Infantry: China Converges Onward

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May 15, 2021: Over the last four years China has introduced modern infantry equipment that was their version of an American concept pioneered in the 1980s ("Land Warrior"), and resulted in the introduction of new body armor, personal communications/navigation gear, knee and elbow pads, wearable computers, night vision devices, and personal medical equipment for American troops. Several European countries followed, especially the German Infanterist der Zukunft (“Infantryman Of The Future”) and by 2020 most NATO nations had all or most of this equipment.

Russia had its Ratnik (warrior) ensemble, which was originally scheduled (in the 1980s) to appear in the 1990s. That was delayed by the collapse of the Soviet Union and severe budget problems throughout the 1990s. In the meantime, Russia and China studied the American system, which was completed after 2001 largely because new items were introduced for troops already in combat who asked for specific improvements. That meant the American ensemble was modified by combat experience before and after introduction. The American gear came be seen as the benchmark other nations would follow.

Ratnik was declared complete in 2013, except for the new assault rifles (AK-12) that finally arrived in 2020. Unlike the United States, Russia included a new rifle design (AK-12) as part of its Ratnik gear. There was a lot of opposition to the AK-12 within the Russian high command, but at the troop level, there was an even more vigorous and louder call for something to replace the Cold War era AK-74, which was an unpopular AK-47 type weapon firing an M-16 type round.

In 2020 Russia also revealed that it was working on a new generation of infantry equipment called Sotnik (Centurion) to replace the current Ratnik. Russia plans to have the first Sotnik equipment delivered to special operations troops by 2025 and to everyone else five years after that. That may be overly ambitious because Sotnik consists of a lot of high-tech items that may not be ready for combat troops in time. Some of the new items already exist, like anti-mine boots and special cloth that will reduce the thermal (heat) that identifies troops to thermal sensors. There are similar types of cloth that reduce radar effectiveness. Because of sanctions Russia may have problems importing finished items or components for locally made versions. Sotnik will include more powerful digital communications gear for individual troops and tighter integration with what nearby small UAVs can see. This information will be presented on a special visor or goggle display similar to what many fighter pilots currently use. Israel already has such goggles that enable tank crews to switch on “outside view” and show what is outside the tank via a system of small vidcams on the tank exterior. Sotnik will also emphasize lighter versions of existing Ratnik gear, especially heavy protective items (vest and helmet) that will also become more effective. All items in the Sotnik ensemble will be lighter so that the entire Sotnik ensemble will be, at 20 kg (44 pounds) 20 percent lighter than Ratnik equivalents.

The final list of Sotnik items won’t be completed until 2023, but it was revealed that Sotnik will include new weapons and ammunition as well as using AI (Artificial Intelligence) in electronic components. Some of the items being developed for Ratnik 3 will end up being part of the initial version of Sotnik. The proposed Sotnik items are not science fiction, but the Russian capability to manufacture these items for combat soldiers is questionable. It would not be the first time that Russian press releases got too far ahead of capabilities.

China is more cautious in such matters and pays a lot of attention to how new foreign concepts work in combat. That was why the new Chinese ensemble included a new QBZ-191 assault rifle. This weapon, which is based on the German HK416, has been around since 2017. The QBZ-191 replaced the 1990s era QBZ-95 in many combat units, especially those receiving the new infantry ensemble. The older QBZ-95 is a more compact bullpup (the magazine is behind the trigger) design that continues to be used by vehicle crews and other troops who do not use their assault rifle a lot.

The QBZ-191 is a traditional design and it also uses the unique Chinese 5.8x42mm round, but with a new variant of that round that has better medium and long-range performance. Like the HK416, the QBZ-191 looks like the original AR-15/M-16, including a buffer tube with a fixed telescopic adjustable buttstock. Most importantly the 191 uses short-stroke gas piston operating system that distinguishes HK416 from the M-16. Other nations had already abandoned their bullpup type assault rifles for the more traditional design, like the M16. 

Chinese firms have, for years, been producing their own versions of most Western, and Russian assault rifles. These are usually for the civilian markets which means no automatic fire option. Military versions with auto-fire are also made available if enough military customers ask for it. The 191 includes a full-length Picatinny rail on top so the rifle can use a wide array of sights and other accessories so popular with Western assault rifles. There are also flip-up iron sights. The 191 has traditional polymer handguards but variants with MLOK handguards have also been seen. The rifle uses polymer magazines similar to these used by the QBZ-95.

When the QBZ-95 (or Type 95) first appeared, its bullpup design was complemented by the use of China’s proprietary 5.8x42mm cartridge. The round is a little wider than the 5.56 NATO, but shorter in overall length. The QBZ-95 as described as revolutionary. Since Chinese forces were not seeing any combat, it was not until some QBZ-95s were exported to Burma in 2009 that the new rifle got a lot of combat experience and the flaws became apparent. The Burmese were fighting, and still are, a large number of tribal rebels.

The QBZ-95 replaced the Type 81 (improved AK-47) rifles. The QBZ-95 was about ten percent lighter than the AK-47 clone and was well received by the troops until they had to use it in combat.

China is slow to adopt new combat equipment, but when they do it is done quickly and competently. For example, in 2007 China spent over a billion dollars to buy new combat uniforms for its troops. The modern looking Type 7 camo uniforms appeared similar to the camouflage uniforms American soldiers and marines adopted in 2003. China has already adopted the American-style Kevlar helmet and with the Type 7 uniforms from a distance Western and Chinese troops look alike in terms of uniforms, protective gear and weapons. That convergence continues.

 


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