Chinese Tanks – 1947-1990
People’s Liberation Army (PLA)
around 25,000 armoured military vehicles
- SU-76 Gai
- Type 58 medium tank
- Type 59 MBT
- Type 62 light tank
- Type 63 APC (YW531)
- Type 63 Light Tank
- Type 69/79 MBT
- Type 77 APC
- Type 80/88 MBT
- Type 85 MBT
- Type 86 (WZ 501)
Context before 1949 (1937-1945)
Since 1912 and the fall of the Empire and Qing dynasty, China saw the birth of its first republic. Naturally, Sun Yat-sen was its first president, however he was forced to give way the former dynasty new army general, Yuan Shikai. After the troubled era of the warlords in 1919 to early 1920s, Sun protégé, Chiang Kai-shek formed the Kuomintang in the south, rallying most of south and central China in the 1926–1927 campaign. By 1934 opposing forces of the communist party of China or CPC took refuge in the mountains and after being driven out the Chinese Soviet Republic started its famous “long march” to the northwest, establishing a guerilla base at Yan’an in Shaanxi Province around their new leader, Mao Zedong.
From 1931 these two forces will collide until a formal agreement was found to try to repel the Japanese Invasion started at Shanghai. The Sino-Japanese War will end in 1945, and old rivalry reappeared bewteen Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintag and the Communist movement led by Mao.
At the start of the war in 1937, the nationalist led by Chiang Kai-shek had support from the west, and especially Germany that sold various military equipments, weapons, including some armoured cars. However the bulk of Chinese armour was provided by L3 tankettes purchased in Italy, and a few amphibious Vickers tankettes, as well as a few 6-ton tanks.
This was always sufficient against the Japanese however. With world war two erupting, alliances were reversed however due the German-Japanese alliance. Few support could be given but those of a single American squadron (Chennault\’s famous Flying Tigers) until Pearl Harbor changed it all. Now American support on the nationalist side began to tell. By 1944, the nationalist forces were well equipped with M5 Stuart and M4 Shermans, whereas the CPC was gradually given some military help by USSR.
The bloody civil war which resulted in the broken alliance after the surrender of japan ended in 1949 with a total victory for the CPC, driven the Nationalists back to a few Islands around Taipei (Taiwan) which consolidated into the Republic of China, in opposition to the People’s republic of China in mainland. Tanks used by the PRC included the Gongchen (modified Type 97 Chi-Ha), T-34/76 & T-34/85s, IS-2 and IS-3 heavy tanks, and some captured M4 Shermans/M5 Stuarts.
Constitution of the People’s liberation army
The name itself was inherited from the fight against warlords in the north, and was founded in august 1927. So in 1949 when China fell entirely under control of the PRC, the army had long years of experience, both against warlords, the nationalists and the Japanese. By 1949 the army was reorganized into three branches, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) is what we are interested in.
Manpower is assumed by a core of professional volunteers which formed the bulk of the tank forces and armoured divisions while the mass of the infantry is obtained by the compulsory Military service each year, supplemented in case of national emergency by the People’s Armed Police and the People’s Liberation Army Militia active as a reserve. The military age is comprised between 18 and 49 years and both male and female in age are fit for military service, which gave 385 male and 363 million females susceptible to be called upon arms. The military budget as a whole is about 1.4% (2014 est.) of GDP.
Development of domestic armour
Norinco corp. (China North Industries Corporation) is now the leading supplier in China of some tanks and armoured vehicles but mostly provided small arms. The bulk of the production is assumed by Inner-Mongolia First Machine Group Company Limited, since the 1950s. This started with soviet-supplied parts and equipments to built the first proper Chinese tank, the Type 58, in 1951-53. However to have access to better tanks, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and military alliance ensured that in 1956 a factory was built in Mongolia Factory 617/Baotou Tank Plant, later known as the Inner-Mongolia First Machine Group Company Limited.
The complex was a copy of the manufacturing plant producting the T-54. This complex was able to deliver the Type 59, by far the biggest tank production in China before or since. The type 58 formed not only the backbone of Chinese armoured divisions until the 1980s, but also the basis upon which virtually all other Chinese tanks would be built, starting with the light type 62, the mediums Type 69 and 79, and even the Type 80, 85 and 88 that still resembled the Type 58 although most of their features were well modernized (composite armour protection, new German-licenced engines, british-licenced main guns, Italian, British and French FCS and electronics…). This reliance on the T-54A whereas new soviet types were built in between like the T-62, T-64 and T-72 is due to the severed relationships with Soviet Union in the 1960s, meaning not only that China was cutoff from soviet tank improvements but had, in the long run, to rely more extensively on Western technology, ending with the strange mix which are the Type 90, 98 and 99 today.
The Korean War (1951-54)
Soviet Union gave China 1,837 T-34-85 tanks, which also served with the North Koreans during the Korean War. The 1954 Operations Research Office report of “Tank v Tank Combat in Korea” stated 119 tanks duels in the Korean War, including 38 US tanks lost against T-34s (some were repaired afterwards). The Chinese records allegedly claimed a number of US tanks later in the war, when the bulk of the North Korean T-34s (over 400 estimated) has been lost by November 1950. However, in any case records of Chinese Type 58 tank operating in Korea has been confirmed. It should be noticed also that North Korean forces also operated SU-76 self-propelled guns, certainly more useful than tanks as the mountainous terrain that saw most of the engagements was not fit for large tanks assaults. The job was done by mortars, artillery, and infantry, for which the tanks only served as a support, dealing with fortified positions, a task they were not fit for due to their relatively small-caliber hard-hitting rounds rather than High Explosive ones. After the war, a Sino-Soviet agreement saw the construction of a large manufacturing complex to deliver a copy of the T-54A which became until the 2000s, Chinese reference MBT.
Sino-Indian War (1962)
This fast clash lasted only from 20 October to 21 November 1962, but was quite intense. It was set up on the Himalayan border, but its roots were complex, also calling for the 1959 Tibetan revolt, in which India had granted asylum to the Dalai Lama, and erected a line of defensive works inside the north of the McMahon Line, a territory claimed by 1st minister Zhou Enlai in 1959. Unable to reach an agreement, Chinese PLA forces launched an all-out offensive against Indian positions along the Mac Mahon line, but concentrating on Ladakh. The Air Force took no part in it, due to the altitude and bad weather, but there is seldom account that any armoured vehicles were involved on both side either due to the nature of the terrain, but SPGs in the valley for support. Despite heavy losses on both sides and hazardous claims, China mostly secured its objectives and took de facto control of the Aksai Chin.
Sino-Soviet border conflict (1969)
Gradual distrusts and mishaps in Sino-Soviet relationships eventually led to a major fracture in the Communist world, as well as a swapping of alliances (which was more obvious since Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Carter’s administration in 1979). This seven-month undeclared military conflict erupted at the borders between the two countries at the height of the Sino-Soviet split. It concentrated around the disputed areas in the Argun and Amur rivers and saw this time at least one tank engagement. It saw in particular in March 2, 1969 PLA’s troops ambushing a Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island. 59 were dead, and the Soviet commander ordered on march 15 a retaliatory artillery fire on Chinese troop concentration while Zhenbao Island was re-taken. Afterwards, four of the brand new T-62 MBTs were sent to deal with Chinese patrols on the island. However one of these was hit and never recovered due to accurate Chinese artillery fire. It was captured afterwards and proved instrumental for the Chinese to reverse-engineering the latest Soviet technology and devise the next generation of MBTs, the Type 69/79.
Sino-Vietnamese border conflict (1979)
Sometimes called the “third Indochina war” this other, more obscure border conflict lasted from February 17 to March 16, 1979. Roots for the conflict can be seen in the Soviet Union and Vietnam twenty-five year mutual defense treaty, support of China’s ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, alleged mistreatment of Vietnam minorities and the Spratly Islands claimed by China. This time, the Chinese engaged a massive force well supported by armour, some 200,000 PLA infantry with some 400-550 tanks, as opposed to 70,000–100,000 regular Vietnamese force and some 150,000 local troops and militia. The terrain, again, was mountainous and difficult for tanks and Chinese losses due to RPGs were massive. The first assault on February, 17, saw 200 Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks engaged in support to the Infantry divisions. A pincer movement was launched, towards the west, aimed at Cao Bang, Lang Son and Quang Ninh Provinces, and the east, towards Ha Tuyen, Hoang Lien Son and Lai Chau Provinces.
All Vietnamese forces from Cambodia, southern Vietnam and central Vietnam were deployed to the northern border while USSR provided intelligence and equipment support while the Soviet Pacific Fleet provided battlefield communication relays. What followed were the First Battle of Lang Son, Battle of Dong Dang, Battle of Lao Cai and Battle of Cao Bang, which saw the Vietnamese inflicting massive casualties. Depending on the side involved, Chinese casualties ranged from 9,000 (Chinese claim) to 62,500 plus 550 military vehicles and 115 artillery pieces destroyed (Vietnam claim) while about 117 000 Vietnamese troops and militias were claimed by the Chinese plus 10,000 civilians. On the aftermath, not only Vietnam considered the war as a clear-cut victory against an invader, but also this allowed the Soviets to ultimately backed the Vietnamese in a war to defeat Pol Pot in Cambodia, ending a tragic genocide. The war was not over, since border skirmishes erupted throughout the 1980s, starting with the Shelling of Cao Bằng, the 1981 Battle of Mẫu Sơn, and the 1984 Battle of Vị Xuyên. Border shellings were discontinued until 1988 but an uneasy ceasefire and border pact were ultimately signed in 1999.
Mediums & MBTs: From the Type 58 to the Type 99
Type 58 MBT (1952)
The first Chinese tank was a copy of the soviet T-34/85, built locally after a first batch of 200 was sent to the newly formed People\’s Liberation Army ground forces. Around 800 were built, modernized in two series. This model was also derived into the Type 65 SPAAG used by North Vietnam.
Type 59 MBT (1958)
The main Chinese battle tank at least until the 1990s, mass-produced to an extent of 9500 units, modernized into several series, from the I to the II and IIA. The lastest versions are still in service today. The main change was the replacement of the orignal soviet-copied 100 mm gun by a British licence version of the L7 gun. It was a copy of the T-54A, just before the relations with USSR were severed. This model was also largely exported and served as local sub-versions.
Type 69/79 MBTs (1969)
Unable to gain access to the latest soviet tanks like the T-62, the next generation of medium tanks, the Type 69, was nevertheless studied, falsely assimilated by some experts as a copy of the T-55. The Type 69 is frequently assimilated to the Type 79 and often the three types are mismatched. It was designed from 1963 to 1974 by the No. 60 Research Institute to be an all-improved version of the Type 59, with a dual-axis stabilized 100 mm smoothbore gun, a new 580 hp engine, and an IR search light, among other changes. However in 1969, during the Sino-Soviet border conflict a T-62 was captured, and served as a basis for a new wave of improvements. Therefore the new tank was the first really and completely developed in China, although still with many Soviet-origin technologies, adapted to the Chinese needs. The Type 79 was a new version following the adoption of many western technologies. The first was mostly exported abroad. Both are still in service today, despite the arrival of new, improved models.
Type 80/85/88 MBTs (1980)
The Type 80 was the last T-54/55 inspired tank, based on the Type 79 but even more largely filled with Western technologies, helped by the better relations with the West. The Type 69 officially failed to satisfy the Chinese requirements, so 617 Factory (now Inner-Mongolia First Machinery Group Company Ltd was put in charge to integrate a new chassis incorporating new wheel/track systems and reworked suspensions, an all welded turret, better increasing protection, a much more modern German 730 hp 1215OL-7BW diesel engine, a dual-axis stabilized light spot FCS and external laser rangefinder, to serve a Type 83 105 mm rifled gun, NATO-standard, licensed from Austria. The 80-II received a new wave of modifications.
The Type 85 was built by Norinco most likely in association with the 201 Institute (now China North Vehicle Research Institute), and inspired by the T-72 as a few ex-Iraqi ones captured by Iran were purchased by China for examination. It was the fist second generation Chinese tank, but still not satisfactory not only compared to the T-72 but als most western Tanks. Around 900 were built. The T-88 was an attempt to radically upgrade the Type 80. It was created by the association of China’s 617 Factory (main contractor), 616 Factory, 477 Factory, and 201 Institute. It was still technically an offspring of the type 80, however protection was heavily upgraded. It entered service in 1988, and production was stopped in 1995 after 400 to 500 were built.
Type 62 Light tank
Basically a much lightened Type 59 to be acceptable as a light tank. About 1500+ were produced in the 1960s. The Type 62 was also exported in Asia and Africa. Most have been modernized as the Type 62-I and Type 62G and replaced by a brand new model using technologies from the Type 99 MBT, possibly called Type 10.
Type 63 light tank
A virtual copy of the soviet PT-76. Not much to say about it, apart it’s the main amphibious tank in service, superseded by the larger Type 63A in the 1990s.
Infantry Fighting Vehicles
Type 86 IFVs (1985)
The main Chinese IFv, derived from the Soviet BMP-1. Many were exported and the vehicle was also produced to several variants. China produced an estimated 3,000+ Type 86s, but in 2005 about 1,000 were enlisted as of 2009.
Armoured personal carriers
Type 63 APC
The first tracked APC designed in China saw mass production (perhaps over 8,000 including exports), from the 1960s to the 1980s. It was declined into 19 variants and was armed in standard by the Type 54 12.7 mm heavy machine gun, shielded for the most. Criticized in the west (some were captured after the 1990 Iraq war) it showed poor ballistic protection due to a dubious steel quality, but also a cramped troop compartment, low power-to-weight ratio, no NBC protection, rear ramp, anti-slip roof surfaces, nor inner spall-lining. It was nevertheless an export success due to its fairly low price.
Type 77 APC (1978)
Making good use of the Type 63 amphibious tank chassis, this marines APC was not a copy of the BTR-50.
Type 85 APC (1985)
The previous Type 63, however mass-produced was known by western intelligence to have been one of the most of the kind produced in the cold war and certainly deserved replacement as the PLA head of staff was fully aware of its numerous faults and limitations. The Type 85 was such vehicle. Although it was externally just about a longer version of the former, engineers almost took a blank page, and the final APC only shared a few components with its predecessor. It had much to look upon the BMP serie.
Its development took years and it was unveiled in 1985 when accepted by the Army. Thousands had been manufactured since in lots of variants, including the Type 89 export version. The vehicle is know as a tracked armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) rather than an APC, but it is not an IFV still because of a simple heavy machine gun rather than a cannon as main armament.
Chinese armour related links
Cold War Tanks