A mysterious photo from China recently appeared on the Internet showing what appeared to be a mock-up of a Russian T-90 tank built on the chassis of a heavy truck. The photo came from a Chinese army weapons testing facility and while the mock-up seems to accurately replicate the key elements of a T-90 chassis, from the ground you don’t have to be too close to see the truck wheels beneath the “tank.” It was unclear what this mock-up was for until you consider that while Russia is a Chinese ally, the largest user of T-90s in the world is India, not Russia.
It is known that China is building new fire control systems which make their helicopter gunships and fighter-bombers more effective when using guided missiles and smart bombs against armored vehicles. Then consider the fact that the T-90, like most current Chinese tanks, are also based on the T-72 design and that China provides Pakistan (another enemy of India) with most of its modern tanks as well as air-to-ground missiles, smart bombs and fire control systems to make these aircraft weapons work. From the air, the Chinese mock-up wheels will often not show up at all but the details of the shape of a T-90 can be quickly distinguished from similar looking Chinese tanks that are also based on the T-72. The new fire control system contains an electronic library of enemy vehicles (including all sorts of armored vehicles and even small warships). These shape recognition libraries are also used in targeting pods which China is also introducing. With a targeting pod, a pilot can confirm that the tanks up ahead are hostile, and not Chinese. At that point, the pilot can launch missiles or smart bombs that can also confirm that they are hitting the right target (and self-destruct if they don’t find a suitable target).
The electronic shape recognition systems have been increasingly common and are often used in “fire and forget” missiles. The shape recognition systems have no problem identifying a potential target vehicle from the air after capturing an image and comparing it to its library of images. For the gunship or fighter-bomber pilot, this identification would be near instantaneous and would avoid friendly fire (hitting friendly tanks) incidents. Such systems would also ensure that the most valuable targets (modern tanks) are hit and not some lesser armored vehicle carrying supplies. The Chinese have a unique problem though, most of the tanks their pilots will encounter in wartime will be variants of the T-72 and difficult to distinguish from each other, especially if you are far above and speeding by.
All these Russian and Chinese tank designs are based on the older T-72 have a lot of small differences which ground troops have more time to notice and act on. Even modern tank fire control systems benefit from this vehicle recognition system because in combat units, or individual tanks and IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) often get intermingled and at night there is often little to see and not much time to see it. So quick, accurate identification systems for tank fire control systems is also useful, but for air-to-ground weapons it is essential.
That raises the question of why so many late model Russian and Chinese tanks are based on the T-72? The answer is simple, the 1970s era T-72 was the most effective, popular and widely used post-World War II Russian tank design and proved a good basis for more modern designs. What makes these many T-72 variants different is the quality of the components used and for missile guidance or aircraft fire control systems the many small differences in these T-72 based tanks make it easy to sort them all out.
The T-72 was the most successful Russian post-World War II tank design and the basic model was pretty solid and reliable. The T-72 also proved to be a good platform for variants that added new (or more) armor, better electronics and improved engines that resulted in some impressive tank models. The most outstanding of these has been the Russian 46 ton T-72B3. As proof consider that most of the “new” tanks the Russian army has received since 2000 have been refurbished and much upgraded T-72B3s. Currently, the Russian Army has about 3,000 tanks in service and most (65 percent) are T-72B3s, which you hear little about. The new breakthrough design, the T-14, has fewer than a hundred in service and cuts in production (which began in 2015) were recently announced with only 10-20 a year being built. The T-14 is mostly about publicity and is one new Russian tank designs that looks nothing like a T-72 variant.
The T-90 has been produced in large quantities, but not for Russia. The T-90 was a 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90 to make it easier to export. During the 1990s the Russian military could not afford to buy much of anything. The new name and the many new features of the T-72BU/T-90 succeeded in making the tank an export success and most (over 80 percent) of those produced were for export. In fact, India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. That is worse than it sounds because Russia quietly put over a third of its newly purchased 550 T-90s into reserve. While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing built the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be more reliable, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90s.
China produced a similar tank in the Type 99, which is 25 percent heavier than the T-72B3 and even more expensive to build. That’s because the Type 99 has better armor protection and electronics. The Chinese can afford this while the Russians cannot, it’s as simple as that. Chinese manufacturing capabilities are, on average, superior to what the Russians had when the Cold War ended and for tank design and production that makes a big difference. India and Pakistan have not been able to match Russian or Chinese production standards or development capabilities. This is largely due to corruption and government regulations that make it difficult to innovate and excel. Most of the best South Asian (India and Pakistan) design and production talent moves to the West. A glance at the design and development stars in the West, especially the United States, shows a lot of these South Asians playing leading roles. China managed to keep more of this talent at home and even attracted some that had settled in the West to return. In the end, high-tech, like everything else, is about the people creating it.
Pakistan tried to produce its own tanks (another T-72 variant) but recently decided to get out of the tank design, development, manufacturing business, at least for now. Instead, the Pakistani army placed an order for a hundred Chinese made 52 ton VT4/MBT-3000 tanks. This is an updated version of the 330 46 ton VT1/MBT-2000/Al Khalid tanks Pakistan already has. The Al Khalid was a joint China-Pakistan project to create a Pakistani tank that would be built in Pakistan. But basically the Al Khalid was a variant of the Chinese VT1 (also known as the MBT2000). The VT1 was the export version of the Chinese Type 90 tank. Actually, the Type 90 (an improved T-72) was not accepted by the Chinese army which instead went with the 54 ton Type 99, a superior T-72 variant that entered service in 2001 and underwent a major upgrade (the 58 ton Type 99A) in 2011 and is still in production.
The rest of Pakistan’s 2,000 tanks are based on much older (1950s) Russian models, with some upgrades. Pakistan also looked at the latest Ukraine had to offer but decided to go with China, which has access to more advanced tech than Ukraine and was willing to be competitive when it came to price. This confidence in China was based on how the Al Khalid co-development agreement worked out. The Pakistanis learned the hard (but convincingly) way that they could not, even with Chinese help, produce a competitive T-72 variant. For the Al Khalid deal, Pakistan and China also agreed to jointly market the Al Khalid tank but had limited success. That was because there were a lot of improved T-72s on the market, including the Chinese MBT-2000. Al Khalid was more expensive to develop as Pakistan began the project in 1991 and made a lot of mistakes. The Al Khalid ended up costing ten percent more than the MBT-2000 and Pakistan was unable to keep its costs under control so that when it came time to develop and a major upgrade for Al Khalid, it was pointed out that China already had what Pakistan wanted in the VT4. In the end the Al Khalid demonstrated why Pakistan has never been a major player in the arms export business and this deal with China was more for show than anything else. For Chinese fire control systems it is important to be able to tell Al Khalids and several other T-72 variants, both friendly and hostile, apart.