Armor: The High Altitude Brigade

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June 13, 2020: The new Chinese ZTQ 15 light tank has finally shown up as part of a combat unit, the 54th Mechanized Infantry Brigade. This is one of the three combat brigades in the Tibet Military District, the other two being motorized mountain infantry brigades. There is also a Special Operations brigade as well as an artillery brigade and air defense brigade plus engineer, signal and EW (Electronic Warfare) regiments. There also appears to be one or two Mobile Police brigade which are not under army control, but would be a part of any major operations in Tibet.

The Chinese have been testing the ZTQ 15 in Tibet since 2017. Testing also took place in the mountainous terrain along the Vietnam border. Tibet is a unique combat zone because the average altitude on the Tibet Plateau is 4,100 meters (14,000 feet). Few Chinese arrive in Tibet and engage in vigorous activity without suffering from altitude sickness. This illness occurs when people who grew up near sea level (most of the world's population) move to altitudes greater than 2,100 meters (7,000 feet). Below that, the air contains 21 percent oxygen. Above that, the weaker air pressure lowers the amount of oxygen the body can absorb. That produces "altitude sickness", manifested by shortness of breath, disorientation, nosebleeds, nausea, dehydration, difficulty sleeping and eating, headaches and, if you stay up there long enough, chronic disability.

Most people can adapt, sort of, to the altitude sickness. Some can't. The native Tibetans have evolved to deal with it. The majority of Chinese soldiers coming to the Tibetan Plateau (which is most of Tibet) require a few days, or weeks, to acclimate. But they are still susceptible to altitude sickness if they exert themselves, especially for extended periods. This makes Chinese military personnel in Tibet much less effective. This is one reason that of all the military districts in the Chinese military, the one in Tibet has the fewest combat troops, and only brigades, not divisions. India sees this as a major advantage because most of its border with China is along the edge of the Tiber Plateau. Just behind the front lines, Indian troops are out of the 2,100 meters zone. Not so the Chinese, who have the vast, rugged and little developed Tibet Plateau behind them. Then again, the Chinese have been forced to develop more effective ways to use troops and engine-driven equipment at high altitudes. 

Most Tibetans evolved in the last 3-6,000 years to deal with this problem. It appears that most of the people moving to, and staying in, highland Tibet, were those with the rare genes that made them resistant to altitude sickness. These people became the dominant population in Tibet, mainly because they were healthier at high altitudes. Nearly all Tibetans have this gene, which controls how their red blood cells operate, to maintain sufficient oxygen levels. Very few lowland Chinese have these genes.

Vehicle engines also suffer from lower oxygen content and lower air pressure at these extreme altitudes and generate 30-40 percent  less power and  wear out faster. Chinese truck manufacturers can provide special high-altitude models of their engines for commercial, personal and military vehicles operating on the Tibet Plateau. It is not known if the ZTQ-15s in Tibet were equipped with the high-altitude engines or, more likely, were modified to operate more effectively at those extreme altitudes. Construction and mining operations in Tibet definitely use these high-altitude engines, which are basically modified versions of standard models.

The highlands along the Vietnam border are generally 2,000-3,000 meters high so vehicle engines suffer only a small loss of power and special engines are not needed. But the off-road terrain is quite rugged and that was what the ZTQ-15s had to demonstrate they could handlet. Apparently they could but so fa, no ZTQ-15s are known to be assigned to army units along the Vietnam border.

First mentioned in 2010, the ZTQ began to undergo intensive testing and evaluation in 2014. The tank has a 105mm gun, improved armor protection and running gear that is more efficient and easier to maintain. A tank this size could carry about 36 105mm rounds as well as ammo for the 7.62mm and 12.7mm machine-guns carried. The ZTQ is heavy, as in about 35 tons. There are also many other improvements as armor design has advanced greatly since the 1960s. The armor-piercing capabilities of artillery shells and heavy machine-guns have become deadlier. It appears that the ZTQ has modern armor and other protection. So far China has released very little official data on the specification of this new light tank. The vehicle is widely known because cell phone photos have been taken more of them were transported to distant places (like Tibet) on railroad flatcars or moved around on tank transporters for tests in different parts of the country.

In these early photos, the turrets were often covered with netting to conceal details, although eventually photos appeared providing a clear view of the turret. This revealed the TZQ was using a smaller version of the modern turret used in China’s most modern tank, the Type 99A2. This heavier tank first appeared in 2007 and quite a lot of detail was visible. These turrets (ZTQ and T-99A2) are of modern design and the latest photos confirm the presence of numerous sensors. ZTQ-15 uses modular armor (reactive or other lightweight types) for parts of the vehicle. Overall, the vehicle is most definitely a modern design.

At the end of 2016 photos appeared on the Internet showing many ZTQs 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 have been showing up since 2011, it was not until late 2016 that details of the turret were visible. The ZTQ was designed for rough, mountainous terrain as found in Tibet and the mountainous jungles on Vietnamese border. ZTQ-15 is in production but how many was unclear. In 2018 the Chinese Army admitted that it was adopting the ZTQ-15 and in 2019 the ZTQ-15 was reported as serving with combat units, but which ones were not mentioned. Then the ZTQ-15 showed up in a military parade in September 2019 celebrating the 70th Anniversary of communist rule in China. A few months later the presence of the ZTQ-15 in the Tibet based 54th brigade was confirmed.

Early on it was thought that the ZTQ-15 was replacing the 21-ton Type 62 (WZ131) that entered service in the 1960s and most are now retired after serving as a light reconnaissance tank. The Type 62 looked like a scaled-down Russian T-55, or Chinese clone 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 replacement. China has adapted other tracked and wheeled armored vehicles to perform the recon duties once handled by the Type 62. Times and technology had changed and in the West light tanks had largely disappeared by the 1980s.

Although China still borrows, and often improves on, a lot of Russian armored vehicle tech, China is also pulling even with and even ahead 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 was, in fact, built by NORINCO, the largest Chinese defense manufacturer, for the export market as the VT5. NORINCO and many other Chinese defense firms, develop and build a lot of equipment just for the export or local consumer and commercial markets. The Chinese military like this because it provides more new weapons and other equipment to evaluate for possible purchases without having to spend anything on research and development. Such was the case with the ZTQ-15, which is different from the VT-5 in several ways, like electronics, armor protection and engines. Meanwhile, the VT5 has only found one export customer so far. Bangladesh has 44 on order and apparently some have already arrived in Bangladesh, a very sea-level nation with lots of marsh and waterways to contend with.

 


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