ZTZ99 Main Battle Tank

ZTZ99

ZTZ98/99 History

ZTZ98 prototype

The development of a successor to the PLA’s obsolete Type 59 was put on a halt in the early 1970s following the cancellation of the unsuccessful Type 122 medium tank development programme. In February 1977, the PLA resumed the development of the new generation tank as a counter to the Soviet T-72, which was being fielded by the Soviet Army in the Far Eastern region. The PLA and the defence industry held a meeting in April 1978 to discuss the operational requirements. The meeting led to the decision to develop a 120mm gun-armed main battle tank (MBT) based on the German Leopard 2, with the Soviet Union T-72 being the intended target.

617 Factory (now Inner-Mongolia First Machinery Group Co., Ltd, FIRMACO) in Baotou, Inner Mongolia and 201 Institute (China North Vehicle Research Institute, NEVORI) in Beijing introduced a design concept prototype codenamed 1224 in March 1979. The tank featured a 120mm smoothbore gun, a hydro-mechanical transmission, torture bar suspension, and a German-made MB8V331tc41 diesel engine. The vehicle was mainly used to test the chassis and powerplant. Later an additional two concept prototypes 1226 and 1126F2 featuring Chinese-made 1,000hp diesel and gear box, torture bar suspension with hydraulic shock absorbers, and turret bustle were built and tested. All three prototypes had features borrowed from the Leopard 2.

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ZTZ98 prototype in field test (Chinese Internet)

However, the development of the new-generation 120mm gun-armed MBT faced numerous technical difficulties. Due to the slow progress in the development programme, the PLA decided in 1981 to choose the Type 80 MBT, a Type 59/69 derivation armed with a Western 105mm rifled gun and British fire-control system, as its second-generation MBT. The 120mm gun-armed MBT was to be realised in the future third-generation MBT programme instead.

Following the initial setback, the design team of the third-generation MBT soon split into two sides. One side supported a Soviet-style design based on the T-72, with a 125mm smoothbore gun and an autoloader. The other side of the argument supported a much more radical design featuring Merkava-style front-mounted engine, 120mm smoothbore gun, and high-power gas turbine or diesel engine. The PLA was in favour of the T-72-copy proposal partially due to its lower development risk and costs, and also partially due to the T-72’s association to older Soviet tanks such as T-54/55, which the PLA was still operating in the local production variant Type 59. China obtained few examples of the T-72 from the Middle East in the early 1980s, and they were used for analysis to help develop China’s own MBT.

The third-generation MBT programme entered engineering development phase in the mid-1980s with Zhu Yusheng appointed as the chief designer. China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), the parent company of 201 Institute and 617 Factory, was officially awarded the contract for the first phase of the third-generation MBT development in Spring 1989. An early prototype was built and tested in 1990. After some further evaluation, operational requirements for the third-generation MBT was increased from 40 items to 70 items. Four revised prototypes were produced by 617 Factory in 1992. In 1993, the PLA demanded that the MBT’s front armour protection should be increased from 600mm to 700mm.

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ZTZ98 in 1999 National Day military parade (Chinese Internet)

From 1994, few prototypes received extensive tests in various road and terrain conditions. Test results showed that the tank had met the operational requirements and was ready for design finalisation tests. In December 1996, a small number of the production prototype variant MBTs were handed over to the PLA for test and evaluation. In late 1996, four prototypes were sent to Heilongjiang Province in Northern China to test their performance under extreme low temperature conditions. The tests covered a total distance of 6,900km. In late 1997, four prototypes were tested again in Heilongjiang Province, covering a total travelling distance of 20,000km and firing over 200 rounds. The tests for design finalisation was completed in late 1998 and the tank was officially designated ZTZ98 (Type 98). A small number of the Type 98 was produced to participate the national day parade held in Beijing on 1 October 1999 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The Type 98 did not enter operational service with the PLA. A further improved variant featuring an arrow-shaped front add-on armour modules, explosive reaction armour, improved thermal imager, and a more powerful 1,500hp diesel engine was developed in 1999. This variant was designated ZTZ99 (Type 99), with the first batch of 40 examples delivered to the PLA in late 2001.

The ZTZ99 (also known as Type 99, industrial designation WZ123) manufactured by China Northern Industries Group Corporation (CNGC) is the most advanced main battle tank (MBT) fielded by the PLA. First entering the PLA service in late 2001, the ZTZ99 provides a significant improvement in firepower, mobility, and protection compared to older Chinese-made tanks. As a ‘high-end’ MBT, the ZTZ99 was only built in a small number (~200) due to high unit price (~US$1.9 Million in 1999). These tanks are currently deployed by two elite armour regiments in Beijing and Shenyang Military Region respectively. Some of the ZTZ99’s technologies have been used to upgrade the less expensive ZTZ96 MBT.

Design

The ZTZ99 was a direct result of the PLA’s third-generation MBT programme which first commenced in the late 1970s. An early prototype known as Type 90 featuring a Russian-style 125mm gun with autoloader was built and tested in early 1990. However, close observation of the 1990s Gulf War made the PLA realise that the tank was still no match to Western MBT designs such as the M1A1 and Challenger 2. A revised design known as Type 98 featuring a T-72-like hull was first revealed in October 1999 during the national day parade held in Beijing. A further improved variant known as ZTZ99 (originally known as Type 98G) featuring improved armour protection and a more powerful engine was introduced in 2000 and the tank entered service with the PLA in late 2001.

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ZTZ99 main battle tank in service with the PLA (Chinese Internet)

The ZTZ99 MBT shows a mixture of Russian and Western influence in its design and technology. The hull of the tank is very similar to that of the Russian T-72, though the angular welded turret is clearly of Western style. The 125mm smoothbore main gun and the autoloader, which allows the crew of the tank to be reduced to three man, are both believed to be of Soviet/Russian origin. The ZTZ99 carries the Russian 9M119 Refleks (NATO codename: AT-11 Sniper) anti-tank guided missile locally produced in China under license. The tank’s liquid-cooled, turbo-charged diesel engine was said to be based on the German technology.

The ZTZ99 is generally similar to the ZTZ98 (Type 98) MBT, which was briefly displayed during the parade on 1 October 1999 in Beijing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The ZTZ99 was incorporated with a number of improvements. The vertically faced front armour on the Type 98 turret was replaced by Leopard 2A5-style arrow-shaped spaced add-on armour modules. Externally-mounted explosive reaction armour (ERA) modules were added to the hull front and turret to provide additional protection. The original 1,200hp diesel engine used by the ZTZ98 was replaced by a 1,500hp diesel engine on the ZTZ99.

The hull of the ZTZ99 is very similar to that of the T-72, but is about one metre longer. The tank adopts a conventional layout, with the driving compartment at the front, the fighting compartment in the centre, and the engine compartment at the rear. The tank has a crew of three. The driver is seated centre in the hull and forward of the turret, while the gunner and tank commander occupy the turret. The tank commander is situated to the right of the main gun and the gunner sits on the left side. The tank commander is also responsible for operating the 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun mounted on turret roof of the turret. Tank crew is protected by a over-pressure collective NBC protection and a fully automatic fire suppression system.

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ZTZ99 main battle tank firing (Chinese Internet)

The turret and hull are of all-welded steel armour construction. The front arc on the turret can be added with a layer of composite armour, or arrow-shaped spaced add-on armour modules. The armour package is of modular design, enabling damaged sections to be replaced or upgrades installed throughout service life. With the arrow-shaped add-on armour modules on the turret front and explosive reactive armour (ERA) modules on the turret and hull, the tank’s front armour protection is equivalent to 1,000~1,200mm of steel armour.

Despite a Western-style welded turret in appearance, the inside layout of the ZTZ99’s turret is very much of Russian style. The ZTZ99 directly inherited the Russian 2A46M autoloader design, with the extra ammunitions placed inside the fighting compartment. This arrangement makes the tank highly vulnerable to catastrophic fire once being penetrated, a lesson learned in many conflicts in which T-72s and T-80s have participated. China has yet been able to produce a Western-style bustle autoloader for its MBT.

It has been long speculated that CNGC has been developing a further modified version of the ZTZ99, possibly known as ZTZ99G. A photo released by the Chinese official Xinhua News Agency in February 2008 revealed an improved variant of the ZTZ99 that features newly designed observation and active protection system (APS). The commander viewer of the new tank appears to be slightly larger than that of the basic variant ZTZ99, suggesting a possible independent commander thermal imaging viewer. The electro-optical countermeasures device on the original ZTZ99 has been replaced by a new design being placed at a higher position. The pole laser warning receiver on the basic variant ZTZ99 is also missing and possibly replaced by the small box-shape installed by the commander hatch.

ZTZ99 Systems

Armament

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The ZTZ99 uses separate loading projectiles which have semi-combustible cartridge case and sabot (Chinese Internet)

The ZTZ99’s main armament includes a dual-axis stabilised 125mm/50-calibre ZPT98 smoothbore gun, which is equipped with an autoloader, a thermal sleeve, and a fume extractor. The gun can be fired by either electronic or manual control. The gun barrel can be replaced within one hour. Loading is mechanical with 41 rounds carried inside the turret and vehicle hull. The gun can fire about 8 rounds per minute using autoloader and 1~2 rounds per minute with manual loading.

The tank gun fires separate loading projectiles which have semi-combustible cartridge case and sabot. Ammunition includes 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 for the 125mm tank gun is the APFSDS round with a 30:1 length/calibre heavy tungsten alloy penetrator. The round has a muzzle velocity of 1,780m/s and is capable of penetrating 850mm steel armour at a distance of 2,000m. A depleted uranium (DU) APFSDS round has also been developed, which can penetrate 960mm steel armour at a distance of 2,000m.

The ZTZ99 carries the Russian 9M119 Refleks (NATO codename: AT-11 Sniper) anti-tank guided missile, which is fired from the 125mm main gun. The missile uses a semi-automatic laser beam-riding guidance, and has an effective range of 100m to 4,000m. The missile system is intended to engage tanks fitted with ERA as well as low-flying air targets such as helicopters, at a range of up to 5km. Four missile rounds are carried inside the vehicle. China has been producing the 9M119 missile under license since the mid-1990s.

A 12.7mm antiaircraft machine gun is mounted on the commander’s cupola, with an elevation of -4°~75°. The machine gun is fitted with an optical sight. The maximum range against airborne target is 1,500m. The sustained rate of fire is 80~100rds/min. The tanks carries 300 rounds. A remotely operated, fixed-mount coaxial 7.62mm machine gun is fitted on the right side of the main gun, with 2,000 rounds.

The tank is fitted with two five-barrelled smoke grenade launchers, one on each side of the turret. Additional smoke can be generated by injecting diesel fuel in to the engine’s exhaust.

Observation

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Observation and ECM systems onboard the ZTZ99 (Chinese Internet)

The driver’s compartment of the ZTZ99 main battle tank (MBT) is equipped with three observation periscopes. The central periscope can be replaced by an image intensifying periscope (effective range 200m) for night vision. Two headlights are located on the front armour of the hull.

The commander has 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 copula. The viewer provides the commander with an independent, dual-axis stabilised, day/night vision with a 360° view. The sight also has a laser rangefinder, allowing him to search and engage targets directly. The gunner has a roof-mounted, dual-axis stabilised viewer with a day channel, a thermal imaging system (TIS), and a laser rangefinder.

While the gunner performs his aiming and firing tasks on a locked enemy target, the commander can use his independent viewer to search for a new target. Once the gunner complete 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, known as ‘hunter-killer’, 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 (TIS) on the Type 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 2,600m in daytime and 2,750m at night. Later variants of the Type 99 may be fitted with a more advanced second-generation thermal imager using staring infrared focal plane arrays, which has a maximum effective range of 7~9km and a detection range of 4,000m in severe weather condition.

Fire-Control

The Type 99 has a computerised fire-control system which can be used to fire both conventional ammunutions and the semi-active laser guidance 9M119 Refleks (AT-11 Sniper) anti-tank guided missile. The fire-control system consists of digital fire-control computer, laser rangefinder, control panel, wind sensor, gun mount slope sensor, turret movement sensor and gun control mechanism. Data from the rangefinder and sensors is fed directly into the fire-control computer, which can automatically calculate the fire control solution.

Dual axis stabilisation on both the tank gun and the gunner 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 2000m range. The Type 99’s fire control system still relies on manual fed for target searching and aiming. China has been developing a more advanced fire-control system with the auto-tracking capability since the early 1990s, but has yet been able to produce a system for operational use.

Although the fire-control system of the Type 99 is the most capable among Chinese-made tanks, a number issues have been identified for potential future improvements:

  • Replacing the current manually-fed fire-control with a fully auto-tracking fire-control
  • Replacing the current second-generation Nd:YAG laser rangefinder with a third-generation CO2 laser rangefinder for better safety and all-weather performance
  • Integrating various onboard electronic systems using a databus
  • Introducing new-generation electronic systems with modular design and reduced size

Electro-Optical Countermeasures

The ZTZ99 utilises a unique electro-optical countermeasures suite, which is located on the turret roof behind the gunner hatch. The system comprises a laser warning receiver (LWR) and an box-shape 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 enemy missile, disable the enemy observation optics (optical, night vision, thermal imager, laser rangefinder, etc.), and damage the eyesight of the enemy gunner. Photos of the Type 99 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.

Communications

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 identification of friend or foe (IFF). The system is capable of 360 degrees traverse and -10°~45° elevation, and has an effective range of 3,600m. Additionally, the tank can be fitted with a GPS/GLONSS receiver for navigation and positioning.

Propulsion

There are six dual rubber-tyred road wheels, two rubber-tyred track support rollers, a drive sprocket at the rear, and an idler at the front. The upper part of the track is protected by a light-weight rubber skirt. The engine is a liquid-cooled, turbocharged 1,500hp diesel based on the German MB871ka501 diesel technology. At its current battle weight of 54t, this gives a power-to-weight ratio of about 27.78. The maximum speed by road is 80km/h and 60km/h cross country. Acceleration from 0 to 32km/h takes 12 seconds. The transmission provides seven forward and one reverse gears.

Specifications

Type Tracked, armoured
Crew 3 (commander, gunner, driver)
Length 11m
Width 3.4m
Height 2.2m
Weight 54 tonnes
Engine 150HB liquid-cooled, turbocharged diesel
Engine power 1,500hp
Fuel capacity N/A
Transmission Mechanical, planetary
Suspension Torsion bar
Track Metallic, with removable rubber pads and rubber-tyred road wheels
Cruising range 400km, or 600km with external fuel tanks
Maximum speed (road) 80km/h
Maximum speed (off-road) 60km/h
Average cross-country 35~40km/h
Fording depth 5m with snorkel
Main weapon 125mm/51-calibre smoothbore gun (41 rounds) with autoloader
Auxiliary weapons 1X 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine gun (300 rounds)
1X 7.62mm coaxial machine gun (2,000 rounds)
Self-defence Optic-electronic countermeasures suite
Radio Receive/transmit, telephone, laser communications and IFF
NBC protection Collective, over-pressure
Fire suppression Automatic

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