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March 30, 2019: In early 2019 a new version of the Chinese 8x8 ZBL 11 assault gun was seen undergoing operational evaluation in a rural testing area that was very cold and covered in snow. It was later revealed that this upgrade contained an automated turret for the 105mm gun that, obviously, used an autoloader. On top of the turret was a new version of the 12.7mm machine-gun RWS (remote weapons station) used on many Chinese armored vehicles. The upgrade also included has new armor protection and a lot more automation inside as well as new sensors (including hi-res exterior vidcams) to enable the three-man crew to operate in combat without ever sticking their heads out to look around. The new version was seen maneuvering over snow-covered terrain, both open areas and forest. In both cases the vehicle maneuvered into position and then fired one or more rounds from its 105mm gun at targets apparently representing enemy positions. Details of the new autoloader and fully automated turret have not been released but Russia has used a similar system in their new T-14 tank design.

The ZBL 11 has a crew of three, 30 rounds of 105mm ammo and at least 500 rounds for the 12.7mm machine-gun. There are also 12 smoke dischargers on the turret for laying down smoke if the vehicle has to hide quickly. Over a hundred of the ZBL 11 have been built and they are showing up more frequently in Chinese infantry brigades, providing front line support for infantry who are equipped with wheeled or tracked IFVs (Infantry Fighting Vehicles).

The original version of this ZBL 11 assault gun entered service in 2011. That original ZBL 11 had a small turret containing a 105mm gun, for providing direct fire support for troops. There was already an artillery version, carrying a 122mm or 155mm howitzer in a larger turret. There are several other versions, and apparently more on the way.

The ZBL 11 assault gun and artillery versions are based on the older ZBL 09 8x8 wheeled armored vehicle., Similar to the American Stryker, 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.

The ZBL 09 entered service in 2009, and some combat brigades have or are being equipped with it, to operate somewhat like the American Stryker brigades. China has been developing new wheeled armored vehicles for over a decade. Until the ZBL 09 these were all based on Russian designs. The ZBL 09, however, borrows more from the West. Still, some of the more recent (five years ago) Russian type designs were interesting and instructive.

Back then, for example, the 18 ton, 6x6 WMZ551A model was given a new turret. The vehicle has a crew of three and can carry nine more troops. Using technology and weapons obtained from Ukraine, the new vehicle was equipped with a 30mm autocannon, instead of the 25mm one. 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 is 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 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.

The new version was inspired by open source discussions by Chinese weapons developers and troop commanders about how to proceed with new developments in vehicle automation. The ZBL series is produced by NORINCO, a state-owned arms manufacturer that has a great deal of flexibility in developing new weapons. As long as NORINCO does it quickly and at a competitive (for export sales as well as the Chinese military budget) price they can try all sorts of ideas that would take a lot longer to get approved and built in the West. The Chinese custom is to procure new weapons in small quantities and allow for extensive use by troops before ordering larger quantities. This is most evident in the development of new warships as well as armored vehicles and combat aircraft. If the Chinese encounter a lot of problems, as they did with nuclear submarines, they will spend decades working out the problems they encountered.

 


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