Armor: China Borrows, Adapts, Evolves And Exports

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November 9, 2017: In mid-2017 pictures of a new Chinese 6x6 wheeled armored vehicle began to appear, indicating that China was testing a new basic vehicle design to replace the Type 92/ZSL92, which entered service in the early 1990s and was considered due for replacement. China tries to keep new weapons development secret but has found that is often impossible with vehicles, especially once it comes time to move prototypes to different parts of the country for testing. Thus over half a billion Chinese owning cell phone camera are not persecuted if they record some new military vehicle rolling along on a railroad car or even a highway (for new trucks) because this creates a buzz that is helpful for eventual export sales.

The pictures of the new 6x6 vehicle indicates China is continuing to move away from the Russian combat vehicle designs China had long used and more towards what was being developed in the West. The new 6x6 appears to have a lot in common with the latest versions of the Mowag Piranha, which first appeared in the early 1970s and has continuously evolved. Two of those Piranha variants were adopted by the U.S., first as LAV (for the marines) in the 1980s and then as the Stryker twenty years later.

The Chinese Type 92 was considered successful because it was capable of quickly evolving into a family of vehicles. Thus by 2000 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. A more powerful, 105mm, version arrived in 2009 and 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 began replacing the PTL02. The new 8x8 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.

As soon as ZBL 09 entered service in 2009 some combat brigades were seen using somewhat like the American Stryker brigades did with similar vehicles. ZBL 09 was not a surprise because China had been developing new wheeled armored vehicles since the mid-1990s. Until recently these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more from the West. Still, some of the more recent (after 2005) Russian type designs were interesting and instructive.

Back then, for example, the 18 ton, 6x6 WMZ551A model was given a new turret. The vehicle had a crew of three and could 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 was 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 and Afghanistan 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. The new (as yet unnamed) 2017 6x6 vehicle seems to be an attempt to address those needs. With more internal space you can develop more variants and that makes the basic vehicle more attractive to export customers.

Despite problems with new vehicle designs and new generations of weapons and other gear for the infantry since 2000 China has been equipping its mechanized infantry units to a modern standard, in terms of equipment, weapons, and training. This is part of an effort to modernize the Chinese Army that only got started in the 1970s. For example, it was only in the 1980s that China (at least on paper) motorized all of its infantry divisions. Before that, many infantry marched, or took the railroad, while some of their heavy equipment was still moved by horses. Now, many infantry units are getting a third generation of armored vehicles, or IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). This makes them mech (mechanized) infantry.

The current standard is for each infantry fighting vehicle to carry a nine man squad, armed with six Type 95 assault rifles, one machine-gun (gunner armed a pistol crew), and one RPG gunner (also with a pistol as a secondary weapon). Troops wear camouflage uniforms (a green pattern), helmets similar to those used by American troops, and protective vests (not the ones with the bullet proof ceramic plates, but the older ones that mainly protect against shell fragments and pistol bullets). The dismounted squad has two walkie-talkie radios, while the vehicle has a longer range radio and intercom system. China organized its first mechanized infantry brigades in the late 1950s, and now has about 30 of them. Some are experimental because China is always trying new things. And that is encouraged by the constant flow of new combat vehicle designs. This again goes back to export sales, which China encourages, even if it requires “export models” of some vehicles (with top secret items removed or replaced). Export sales are important because in most weapon categories there are several Chinese firms developing competing designs and even if a design does not get a lot of orders from the Chinese military there is always the export market.

Non-mechanized (they move by truck) infantry uses a 12 man squad organization, with an extra RPG and light machine-gun. The mechanized infantry squad has to be smaller because you can't get twelve troops into the vehicles available to the mech infantry. The new IFVs can carry only seven passengers, so the infantry squads are split up when travelling in the new IFVs. At the same time Chinese truck manufacturers are paying attention to export customers seeking something new (or just cheaper) in military trucks. A lot of countries still move many combat troops and militarized police around by truck and China sees that as a market that does not get enough attention.

 


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