, including those equipped with ERA (Explosive Reactive Armor) blocks. Since the PF98 has not been tested on the U.S. M-1 or other Western tanks equipped with composite armor, it's uncertain if this claim is true. The anti-personnel round can also penetrate 40 mm (1.6 inches) of armor, putting most light armor vehicles at risk.

China can also supply an optional thermal sight for the PF98. This was initially available mainly for export customers and adds another 5 kg (11 pounds) of weight to the system. Over the last decade, some of the thermal sights have increasingly shown up as an accessory for PF98s in Chinese infantry battalions and held at battalion headquarters for use in special situations. At the same time, an improved standard sight has been issued with includes a laser range finder and a microcomputer that will adjust the aim when firing at moving targets. This sight can operate in the dark, out to about 300 meters. The day sight will enable the user to accurately fire anti-personnel rounds out to 1,800 meters. In 2018 a lighter (by a kilogram or so) PF98A for dismounted infantry to carry, along with three rounds.

While still unguided the PF98 is accurate enough for hitting bunkers or builders and nearby vehicles. The anti-tank round will destroy most armored vehicles, but not modern tanks like the M1 or T-90 (used by India) unless you hit them from the side or rear.

The western equivalent of the PF98 is the 84mm MAAWS (Carl-Gustav). First introduced by Sweden in 1948, by the 1980s troops in most NATO nations used it and that persuaded U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) to adopt it. The Carl Gustav has undergone steady improvement since introduced and by 1991 the M3 version entered service as what was basically a lightweight (8.5 kg/19 pound) recoilless rifle that is 1.1 meters (43 inches) long. The barrel is rifled and good for about a hundred rounds. The 84mm projectiles weigh about 2 kg (4.4 pounds) and come in several different types (anti-armor, combined anti-armor/high explosive, illumination, and smoke). The anti-armor round is very useful in urban areas and against bunkers. The range is 500-700 meters (depending on the type of round fired), but an experienced gunner can hit a large target at up to 1,000 meters.

In 2016 the U.S. Army adopted the MAAWS, mainly because the latest, M3E1, lightweight version had become available. The new version uses lightweight materials (titanium) and user-requested improvements like an easier to use carrier handle and hand grips. M3E1 is shorter and does away with the optional stand as it is light enough to be used all the time as shoulder-fired. M3E1 weighs 6.6 kg (14.5 pounds) and is 950mm (38 inches) long. The new barrel lasts a lot longer (up to 2,000 rounds) and fires all the ammo used in the existing M3. In effect, the M3E1 incorporates many features of the M4 version. That included the ability to use several different snap-on sights (including thermal/night vision) and use new rounds that can be programmed to detonate under specific conditions.

There is also a single-shot version of Carl Gustav; the AT-4. Introduced in the 1980s, it did little to hurt Carl Gustav sales. While U.S. Army leaders liked the AT-4 most troops preferred the Carl Gustav because you got more shots for less weight, as the AT-4 weighs about 6.8 kg each. It's easier to carry one Carl Gustav, at 8.5 kg, and a bunch of shells at about 2.2 kg (5 pounds, with packaging) each. The M3E1 is lighter than the AT-4 and more capable.

China also has a lighter single-shot version of the PF98, the 93mm PF97 which is actually an illegal copy of the Russian RPO-A. Both look like the single-shot Carl Gustav but fires a 93mm thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) round that is very effective at destroying bunkers or other structures. The entire RPO-A weighs 11 kg (24 pounds) and was considered too heavy by the Chinese, especially since their illegal copy weighed 12 kg. So the Chinese also developed the single-shot 80mm PF08. This is a 7.6 kg shoulder-fired weapon that is accurate out to 300 meters and uses a bunker-busting warhead that is also effective against unarmored or lightly armored vehicles.

China does have ATGMs, mostly copies of Russian designs. But they have a preference for the cheap and simple when it comes to anti-tank and bunker-busting weapons. The low cost of these weapons does allow the Chinese to use more for training.


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