The ZTZ-99C is China's latest main battle tank design.

The ZTZ-99C is China's latest main battle tank. (Source: China-Defense.com)

Internet photos have confirmed that two “new” indigenously developed armoured vehicles have entered service with the People’s Liberation Army.

Online bloggers have given the main battle tank the designation ZTZ-99C. The infantry fighting vehicle has been designated ZBD-08. Both designs are not entirely new but are rather modified and improved versions of existing designs.

The ZTZ-99C is based on the ZTZ-99, which itself is a drastically improved version of the ZTZ-98 main battle tank. Like all Chinese main battle tank designs that have emerged since the end of the Cold War, it is manned by a crew of three and armed with a 125 mm smoothbore main gun fed by an autoloader. Unlike its cousins, however, the ZTZ-99C appears to feature more armour protection, a larger turret and rubber side skirts. What is less known is the type of active protection system it is equipped with. While the ZTZ-98/99 features a laser dazzler system that apparently enables the tank’s crew to “blind” an opponent’s fire control system or optical gun sight, the precise purpose and capabilities of the new active protection system on the ZTZ-99C is unknown. Older images have shown prototypes of the ZTZ-99C mounting battlefield surveillance radar, although whether the production version comes with such a comprehensive system is yet to be confirmed.

The ZBD-08 infantry fighting vehicle appears to be based on the ZBD-97, but comes with a number of new features aimed at enhancing the design's battlefield survivability.

The ZBD-08 infantry fighting vehicle appears to be based on the ZBD-97, but comes with a number of new features aimed at enhancing the design's battlefield survivability. (Source: China-Defense.com)

The ZBD-08 appears to be based on the ZBD-97. Both are equipped with a turret sporting a 100 mm main gun and 30 mm cannon, an arrangement similar to that of the Russian BMP-3′s turret but installed on an indigenous hull. Like the ZBD-97, the new vehicle is expected to be capable of firing gun-launched anti-tank guided missiles. The distinguishing feature of the ZBD-08 is its heavier hull armour and bigger turret. In addition, it is speculated to be equipped with some sort of active protection system, possibly designed to enhance its survival against anti-tank guided missiles.

These new land systems are not expected to be acquired in large numbers. The People’s Liberation Army has opted for a high-low mix of weapons. China’s mechanised forces will mainly be composed of the less-advanced ZTZ-96 coupled with rebuilt and modernised ZTZ-59Ds. The ZTZ-99, despite being a clearly more capable design than the ZTZ-96, has only been produced in small numbers for elite units. The same should be expected with the ZTZ-99C. Similarly, not all armoured personnel carriers will be replaced with the ZBD-08. It appears that the simultaneous introduction of several new tracked and wheeled armoured vehicles will enable the People’s Liberation Army to step up mechanisation efforts.

Despite the emphasis on modernising air, space and maritime capabilities, China’s ground forces are by no means left behind. The introduction of the ZTZ-99C and ZBD-08 indicates that China is capable of developing land systems that possess capabilities comparable to the latest Korean, Japanese, Russian and Western designs. However, it appears that China’s latest generation of armoured vehicles have yet to feature the armour and self-defence kits available to NATO/US forces operating in Afghanistan and Iraq; systems that are necessary for protecting vehicles and their crews from improvised explosive devices and other threats in urban environments. This is perhaps an indication that the People’s Liberation Army does not envisage itself entangled in an Afghanistan or Iraq-style conflict in the foreseeable future.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at www.securitychallenges.org.au). Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 13 post(s) on New Pacific Institute