The ZTZ-99 (Type 99) is the 3rd-generation indigenous main battle tank (MBT) developed by China Northern Industries Group Corporation (CNGC, or NORINCO) for the PLA. The tank was first produced in 1999, following a decade-long development programme. Batch production of the ZTZ-99 began in 2001, and the upgraded ZTZ-99A was first seen in operation in 2014.
The 1969 Sino-Soviet border skirmishes highlighted a major weakness of the PLA in its armoured forces. The Chinese ordnance industry’s inability to produce a modern MBT meant that the PLA had to continue relying the obsolete Type 59, a locally-produced copy of the Soviet T-54 tank, which would have little chance in the battlefield against the latest Soviet MBT designs such as the T-62, T-64, and T-72. This situation only changed in the late 1970s, when China began to gain access to some of the latest Western tank technologies, thanks to its warming relations with the West. This eventually led to the programme in the late 1970s to develop an advanced next-generation indigenous MBT.
In 1977, the PLA submitted its proposed technical and tactical requirements for the next-generation MBT to the Science, Technology and Equipment Committee of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Under the instruction of the CMC, in April 1978 the Commission of Science Technology and Industry for National Defence (COSTIND) and the Fifth Ministry of Machinery Industry (Ministry of Ordnance Industry, now NORINCO) initiated the development of the next-generation indigenous MBT. It was decided that the new MBT, intended as a direct competitor for the Soviet T-72, would be based on the technology of the German Leopard 2 (though not a direct copy).
In March 1979, 617 Factory and 201 Institute produced a prototype (design code name WZ1224) featuring a 120-mm smoothbore gun based on the Leopard 2’s L/44 and a German 1,000-hp MB8V331TC41 diesel engine. In the early 1980s, the development team produced two further prototypes WZ1226 and WZ1226F2, which were fitted with two different indigenous 1,000-hp diesel engines respectively. These prototypes demonstrated the weapon and different powertrain configurations, but did not enter production. As a result, the PLA decided in 1981 to develop a more moderate MBT with a NATO 105-mm rifled gun as its 2nd-genertaion MBT to meet its urgent need to succeed its Type 59/69 series, while the 120-mm gun and 1,000-hp diesel would be achieved on the future 3rd-generation MBT.
While the development of the NATO-standard 120-mm smoothbore gun was underway, a separate development programme to reverse-engineer the Soviet 2A46 125-mm smoothbore gun and its autoloader was also making progress. This led to two rival opinions within the defence industry and military about the development path for the 3rd-generation indigenous MBT. Some advocated to model the tank after the Soviet T-72, including its 125-mm gun, autoloader, and 3-man crew arrangement. A second opinion envisaged a more radical design with a NATO-standard 120-mm gun, forward engine compartment layout (similar to the Israeli Merkava), and high-power diesel or gas turbine engine.
In the end, the T-72-inspired design was chosen for China’s 3rd-generation MBT, partially due to the PLA’s familiarity with the Soviet/Russian tank design philosophy through its decades of experience in operating the Type 59/T-54 series, and also partially due to the risks and technical difficulties associated with the untested design proposed by the rival camp. The 3rd-generation indigenous MBT development programme was initiated by NORINCO in 1984 under design code name WZ123, with Zhu Yusheng appointed Chief Designer for the programme.
The 3rd-generation MBT programme was given the highest priority by the Chinese government and PLA, being one of the country’s top-priority weapon development programmes during its 7th Five-Year Plan (1986—1990), and one of the four key military equipment programmes during the 8th Five-Year Plan (1991—1995). The contract between the PLA and NORINCO for the 3rd-generation MBT development was signed in the spring of 1989.
The first WZ123 prototype was produced in early 1990. Further technical and tactical requirements were agreed between the PLA and NORINCO in 1991 to provide guidelines for the next phase of the development. 617 Factory produced 4 more prototypes in 1992 for test and evaluation. In 1993, it was decided that the front turret amour’s thickness should be increased from equivalence to 600 mm steel armour to 700 mm. Extensive field testing was carried out between 1994 and 1996, which allowed the design to be finalised in December 1996.
During the winter season of 1996 and 1997, several examples of the tank were sent to the Tahe vehicle test site in the norther province of Heilongjiang for field tests under extreme low-temperature conditions, to ensure that the tank could operate in China’s northern regions near the Sino-Russian border.
The design finalisation test was completed in late 1998, and a small number (less than 10) were delivered to the PLA to take part in the military parade in Beijing on 1 October 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The debut of the tank caught the media and Chinese military observers by surprise, as the tank’s development had been carried out in secrecy. The tank’s designation was incorrectly identified as ZTZ-98 / Type 98, though it later turned out to be ZTZ-99 / Type 99.
The ZTZ-99 was manned by a crew of three and armed with a 125-mm smoothbore gun with autoloader, which was modelled after the Russian 2A46. Its hull also resembled that of the T-72, though about 1.5 m longer. The tank had a welded turret with two vertically-faced front armour plates. The tank also featured an electro-optical countermeasures system consisting of a laser warning receiver (LWR) and an active laser self-defence weapon (LSDW), which could be employed to disrupt the laser/infrared guidance signal of incoming missiles, disable enemy observation optics, and damage enemy gunner’s eyesight.
The first variant of the ZTZ-99 did not enter production, and further modifications to the tank’s design continued for another few years, possibly indicating some design flaws requiring addressing. The final design for batch production (ZTZ-99 Phase-II), which was first unveiled in 2004, featured a slightly different hull design, a redesigned turret with a pair of arrow-shaped front armour modules, and explosive reactive armour (ERA) modules on the turret and hull. The tank was officially unveiled during the 2009 military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, exactly a decade after the debut of the pre-production variant.
NORINCO began to develop a further improved variant of the ZTZ-99 in the 2000s. The resulted ZTZ-99A (phase-III of the programme) was first seen in action during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) military exercise in 2014, and was then officially displayed during the the 2015 military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of WWII victory and the subsequent military parade in 2017 to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA. It is believed that the ZTZ-99A had replaced the ZTZ-99 production, with several hundred examples delivered.
The ZTZ-99A inherited the drivetrain of the ZTZ-99, but with its hull and turret almost completely redesigned. The powerplant was also said to have been improved over the original design. The ZTZ-99A was described by its manufacturer as ‘highly informationized’, with its mission equipment comparable to the M1A2 System Enhancement Package (M1A2SEP). The ZTZ-99A also features a new electro-optical countermeasures system on top of its turret, in place of the original LWR/LSDW system.
The ZTZ-99 is one of the most advanced MBT systems produced by China, a significant improvement to previous Chinese-made MBTs in protection, mobility and firepower. While the basic variant ZTZ-99 was largely comparable to the Russian T-72, the improved ZTZ-99A has reached the same level of technological sophistication and overall capability as the latest Russian and Western designs.
Despite its Western-style welded turret, the ZTZ-99 series are still under heavy Russian influence in design, the most obvious being the employment of autoloader to remove the human loader from the crew, thus reducing the number of crewmembers to 3. The smaller crew requires less internal space, which in turns results in a smaller external profile, lowering its chance of being detected by enemy on the battlefield.
However, this arrangement is not without its drawbacks. The Russian-style autoloader requires the use of separately-loaded ammunition rounds, with the projectiles and propellant cases stored separately inside the turret and crew compartment, which makes the tank highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire once being penetrated by enemy anti-tank weapon. In contrast, all Western MBTs employ the NATO-standard one-piece rounds, stored in a separate ammunition compartment with blowout panels that safely vent the explosion away from the crew compartment. The effectiveness of this arrangement in improving the crew’s survivability has been evidenced by the low casualties of U.S. tank crews during the 1990/91 Gulf War and the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom, and as a counterexample shown by the heavy losses of Russian tank crews during the 1990s Chechnya conflicts.
The ZTZ-99 has a conventional layout, with the driving compartment located at the front, the turret and crew compartment in the middle, and the engine compartment in the rear. The tank is operated by a three-man crew, with the driver seated in the middle of the hull and forward of the turret, the tank commander on the right side of the main gun, and the gunner on the left side of the main gun. The commander is also responsible for operating the 12.7-mm anti-aircraft machine gun (AAMG) mounted on his hatch cupola.
The drivetrain 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. Two headlights are located on the front of the hull. Two external fuel tanks can be carried on the back of the vehicle.
The hull and turret are protected by composite armour plating. The front amour on the turret of the basic production variant ZTZ-99 was equivalent to 700 mm steel against armour-piercing rounds, while on the improved ZTZ-99A this is estimated to have been increased to 800 to 900 mm. The frontal arc of the turret is fitted with arrow-shaped spaced armour modules, similar to those on the Leopard 2A5.
The rear half of the turret is surrounded by storage racks, which not only offer extra places for the crew to store their equipment but also provide additional protections against HEAT projectiles. Wheels and tracks are protected by rubber hull skirts. Additional protection is provided by the box-shaped FY series ERA modules fitted on the front of the hull and the turret’s rear storage racks. The ERA is said to be capable of defeating the new-generation tandem-warhead anti-tank guided missiles.
The crew compartment is fitted with a collective over-pressure NBC protection system and automatic fire-supressing system. There is a 5-barrelled smoke grenade launcher on either side of the turret. Additional smoke can be generated by injecting diesel fuel in to the engine’s exhaust.
Although NORINCO has already successfully tested an active protection system (APS) to be fitted on its export MBT designs, there is no evidence suggesting that the ZTZ-99 or ZTZ-99A has been fitted with such a system.
The main armament is a dual-way stabilised ZPT-98 125 mm/50-calibre smoothbore gun with autoloader, which is modelled after the Russian 2A46 but with increased chamber pressure for better performance. The gun is fitted with a fume extractor and thermal sleeve, and can be triggered by either electronic or manual control. The gun barrel can be replaced within 1 hour. Loading is mechanical with 41 rounds carried inside the turret and crew compartment. The gun can fire about 8 rounds per minute using autoloader and 1 to 2 rounds per minute with manual loading.
The tank gun fires separate-loading rounds, with the projectile and its semi-combustible propellant case stored separately, and then assembled by the autoloader before firing. Ammunitions include armour piercing fin stabilised discarding sabot (APFSDS), high explosive anti-tank (HEAT), and high explosive fragmentation (HE-FRAG).
The primary kinetic energy armour-piercing ammunition is the indigenous APFSDS round with a 25:1 length/calibre heavy tungsten alloy penetrator. The round has a muzzle velocity of 1,780 m/s and is capable of penetrating 800 to 900 mm steel armour at a distance of 2,000 m. A depleted uranium (DU) APFSDS round (30:1 length/calibre) is said to have also been developed, which can penetrate 960 mm of steel armour at a distance of 2,000 m.
Like its Russian counterpart, the ZPT-98 gun can also fire the 9M119 Refleks (NATO codename: AT-11 ‘Sniper’) anti-tank guided missile (or its Chinese copy). The missile uses a semi-automatic laser beam-riding guidance, and has an effective range of 100 m to 4,000 m. The missile system is intended to engage armoured vehicles as well as low-flying helicopters, at a range of up to 5 km. Four missile rounds are carried inside the vehicle.
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, 1,500 m range) mounted on the commander’s hatch cupola. On the improved ZTZ-99A, the 12.7-mm AAMG has been replaced by a QJC-02 14.5-mm AAMG (2,000 m range).
The driver is equipped with three observation periscopes, and the central periscope can be replaced by an image intensifying periscope (effective range 200 m) for night vision. The gunner has a roof-mounted, dual-axis stabilised viewer incorporating a day channel, a thermal imaging system (TIS) night vision, and a laser rangefinder.
The commander’s station is equipped with six periscopes to provide all round 360° view. A commander panoramic viewer manufactured by Jiangsu North Hugon Co., Ltd. is mounted on the turret roof in front of the commander’s hatch copula. The viewer provides the commander with an independent, dual-axis stabilised, day/night vision with a 360° view. The sight has been incorporated with a laser rangefinder, allowing him to search and engage targets directly.
The independent sights for the commander and gunner allows a ‘hunter-killer’ capability, where the commander can use his independent viewer to search for a new target while the gunner performs his aiming and firing tasks on a locked enemy target. Once the gunner completes the current firing task, the commander immediately overrides the gunner’s control handle and turns the turret towards the new target he has acquired. The commander then hands-off the new target to the gunner, who will finish the rest of the aiming and firing tasks, allowing the commander to start searching for another new target. When an enemy target with higher threat is identified, the commander can also override the gunner’s current firing task and make the turret and main gun to line up with his own line-of-sight immediately. This model of operation enables a much short reaction time (<9 seconds against a moving target when on the move) to enemy threats on the battlefield.
The thermal imaging system on the ZTZ-99 has a cooled detector using the signal processing in the element (SPRITE) technology. The thermal image is displayed in the eyepiece of the gunner’s sight together with the range measurement by the laser rangefinder. The thermal imager can continue working for up to 12 hours, and has a x11.4 magnification in the narrow field of view (5.6° x 3.8°) and x5 magnification in the wide field of view (12° x 8°). The maximum detection range to a tank-size target is 2,600 m in daytime and 2,750 m at night. The improved ZTZ-99A is fitted with the improved second-generation thermal imager using staring infrared focal plane arrays, which has a maximum effective range of 7 to 9 km and a detection range of 4,000 m in severe weather condition.
The ZTZ-99 has a computerised fire-control system which can be used to fire both conventional ammunitions and the semi-active laser-guidance 9M119 missile. The system consists of digital fire-control computer, laser rangefinder (Nd:YAG), control panel, wind sensor, gun-mount slope sensor, turret movement sensor, gyro-stabilisation, and gun control mechanism. Data from the rangefinder and sensors are fed directly into the fire-control computer, which automatically calculates the fire control solution.
Dual-axis stabilisation on both the main gun and the gunner’s sight ensures effective firing on the move. Firing test results showed that the tank has a first hit probability of over 85% against a target at 2000 m range. While the basic variant ZTZ-99 still relied on manual fed for target searching and aiming, the improved ZTZ-99A may use a more advanced fire-control system with the auto-tracking capability.
The ZTZ99 is equipped with HF/VHF radio as well as a laser communication device, which is mounted on the mast on the turret roof behind the commander hatch. The device can be used for line of sight (LOS) information transmission (encrypted text, data and voice) and IFF. The system is capable of 360 degrees traverse and -10° to 45° elevation, and has an effective range of 3,600 m.
The tank is also equipped with a battlefield information system terminal, with input from the onboard Beidou/GPS/GLONSS navigation and positioning receiver. The system provides the tank crew with greater situational awareness by sharing target information and location of friendly vehicles.
There is also a laser angle measurer for the dynamic muzzle reference system (bottom) and an identification of friend or foe (IFF) transceiver (top) mounted above the trunnion.
The ZTZ-99 was equipped with a unique electro-optical countermeasures system located on the turret roof behind the gunner’s hatch. The system consists of a laser warning receiver (LWR) and a box-shaped active laser self-defence weapon (LSDW), which was designed to use high-powered laser to attack the enemy weapon’s optics and gunner. Once the LWR detects that the tank is being illuminated by an enemy range-finding or weapon-guidance laser, the system warns the tank crew and the LSDW is employed against the source of the enemy laser. The LSDW can disrupt the laser/infrared guidance signal of the incoming enemy missile, disable the enemy observation optics (optical, night vision, thermal imager, laser rangefinder, etc.), and damage the eyesight of the enemy gunner. Photos showed that the LSDW can be elevated to a higher angle than the tank’s main gun, indicating that the engagement of attack helicopters is possible.
On the improved ZTZ-99A, the original box-shaped LSDW has been replaced by a new cylinder-shaped design, which is mounted on the turret root behind the gunner’s hatch copula.
The ZTZ-99 is powered by a liquid-cooled, double turbo-charged, V-block 12-cylinder 150HB diesel engine, developing 1,200 hp output at 2,600 rpm. The engine is said to have been developed from the German MTU 871 Ka-501 technology, though this cannot be confirmed. It is mated with a planetary gear box and semi-automatic transmission. With a combat weight of 50 tonnes, the ZTZ-99 has a power-to-weight ratio of 24 hp/t, giving a maximum road speed of 65 to 70 km/h and a maximum off-road speed of 46 km/h.
The powerplant on the ZTZ-99A is the improved 150HB-2, which is more compact and has a 90° arrangement to save space. This has resulted in some changes to the tank’s engine compartment, including an elevated roof and additional engine exhaust vents on the rear of the hull.
- PLA designation: ZTZ-99 (Type 99)
- Export designations: None
- Designer: NORINCO North Vehicle Research Institute (201 Institute)
- Manufacturer: NORINCO Inner Mongolia First Machinery Factory (617 Factory)
- Year of introduction: 1999
- Operators: PLA Ground Force
- Crew: 3
- Length (m): 11 (main gun pointing forward), or 8.597 (main gun pointing backward)
- Height (m): 2.37
- Width (m): 3.5
- Combat weight (t): 50 (ZTZ-99), or 55 (ZTZ-99A)
- Engine: 150HB diesel, liquid-cooled turbo-charged V12, 1,200 hp at 2,600 r/m
- Power-weight ratio (hp/t): 24 (ZTZ-99), 21.81 (ZTZ-99A)
- Transmission: Mechanical, planetary
- Track: Metallic, with removable rubber pads and rubber-tyred road wheels
- Suspension: Torsion bar with hydraulic shock absorbers
- Cruising range (km): 450 (road)
- Maximum speed (km/h): 65 to 70 (road), or 46 (off-road)
- Fording depth (m): 1.4 (without snorkel); 5 (with snorkel)
- Main armament: ZPT-98 125-mm/48-calibre smoothbore gun, 41 rounds
- Rate of fire (rounds/min): 8
- Gun elevation/depression (°): N/A
- Auxiliary weapon: Coaxial Type 86 7.62-mm machine gun (2,250 rounds); QJC-88 12.7-mm/50-calibre anti-aircraft machine gun (500 rounds, 1,500 m range) on ZTZ-99, or QJC-02 14.5-mm AAMG (2,000 m range) on ZTZ-99A; 2x 5-barrel smoke grenade launcher
- Fire-control: Computerised
- Night vision: 1st-generation thermal imager (ZTZ-99), or 2nd-generation thermal imager (ZTZ-99A)
- Radio: Receive/transmit, telephone, laser communication, and IFF
- NBC protection: Over-pressure collective
- Fire suppression: Automatic