The PLA Group Force continues to operate a large number of legacy Type 59/69 tanks of 1960s/70s designs in order to maintain the size of its armoured troops. Most of these tanks have received modernisation upgrades in armament, armour, and mission system. The same modernisation packages have also been offered to foreign customers as a low-cost solution to extend the lives of the Cold War-era tank designs well into the 21st century.
As of 2016, it was estimated that the PLA still had about 1,300 examples of the Type 59/59-I, 510 examples of the Type 59-II, 550 examples of the Type 59D, and a small number of the Type 69-II and Type 79.
The PLA’s first indigenously-made main battle tank (MBT) is the Type 59, a licensed copy of the Soviet T-54A. The tank has been built by NORINCO’s First Inner Mongolia Machinery Factory (617 Factory) in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. The factory was built with Soviet assistance, as part of the agreement under the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. It has since then become China’s primary manufacturer for MBTs, armoured vehicles, and heavy machineries.
The Type 59 was first introduced into the PLA service in 1959, though the production remained at a low rate (less than 200 per year) until the early 1970s. The Type 59’s production reached its peak between the late 1970s and early 1980s, with over 1,000 examples produced each year. By the time the production finally stopped in 1985, over 10,000 examples had been produced. Some 6,000 examples were in service with the PLA, and a significant number were sold to foreign customers in Asia, Africa and Middle East.
The Type 59 saw action during the 1979 Sino-Vietnam border conflict. It was operated by both the Iranian and Iraqi armies during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi Army also operated a large number of the Type 59 during the first Gulf War 1990/91, and these tanks suffered heavy losses facing the advanced Western tanks in the battle. In addition, the tank has been built under license in Pakistan as the Al-Zarrar.
The basic variant Type 59 was largely based on the T-54A, but without the infrared searchlight and gun stabilisation. The tank features the Soviet-style half-egg shape cast turret and a conventional four-man crew arrangement. The driver sits left in the hull and forward of the turret, and the loader, gunner and commander occupy the turret. The loader is seated to the right of the main gun and the gunner and tank commander sitting in tandem on the left side. The loader is also responsible for operating the 12.7-mm anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on turret roof.
The T-54/Type 59 was a highly effective armoured combat platform at the time of its introduction, with its formidable 100-mm rifled gun and decent armour protection and mobility. Since the late 1970s, the tank has been steadily upgraded with new weapon and mission systems to improve their performance and extend service life. The Type 59-I introduced in 1979 featured a laser rangefinder, power-assisted steering, automatic fire suppression system, and rubber track skirts. The Type 59-II introduced in 1984 was fitted with a new Type 79 105-mm rifled gun based on the British L7 tank gun technology and improved radio. The Type 59-IIA introduced in 1985 featured an improved 105-mm rifled gun with thermal sleeve and a fire-control system.
A programme to radically modernise the Type 59 led to the Jaguar MBT concept in the 1980s. The tank was based on the Type 59’s chassis, but with a redesigned welded turret, a U.S. Detroit 8V-92TA diesel engine (8 cylinders), and options for choosing between the British Royal Ordinance L7, the U.S. M68, or the Chinese Type 79/83 105-mm rifled guns. The project was later cancelled due to a lack of interest from potential buyers.
The most significant upgrade of the tank came in the early 1990s with the introduction of the Type 59D. Instead of newly-built vehicles, these were refurbished early variants of the Type 59. In 1991, the PLA and 617 Factory signed the contract to develop a modernisation package for the Type 59 tanks, which still remained the bulk of the PLA’s MBT fleets. Four prototypes were produced in 1992, and the testing the new tank gun was completed in 1993. The design was certified for production in 1995.
Upgrades on the Type 59D included new explosive reactive armour (ERA), night vision, computerised fire-control, and the 105-mm tank gun. There were two variants: The Type 59D fitted with a long-barrel Type 83A 105-mm rifled gun, and the Type 59D1 fitted with an older Type 79 105-mm rifled gun (same as the Type 59-II). Both guns are capable of firing standard 105-mm APFSDS, HEAT, and HEAT-FRAG rounds. When firing APFSDS rounds, these guns have an armour penetration capability of 600 mm at a distance of 2,000 m.
These tank guns are also capable of firing the Chinese gun-launched, laser beam-riding anti-tank guided missile (ATGM), which was derived from the Russian 9K116 Bastion (NATO codename: AT-10 ‘Stabber’). The missile has a maximum range of 5,200 m and an armour penetration capability of 700 mm. As well as ground targets, the missile is said to be also capable of engaging slow-flying helicopters.
Fire accuracy is attained by the Type 37A light spot fire-control system originally developed for the Type 80/88 MBT. The system consists of dual-way stabilisation, ballistic computer, an integrated laser rangefinder, commander sight, and gunner sight. The gunner’s sight is fitted with an image intensifier night-vision, with an effective range of 1,400 m. Alternatively, the gunner’s sight could be fitted with a more advanced thermal imaging system (TIS), with a maximum range of 2,100 m. The driver also has an image intensifier night vision with a maximum range of 400 m. The tank’s fire-control has a reaction time of 6 seconds against a static target and 9 seconds against a moving target.
The Type 59D/D1 was added with the Chinese indigenous FY series ERA modules on the front of the hull and turret. With this package, the tank’s protection against the kinetic armour-piercing round and HEAT round had increased by 180—260% and 200—300% respectively. According to the test results, the tank can survive a direct hit by the 105-mm APFSDS round at a distance of 2,000 m. Additionally, the tank was also equipped with an automatic fire and explosion suppression system.
617 Factory began to develop a successor to the Type 59 in 1963, but made little progress initially due to technical difficulties and disruptions caused by the political turmoil of the ‘Culture Revolution’ in the late 1960s. Chinese engineers studied an example of the Soviet T-62 tank captured during the armed clash between the Chinese and Soviet forces in March 1969 on Damansky Island in the Ussuri River. The T-62’s components including night vision were copied and incorporated into the Type 69 design. Finally, the Type 69 was certified for design finalisation in 1974.
Compared to the Type 59, the most distinctive improvement on the Type 69 was a Chinese indigenous dual-way stabilised Type 69 100-mm smoothbore gun, capable of firing the armour-piercing fin-stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS) round. The tank also had a laser rangefinder and an infrared searchlight. However, by the time of its introduction, the Type 69 was already obsolete compared with the latest MBTs introduced by the Soviet Army. In addition, the 100-mm smoothbore gun was proven unsatisfactory. As a result, the basic variant Type 69 only saw very limited service in the late 1970s and was soon withdrawn from service.
The improved Type 69-II variant introduced in 1982 was still fitted with the 100-mm rifled gun of the Type 59. This variant also featured a more powerful diesel engine. Later production variants of the Type 69-II were added with rubber track skirts and turret storage rack. The design turned out to be a huge success in the export market, with over 2,000 examples sold to foreign countries. The Iraqi Army was equipped with over 1,000 examples of the Type 69 in the 1980s, most of which were destroyed during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm and the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom.
It was estimated that several hundred Type 69s of various variants were receive by the PLA. Additionally, the hull of the tank was used as the chassis for a range of armoured combat and support vehicles, including the Type 84 armoured recovery vehicle (ARV), Type 84 mechanical bridge, PGZ88 dual-37mm self-propelled AAA, GSL130 minesweeper, and GCZ110 multifunctional vehicle.
Type 79 (Type 69-III)
As the relations between China and the West warmed up in the 1980s, NORINCO was able to use Western tank technologies to upgrade the Type 69 design. A Sino-British co-operation project led to the introduction of the Type 69-III (later renamed Type 79), featuring a British L7 105-mm rifled gun and the Marconi fire-control system. The tank was targeted at foreign customers but did not receive any order. However, its turret and fire-control was later used on the Type 80 (ZTZ-88).
NORINCO continued to improve the Type 59 by incorporating it with an even more powerful gun originally developed for the 3rd-generation Chinese MBTs. An earlier technology demonstrator (Type 59-120) saw the tank fitted with a Chinese-developed 120-mm smoothbore gun. A number of designs fitted with the indigenous 125-mm gun were subsequently introduced for the export market.
This continuous modernisation effort eventually led to the introduction of the VT-3, a radically modernised Type 59 featuring a redesigned welded turret with enhanced armour protection, a 125-mm main gun, advanced digital fire-control, etc. Intended for the export market, the VT-3 is highly customisable according the customer’s requirements, including the optional gun autoloader and thermal imaging system. A version of the VT-3 is currently servicing with the Tanzanian Army.