2021 marks 10 years since China’s most powerful main battle tank, the Type-99A, was put into service with the People’s Liberation Army
Although investment in China’s ground force has been greatly reduced compared to its navy, air force, and strategic missile force; however, progress has been made in modernizing China’s armored combat capabilities significantly over the years. China currently produces more main battle tanks than any other country, including the VT-4, Type 15, Type 96 and Type 99A. Of these, the Type 99A is generally the one with the highest combat capability.
Because China focuses its resources on prioritizing investment in the air force and navy, so as not to be left too far behind by the US. In addition, the cost of the Type 99A is very expensive, going against China’s tradition of cheap weapons; so this tank was only built in limited numbers.
The tank that is heavily produced in China and widely equipped in combat units is the Type 96. The Type 96 is much smaller in size, so it is used for amphibious operations and for mountainous terrain areas. The VT-4, similar in design to the Type 96, but produced for export only.
For much of the Cold War, China lagged behind in the quality of its armored forces. Neighboring countries such as North Korea and India were confident with Soviet-designed tanks with outstanding features such as T-62 and Chonma Ho. Meanwhile, China mainly equipped Type 59 tanks (a copy of the Soviet T-54) until the end of the Cold War. Fortunately, when Sino-Russian relations improved, China had the opportunity to have access to the most advanced Soviet tank technologies.
Benefiting from economic reforms, China has invested heavily in the defense industry, including the development of new tank models, in order to narrow the gap in tank equipment of the People’s Liberation Army with Russia and Western countries. The Type 96 was born in 1997, with similar performance to the Soviet T-72 and T-80 tanks, the two most capable tank designs in the world at the time.
The improved version of the Type 96 is the Type 96A, which entered service around 2008 with a host of new technologies, including laser defense systems and electric missile jammer, a new FY-4 explosive reactive armor, and an upgraded engine. Type 96As are gradually replacing Type 59 tanks in frontline combat units.
As for the Type 99 main battle tank, developed after the Type 96, China currently has about 300 units. The Type 99A weighs 55 tons, significantly heavier than the 43 tons of the Type 96 and 46 tons of the Russian T-90. Because of its heavy weight, more maintenance required and also more expensive to operate, this caused only a limited number of Type 99A to be produced. The cost per tank is said to be very high.
Regarding the design of the Type 99A, relatively little is known about the tank’s capabilities, partly due to the secrecy surrounding the project. The Type 99A inherits many of the same technologies as the Type 96A, but has a much more powerful 1,500-horsepower engine and thicker armor.
The Type 99A is also equipped with a digital control system, similar to those that have recently begun to be installed on the latest generations of Western tanks; at the same time has a much better range and fuel efficiency than competitors from the West or Russia. Although the Type 99A is currently using a 125mm main gun, some information shows that it will likely be equipped with a 140mm or 152mm gun. The Type 99A’s chassis is considered large enough to mount such a large gun. It is reported that China is developing a new generation main battle tank, similar to the successful development by Russia, South Korea and Japan.