Armor: Another New Chinese Tank

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January 23, 2019: At the end of 2018 the new Chinese ZTQ 15 light tank was officially accepted into army service. A month earlier large and accurate scale models of the ZTQ 15 were put on display at an event showing off new weapons used by Chinese troops. At the same time, the manufacturer released detailed information for the VT 5 export version. This is not the first time the ZTQ-15 was featured in the media. Photos and some details of the new light tank were shown in 2016 at trade shows to generate some interest among potential foreign buyers. The export models differ from the Chinese military ones in that some key (usually new) technologies are not exported, at least not right away. The export models are often built to accommodate foreign made accessories or capabilities the Chinese military does not want. The army did not say how many ZTQ 15s were in service with the troops at the end of 2018 only that some are. Over 300 ZTQ-15s are believed to exist and most of these are apparently owned by the army and in use by combat units. The Chinese marines have some for testing and the manufacturer is known to have a dozen or more for testing and demonstrations for potential export customers.

First mentioned in 2010, the ZTQ 15 began to undergo intensive testing and evaluation in 2014. Photos of the ZTQ 15 in Tibet (high altitude, cold weather) and tropical areas of southern China were seen. It was obvious from the start that the tank had a 105mm gun, improved armor protection and running gear that is more efficient and easier to maintain. It turned out that the ZTQ 15 can carry 38 rounds for the rifled 105mm gun, including high explosive, armor piercing and a guided missile (range 5,000 meters) launched via the 105mm gun tube. Secondary armament included a remotely controlled from inside the tank automatic grenade launcher (35mm or 40mm). There was also a 12.7mm machine-gun on top of the turret. The ZTQ 15 weighs 33-36 tons depending on the additional armored installed. The ZTQ 15 can have panels of composite armor or ERA (explosive reactive armor) quickly fitted to the vehicle. Slat (wire cage) protection is installed on the sides of the turret for some protection from RPGs and older ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles).

In many respects, the ZTQ-15 is a scaled down version of China’s most modern tank, the Type 99A2. The turrets of the ZTQ 15 and T-99A2 are both of modern design and both carry similar sensors and internal technology (like the automatic loader for the big gun). Both tanks have three man crews and air conditioning as well as protection from chemical and biological weapons (as well as tear gas) when all hatches are closed. The fire control system uses thermal imagers (essential at night and in fog or other types of bad weather) and a laser range finder. The navigation system uses satellite navigation as well as the less accurate (but jam proof) INS (inertial navigation system).

ZTQ 15 is heavier than the 21 ton Type 62 light tank it replaces. There are also many other improvements as armor design has advanced greatly since the 1960s. Then again the armor piercing capabilities of artillery shells and heavy machine-guns have become deadlier. Official data on the tank was not available until late 2017 and some specifications were deduced from cell phone photos taken as some ZTQ-15s were being transported to distant places (like Tibet) on railroad flat cars or moved around by road using tank transporters for tests in different parts of the country. The turrets were often covered with netting to conceal details, although a few other photos appeared with a clear (but not as detailed) view of the turret. This turret detail revealed the TZQ 15 was using probably a smaller version of Type 99 tank, which entered service in 2007 and whose specifications were known. That turned out to be correct.

The first Chinese light tank, the Type 62 (WZ131) entered service in the 1960s and some are still used as a light reconnaissance tank. The Type 62 looked like a scaled down Russian T-55 (or Chinese clone of the Type 59) with much thinner armor (35mm/1.4 inches in the front). This provided protection from most artillery fragments as well as most machine-gun fire. The Type 62 had a four-man crew and an 85mm gun. Over 1,500 were built before production ceased in 1989. There were stories in Chinese media during 2013 indicating that the Type 62 was being retired and some officers were not happy with that because at the time there was no official replacement.

At the end of 2016 photos appeared on the Internet showing many ZTQ 15s on rail cars, painted in army colors and headed for delivery to units in southern China. This indicated that the military had placed an order after five years of testing and tinkering with the design. Although pictures of the ZTQ 15 have been showing up since 2011 it was not until late 2016 that details of the rather sophisticated turret were clearly visible. The ZTQ 15 was designed for rough, mountainous terrain as found in Tibet and the mountainous jungles on Vietnamese border. By late 2016 it was also clear that the ZTQ 15 was in mass production. By then army units were using the ZTQ 15 as a light tank in areas where the terrain is too difficult for heavier tanks. Thus in 2017 army units in Tibet, on the Indian border, were seen using ZTQ 15s. Earlier in 2017, ZTQ 15s were seen with army units operating in the mountainous areas near the Vietnam border. In 2017 it also became known that the Chinese military had officially recognized the existence of the ZTQ 15 and gave it a name; Xinqingtan and later it was referred to as the Type 15 tank. Before 2017 the ZTQ 15 was something of a mystery and some experts believed it was just another experimental vehicle. China produces a lot of those and not all make it into production, even just for export. But the ZTQ 15 passed all the testing and evaluation and appears to be a capable modern light tank.

In early 2018 the ZTQ-15 was seen in the bluish camouflage colors used by the Chines marines. It was believed that the Marines were seeking to use ZTQ 15 more as an assault gun, with its 105mm gun providing close (line of sight where the gunner can see the target) artillery support. The new marine brigades each have two marine infantry battalions and one armor battalion. The armor battalion contains Type 96A medium tanks as well as ZTQ 15 light tanks operating mainly as assault guns to help the marines fight their way off the beach as quickly as possible. Tanks often operate as assault guns for the infantry but the marine ZTQ 15s were apparently carrying mostly high-explosive shells and used crews trained to handle assault gun jobs. The military has not yet announced if the marines will be issued ZTQ-15s.

Although China still borrows (and often improves on) a lot of Russian armored vehicle tech China is also pulling even with and even ahead at times of Russia. More importantly, new Chinese designs are mass produced for widespread use in the Chinese military as well as export to a growing list of satisfied customers. The ZTQ 15 is an example of this.

 


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