In military terms, your greatness in battle is measured against the power of your enemy — and China’s Type 99 MBT (Main Battle Tank) is no slouch.
Sporting a larger gun than the US M1 Abrams and most other NATO tanks, the Defense Intelligence Agency described the capabilities of Chinese armor in a 2018 report.
“The PLA is modernizing its armored units by fielding third-generation tanks with updated armor packages, larger-caliber cannons, improved fire-control systems, and advanced electronics and communications. The most capable of these tanks are the Type 96A and Type 99 main battle tank.”
Chinese weapons technology has in the past drawn heavily from other designs (often those of the Soviet Union), but much of China’s hardware is becoming more fully Chinese-made, according to a report by Caleb Larson at The National Interest.
This push towards a fully Chinese product has come a long way, although build quality and reliability may still be an issue, the report said.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense concurred, saying in 2019 that “China can produce ground weapon systems at or near world-class standards; however, quality deficiencies persist with some exported equipment, which is limiting China’s ability to broadly expand export markets.”
The Type 99 was designed and built by Norinco, a Chinese state-owned defense company. What they’ve been able to do with the Type 99 is impressive.
In contrast to the majority of NATO countries, which typically have 120 millimeter main guns, the Type 99 has a slightly larger 125 millimeter cannon with an autoloader. The autoloader is responsible for reducing the crew to three.
The Type 99 comes equipped with a 1,500-hp diesel engine. Because of its relatively low weight (the Type 99 weighs around 55 tons, whereas the heaviest M1 Abrams variant tips the scales at over 70 tons), the Type 99 enjoys good mobility, the report said.
Norinco also developed the improved Type 99A variant in the mid-2000s. Although both the 99 and 99A are quite similar, the turret armor was improved.
The Type 99 has composite panel armor as well as appliqué Explosive-Reactive armor (ERA) panels that could probably defeat tandem-charge warheads, the report said.
It also has an active protection system, called the GL5 Active Protection System.
We are told it can track incoming warheads and anti-tank missiles from 100 meters away and shoots two small interceptors at incoming missiles. Most models are equipped with a 12.7 mm heavy machine gun, and a coaxial 7.62 medium machine gun.
Could an unleashed Type 99 hold its own against a meaner-than-a-junkyard-dog M1 Abrams? It is a valid question.
The M1 Abrams is an American third-generation MBT named for General Creighton Abrams.
The Abrams’ Rheinmetal 120mm gun, equipped with M829 depleted-uranium rounds, can penetrate around 15-25% more armor — that much we do know.
The Abrams also uses a fourth crewmember to load the gun, which Americans argue is more reliable, offers a higher rate of fire and gives the tank a spare hand if one of the other crew members is incapacitated, the report said.
However, the space needed to accommodate a fourth crew member makes the M1 larger and heavier.
The Type 99 can fire anti-tank missiles from the gun tube, while the Abrams cannot. This could theoretically be useful for combat against low-flying helicopters.
It’s also the most nimble, able to sprint up to 50 mph on roads, vs 42 mph for the M1 Abrams, and, it has a greater range before refueling (300 miles vs. 24o miles), the report said.
On paper, the Type 99 is imposing, no question, while the Abrams has been exported to several foreign operators and has seen action.
Battle tested weapons always have the advantage, but this fight might come down to the better trained crew.
To quote legendary tank commander, Gen. George S. Patton: “Courage is fear holding on a minute longer.”