First introduced in 1992 as the Type 85-IIM for the export market, the ZTZ-96 (Type 96) is a 2nd-generation indigenous main battle tank (MBT) produced by NORINCO. It is the first Chinese-made MBT that could rival modern Russian designs such as the T-72, with over 2,000 examples fielded by the PLA and some 400 examples exported to Pakistan and Sudan. The improved ZTZ-96A/B are approaching the capabilities of the 3rd-generation Chinese MBTs.
- PLA designation: ZTZ-96, or Type 96
- Export designations: Type 85-IIAP/IIM, VT-2
- Type: Main battle tank
- Designer: NORINCO North Vehicle Research Institute (201 Institute)
- Manufacturer: NORINCO Inner Mongolia First Machinery Factory (617 Factory)
- Crew: Three
- Variants: Type 85-IIAP/IIM (Pakistan), Type 85-III, ZTZ-96, ZTZ-96A (Type 96G), ZTZ-96B, Al-Bashir (Sudan)
- Operators: Pakistan (Type 85-IIAP), China (ZTZ-96/A/B), Sudan (Al-Bashir)
As the Type 80 series MBT did not receive any order from the PLA or foreign customers, NORINCO continued to develop the Type 85 (or ‘Hurricane’ in its manufacturer code name) from 1985 to 1989. The Type 85 was based on the chassis of the earlier Type 80, but featured a re-designed welded composite turret and an indigenously-developed 105-mm rifled tank gun. The Type 85-I (Hurricane-I) variant used the same 730-hp turbo-charged V12 12150ZL diesel engine as the Type 80, whereas the Type 85-II (Hurricane-II) used an improved 800-hp 12150ZL(Gai) engine with semi-automatic gearbox and steering wheel.
After failing to win the bid for a contract from an undisclosed Middle East customer in 1990, NORINCO continued to improve the Type 85-II design by replacing the unreliable 800-hp 12150ZL(Gai) engine with the older 730-hp 12150ZL, and incorporating the tank with a Chinese-developed 125-mm smoothbore gun with autoloader. The resulted Type 85-IIA was finally chosen by the Pakistani Army as a successor to its ageing Type 59/69 tanks.
Based on the requirements of the Pakistani Army, NORINCO began to develop a modified variant designated Type 85-IIAP in June 1990. NORINCO was unable to fulfil the Pakistani customer’s wish for a more powerful engine and as a result the tank continued to be powered by the 730-hp 12150ZL. A Pakistani delegation visited China in June 1991 to inspect the tank and requested further 50 modifications to its design. A modified prototype was sent to Pakistan in July 1991 for demonstration tests. Finally, the Pakistani Army placed two orders in 1991 and 1992 for a total of 200 units – the first successful foreign sale of Chinese-made tanks in nearly a decade.
The Type 85-IIAP was certified for design finalisation in January 1992, and was offered to the international market under the designation Type 85-IIM. However, no follow-up order was received.
NORINCO continued to improve the Type 85-IIM design from 1993 to 1995, with the introduction of the further upgraded Type 85-III. The most distinctive improvement on the Type 85-III was an indigenously-developed 1,000-hp diesel engine, and a gearbox modelled after that of the T-72 with much improved reliability. The tank also has the option to be fitted with the externally-mounted FY-4 explosive reactive armour (ERA) modules, increasing its combat weight to 43.7 tonnes.
NORINCO claimed that the Type 85-III was approaching the Russian T-90 in performance. Between 1994 and 1995, the tank was demonstrated in a series of field tests in Pakistan in the bid for the Pakistani Army’s MBT contract. During the tests, the Type 85-III suffered a number of engine failures, partially due to its powertrain unable to operate in the hot desert in Pakistan. The Pakistani Army eventually rejected the Type 85-III in favour of the Ukrainian T-80UD.
The success of the Type 85-IIM in the export market led to a revised interest from the PLA, which was in desperate need for an affordable, relatively-advanced MBT design to replace the bulk of its Type 59/69 tanks. This led to the introduction of the Type 88C (later renamed ZTZ-96 or Type 96). However, contrary to some misperceptions, the ZTZ-96 was not based on the Type 85-III powered by the 1,000-hp engine, but the earlier Type 85-IIM powered by the 730-hp engine.
The ZTZ-96 was first unveiled during the military parade on 1 October 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A total of 1,500 examples are believed to have been delivered before the production stopped in the mid-2000s. The tank was also produced under license by the Military Industry Corporation of Sudan as the Al-Bashir, with some 200 examples produced.
The improved ZTZ-96A (originally known as Type 96G) was first introduced into the PLA service in 2005. This most distinctive feature of the ZTZ-96A was the two arrow-shaped spaced add-on armour modules on the front of the turret, replacing the original vertically faced front armour plates. The ZTZ-96A also featured the externally-mounted FY-4 explosive reactive armour (ERA) and a thermal imaging system (TIS) for the gunner’s sight. In 2012, NORINCO offered the ZTZ-96A to the export market under the designation VT-2.
In 2016 NORINCO introduced the further improved ZTZ-96B powered by the improved 1,130-hp 150HB diesel and a new powertrain, which significantly improved the tank’s travelling performance.
Overall, the ZTZ-96 is generally comparable in performance with the Russian T-72 series, and the later variants of the tank were approaching the 3rd-generation MBT in fire-control and night observation capability. The tank’s major weakness lies with its tactical mobility – limited by its mediocre powerplant. This limitation was highlighted during the Russia-hosted 2014 International Tank Biathlon, where the ZTZ-96A struggled to compete with the Russian T-72B31.
Although the ZTZ-96 still cannot match the latest Western and Russian designs such as the M1A1/A2 and T-90, it is superior to any tank equipped by the armies of Southeast Asian countries and Taiwan. The tank has been deployed along with the more capable and expensive 3rd-generation MBT in a ‘high-low mix’ in the PLA service, especially in the water networks, paddy fields and hilly areas in southern China, where mobility is a less critical factor for tank operations.
The Al-Bashir tank was first spotted in operation with the Sudanese Army in 2007. An Al-Bashir reportedly destroyed a South Sudanese T-72 during battle in 2012.
The ZTZ-96 has a conventional layout, with the driving compartment located at the front, the turret mounted in the middle, and the engine compartment in the rear. The tank’s welded turret accommodates the main gun, auto-loader, and munitions. The turret is surrounded by storage racks on the rear, which not only offer extra places for the crew to store their equipment but also provide additional protections against HEAT projectiles.
The tank is operated by a three-man crew. The driver is seated left in the hull and forward of the turret. The tank commander sits on the right side of the main gun, and is also responsible for operating the 12.7-mm anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on his hatch cupola. The gunner sits on the left side of the main gun. The crew is protected by an over-pressure collective NBC protection and a fully automatic fire/explosion suppression system. For communications, the tank is fitted with a Type 889B or CWT-167B radio.
The drivetrain of the ZTZ-96 consists of six rubber-tyred road wheels, three return rollers, and a sprocket at the rear on each side. The tracks and wheels are protected by six panels of thick rubber side skirts. External storage for fuel and equipment are provided by encased compartments on the funders, which have been blended into the upper hull. There is a welded breakwater on the front of the hull, but this was removed on the later variants to make way for fitting additional armour modules.
The hull and turret of the tank are protected by composite armour plating. Wheels and tracks are protected by rubber hull skirts. On the improved ZTZ-96A/B variants, the original vertically-faced front armour plates on the turret have been replaced with two arrow-shaped spaced add-on armour modules. Additional protection was provided by the FY-4 reactive explosive armour (ERA) modules fitted on the front of the hull and the turret’s rear storage racks. There are six Type 84 76-mm smoke grenade launchers on each side of the turret. Additional smoke can be generated by injecting diesel fuel in to the engine’s exhaust.
Although NORINCO had already developed a new 1,000-hp diesel engine for the Type 85-III, the ZTZ-96 retained the original turbo-charged, liquid-cooled 730 hp V12 12150ZL diesel engine, with a planetary gear box and hydraulically-operated transmission. The 12150ZL engine has been developed from the older 12150L-7 diesel (copy of the Russian V-54 used by the T-54), but upgraded with German turbo-charged diesel technology for increased output.
With a combat weight of 41 tonnes, the ZTZ-96 has a moderate power-to-weight ratio of 17.8 hp/t and a maximum road speed of 57 km/h. The ZTZ-96A’s combat weight has increased to 43.7 tonnes, which further reduced the tank’s power-to-weight ratio to 16.7 hp/t.
The improved ZTZ-96B features an improved 1,130-hp V8 150HB diesel engine, which increased the power-to-weight ratio to 25.9 hp/t and a maximum road speed of 65 km/h. The engine was originally developed for the 3rd-generation Type 99 MBT.
The ZTZ-96 is fitted with an indigenous ZPT-98 125 mm/50-calibre smoothbore tank gun, which is fitted with a fume extractor and thermal sleeve and fed by an autoloader. A Chinese development modelled after the Russian 2A46, the ZPT-98 is capable of firing APFSDS, HE and HEAT rounds, as well as the Chinese copy of the Russian 9M119M Reflecks (AT-11 ‘Sniper’) gun-fired laser beam riding missile, with 41 rounds carried inside the turret and hull.
Auxiliary weapons include one Type 86 7.62-mm coaxial machine gun (2,250 rounds), and a QJC-88 12.7-mm/50-calibre anti-aircraft machine gun (500 rounds) mounted on the commander’s hatch cupola.
Like the Type 85-IIM, the basic variant ZTZ-96 also uses the ISFCS-212 image-stabilised fire-control system. Based on the GEC-Marconi Centaur technology, the system incorporates a laser rangefinder into the gunner’s sight, control panel, ballistic computer, and a sensor for crosswind, tilt and angular velocity, with a reaction time of 6 seconds from target detection to firing. The image intensifier night vision has a maximum engagement range of 800 m.
The ZTZ-96A/B features a thermal imaging system (TIS) on the gunner’s sight and an improved image-stabilised fire-control system, with a maximum engagement range of 2,000 m. The tank’s improved fire control system allows engagement of moving targets while on the move (at a speed under 30 km/h). However, unlike the 3rd-generation MBT, the ZTZ-96A/B does not have an independent thermal imaging system for the commander to allow the ‘hunter killer’ capability. The tank also lacks the electro-optical countermeasures and active defence systems found on the 3rd-generation MBT.
- Crew: 3
- Length (m): 10.28
- Height (m): 2.30
- Width (m): 3.45
- Combat weight (t): 41 (or 43.7 with ERA modules)
- Engine: 12150ZL diesel, liquid-cooled turbo-charged V12, 730 hp at 2,000 rpm (ZTZ-96/A); or 150HB diesel, 1,130 hp (ZTZ-96B)
- Power-weight ratio (hp/t): 17.8 (ZTZ-96), 16.7 (ZTZ-96A), 25.9 (ZTZ-96B)
- Transmission: Mechanical, planetary
- Track: Metallic, with removable rubber pads and rubber-tyred road wheels
- Suspension: Torsion bar
- Cruising range (km): 400, or 690 with external tanks
- Maximum road speed (km/h): 57.25 (ZTZ-96/A), 65 (ZTZ-96B)
- Fording depth (m): 1.4 (without snorkel); 5 (with snorkel)
- Main armament: ZPT-98 125-mm/50-calibre smoothbore gun with autoloader and thermal sleeve, 41 rounds
- Rate of fire (rounds/min): 6—8
- Gun elevation/depression (°): +14/-6
- Auxiliary weapon: Coaxial Type 86 7.62-mm machine gun (1,800-m range, 2,250 rounds); QJC-88 12.7-mm air-defence machine gun (2,000-m range, 500 rounds); Two 6-tube 76-mm Type 84 smoke grenade launcher
- Fire-control: ISFCS-212 image-stabilised fire-control system
- Night vision: Imager intensifier (ZTZ-96), or thermal imaging system for gunner’s sight (ZTZ-96A/B)
- Radio: Type 889B receive/transmit, telephone
- NBC protection: Collective, over-pressure
- Fire suppression: Automatic
- 环球网. 2014. 96A坦克在俄表现无关实战. [ONLINE] Available at: http://mil.huanqiu.com/observation/2014-08/5105303.html. [Accessed 11 June 2018].