PLA Armour Modernization: Type 98 MBT


As part of its ongoing force reduction and modernization programme, the PLA has made significant cuts in its overall armoured corps. Once the third largest tank force in the world, the 10,000 MBT monolith has been reduced by an estimated 20 per cent over the past three years. Further draw downs are probable considering 75 per cent of the current reduced force is based on antiquated Soviet T-55 and T- 62 designs, although the PLA has sought to slow this trend with an aggressive refit campaign.1 Such reductions match the overall structural advancements experienced by the entire PLA beginning in the 1980s. One of the more profound products of this strategic revolution in PLA armoured tactics is the development of the Type 98 MBT. First observed during the 1999 fiftieth Anniversary parade in Beijing, the Type 98 and its subsequent variations represent the cutting edge of China's tank arsenal, while simultaneously offering important insights into the dynamic nature of PLA strategic thought.

The Type 98 represents a significant advancement in non-Western armour development. This new model can trace its history back to both the indigenous Type 90 third generation MBT project and recent developments in Russian tank technology. The first Type 90 unit was revealed by the PLA in 1991, but insufficient performance and the release of the Russian T-80 MBT served as grounds for an overall project re-evaluation by PLA weapons engineers. That process has not been wholly successful considering the technical difficulty that plagued the Type 98 programme in the early 1990s. Indeed, such malfunction caused the commissioning of the Type 98 to be pushed back to 1998, a delay of over two years.

The finished product appears to have been worth the wait, at least as far as the PLA is concerned. Weighing in at around fifty tonnes and powered by a new 1200 horsepower diesel engine, the finished version of the Type 98 borrows much of its hull design from the Russian T-72. The enlarged box-like turret, however, creates a significant visual distinction, borrowing more from Western angled slope variants. This departure from conventional Soviet design allows the Type 98 to carry additional equipment and ammunition, but also contributes to a critical structural flaw - a gap between the turret and the front hull. Were an enemy to target that gap, a direct hit could conceivably result in the destruction of the entire turret.

For its main armament, the Type 98 relies on a 125mm smoothbore gun with a Russian style auto loading system. The armament system shares some similarities with the Russian 2A46 system, but its true descendent is the earlier Chinese 120 mm design. The gun is capable of utilizing both Israeli designed sabot (APFSDS) rounds as well as standard explosive (HEAT) rounds. The Type 98 weapon system will benefit additionally from recent Chinese advancement in the design and construction of depleted uranium rounds, a development hinted at by a PLA military exhibition in 2001.2 In addition, the 125mm cannon is capable of firing anti-tank missiles in the form of indigenously produced Russian A-11 laser guided ATGMs.3 The PLA has also experimented with retrofitting somewhat radical armament packages on the Type 98, including an ongoing trial involving a prototype 144mm smoothbore cannon.4

Information concerning the Type 98's armour is scarce, but several facts can be gleaned from careful observation. The turret roof on the Type 98 is raised and slightly lower than the front armour arrays, which may indicate the emphasis Chinese designers placed on the ability to easily upgrade and reinforce the existing armour with additional armour 'packs'. The Type 98's armour package also appears to have been influenced by the T-80 design, as both tanks feature frontal armour cavities which are then covered by plates, adding further to the ease in which Chinese engineers could upgrade the vehicles protection.5 In an additional development concerning the Type 98's armour, the PLA has reportedly been fitting the new Type 98G with externally mounted armour modules, along with explosive reaction plates.

For sighting and targeting purposes, the
Type 98 carries a thoroughly modern targeting suite. Included is a laser rangefinder and an advanced ballistic computer similar in accuracy to the most advanced equipment used by Western armoured forces. Accuracy is also improved by a dual axis stabilization chassis which allows for mobile firing. A Type 98 tank commander would have access to a wide array of sensor data, through thermal sights and auto-tracking targeting systems. In order to ensure greater command response, tank commanders would have direct access to a computerized display system which collects individual unit sensor readings and converts them to computer outlays.

Quite possibly the most radical element of the Type 98's defensive system is its JD-3 integrated laser targeting and self-defence mechanism. Mounted on the turret roof directly behind the tank gunner, the JD-3 can be used as a rather ingeniously conceived counter-weapon against laser guided ATGMs. The process would begin with the triggering of the tank's laser warning receiver (LWR), which would alert the crew to the presence of an inbound targeting system. The JD-3 would then be activated, first locating the opposition's optics, then intensifying the beam in order to either blind the gunner or destroy the optical system itself. Preliminary reports suggested that, given the JD-3's ability to be elevated to an angle higher than the main gun, the system could be used against helicopters. Such suspicions may have been confirmed in March 2003, when North Korean forces used a variant of the JD-3 laser system to illuminate two American Apache attack helicopters patrolling the DMZ.6

The extent of Type 98 production continues to defy the best estimates of Western observers. The first unit of Type 98s - the ten to eighteen unit tank formation witnessed at the 1999 Beijing parade - may have represented the total prototype force available at the time. Production over the following five years has increased, but not at the rate that some analysts predicted. The latest reports suggest the current Type 98 force stands at eighty units, indicating a production rate of roughly twenty per year.7 Such a relatively modest production rate suggests two possibilities; the Type 98 has not yet entered full production, or the tank is not meant to be deployed on a wide scale in the foreseeable future. Increasingly, the evidence points to the plausibility of the latter scenario, such as the acceleration in construction of the second generation Type 96 MBT. A less technically advanced and cheaper model of the Type 98, the Type 96 is slated for a construction build of 1,500 units over the next three years, accounting for the vast majority of PLA mass production capability. The Type 98 will continue to be built on a limited basis, perhaps between twenty to forty units per annum, until the Type 96 quota is finished. Once that threshold is reached, the PLA will almost certainly convert more of their production capacity to Type 98 variants, such as the ultra modern Type 98G.

It also remains uncertain the exact number of Type 98 tanks that have been deployed to formations in the field. Their placement within the PLA order of battle is also unclear, but several candidate units are readily identifiable. They include the elite 6th Armoured Division, part of the 38th General Army based in Baodong. The 6th has regularly received some of the more modern command and control equipment developed by the PLA, and is known as the 'digital' division. The advanced technical nature of the unit would be useful in incorporating the computerized systems already integrated in the Type 98's design. Other divisions which have reportedly received small numbers of Type 98s are the 7th and 8th Armoured Divisions, both of which are considered elite formations within the PLA order of battle.8 This practice of selective deployment of Type 98 to already advanced units seems to indicate a PLA attempt to create embryonic battalions that will gain experience using the Type 98. Such expertise can only serve to create more effective combat units, while creating a well of technical knowledge through which wider deployment of the Type 98 can be more easily accomplished.

One of the great challenges facing the Type 98 is inherent in its design: its weight. As the PLA becomes a more modern mobility-centric force, it will run into the very same obstacles that have troubled Western strategists; namely, how can a mobile force rely on a MBT that is so difficult to transport? While Chinese armour is certainly central to China's strategic position on the Asian continent, their usefulness is severely degraded in the more likely event of a conflict over Taiwan. This difficulty is only exacerbated by China's still infant air/sea lift capability. The PLA's relevant air lift force is nonexistent, as China's largest operational air transport plane, the IL-76MD, lacks the capacity to carry a single Type 98. China's sealift power is considerably more capable, and represents the fastest growing sector of the Chinese military. The Type 072-II and III landing ships, of which China possesses fourteen, could each carry approximately ten MBTs, while their fleet of seven older
Type 072's could transport five tanks apiece. With Chinese sea lift developing rapidly, the Type 98 may indeed play a role in any hypothetical invasion scenario. However, it is far more likely that it will have a more pertinent effect on China's direct neighbours.

Were the Type 98 deployed against Taiwan or the island's hypothetical American protectors, it would compare very favourably. The ROC army is a relatively light force, its MBT capability dangerously outdated. The crème of their armoured corps lies in nearly 400 M-60A3 tanks, tanks which would be effective against the majority of the PLA armoured vehicles but would be hopelessly outclassed against a significant force of Type 98s. Such a disparity may explain Taiwan's recent interest in acquiring M-1 tanks from the United States.9 The Type 98 would find a much more formidable foe in American M-1 A2 MBTs or Indian Arjun and T-90's. That said, the gulf separating the PLA tank force from its main competitors has narrowed significantly within the past three years, a trend that will only continue with planned further development and construction of the Type 98.10

Patrick Devenny
Fellow, Center for Security Policy

Notes
1 Doug Nairne, 'China developing world's biggest tank,' South China Morning Post, 18 April 2004, 4.
2 James Warford, 'The new Chinese Type 98 MBT: A second look reveals more details,' Armor, May/June 2001, 22.
3C onfirmation of the Type 98's ATGM capability came in: Christopher Foss, 'Chinese Type 98 Tank fires laser guided missile,' Jane's Defense Weekly,
6 November 2002, 15.
4 Christopher Foss, 'China Tests New AFV Development,' Jane's Defense Weekly, 22 June 2005, 40.
5 James Warford, 'The Chinese Type 98 MBT: A new beast from the East,' Armor, May/June 2000,
12.
6 Bill Gertz, 'Revealed: N. Korea fired laser at U.S. troops,' The Washington Times, 13 May 2003, 1.
7 International Institute of Strategic Studies, Military Balance, (IISS: 2003).
8 James Warford, 'The new Chinese Type 98 MBT: A second look reveals more details,' Armor, May/June 2001, 22.
9 Bill Nichols and Mimi Hall, 'Bush allows scaledback arms sales to Taiwan,' USA Today, 24 April 2001, 1.
10 All military data, unless otherwise attributed, is found in 'GlobalSecurity.org, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/china/ type-98.htm; 'Sinodefense.com' http://www.sinodefence.com/army/tank/type98.asp




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