While the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led Western nations to focus primarily on wheeled AFVs and MRAPs and placing less emphasis on Main Battle Tanks (MBT), in Asia emphasis still continue to be placed on traditional heavy armour. In addition the development of wheeled AFVs are also ongoing simultaneously in this part of the world. In some ways this reflects the fact that in Asia a conventional conflict between massed forces is still considered a likely possibility - hence the importance for numerous armies to continue improving and increasing their MBT fleets.
At the same time - with Asia’s increasing urbanization and it’s rapidly expanding and improved roads and highways - the assessment that MBTs are unsuitable for the terrain has receded. Seven countries in the area, namely: China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, India and Pakistan have their own indigenous programs. In the case of India, Pakistan and North Korea, these countries have also purchase tanks from foreign manufacturers in addition to their indigenous designs entering service. Furthermore, both Singapore and Malaysia have recently purchased and introduced into service new MBTs, while Cambodia has also added additional tanks to supplement its current fleet.
As such the sheer numbers and the frequency of use of MBTs in Asia is likely to increase further - particularly with European countries downsizing their MBT fleets and offering the surplus for sale at a cheaper price than new tanks. Both Singapore and Cambodia’s respective recent MBT purchases consist of second hand tanks from Europe and it is likely that down the line other Asian countries are also likely to purchase European surplus vehicles. The current major developments in regard to MBTs in Asia can be seen in the following countries:
By far the largest operator of tanks in Asia, China has an estimated 7,000+ vehicles in service. However this large fleet and the PLA’s continuous efforts to modernize its force has meant that only a small percentage of the vehicles are of recent design, with major efforts having to be made to upgrade older vehicles. Despite the PLA’s own requirements, China is a significant exporter of MBTs - particularly to Pakistan and North Korea - though it has also been selling to Africa and seeking new markets in South America. The PLA’s most advanced tank is the Type-99 - though only 200 are in service due to its cost, estimated to be USD2.5 million a unit. The turret has distinctive arrowhead armour design similar to the German Leopard 2 MBTs. The Type 99 has yet to be offered for export. At the same time the PLA has been looking at ways to upgrade the tank’s firepower beyond its current 125mm smoothbore gun and a 140mm smoothbore gun has been said to have been trialed.
The PLA’s other modern MBT is the Type 96 which is now the standard frontline vehicle with an estimated 1500 in service. The older type 85/88s make up around a thousand of the PLA’s fleet - while the bulk of it, totaling around 5000 MBTs are the Types 59/69/79/80s, all of which draw upon the Russian 1950s T-54 design, and most of which carry a 105mm rifled gun.
The Indian Army has a fleet of more than 3000 MBTs, of which 2400 are T-72M1 MBT and 650 T-90S. Also 124 indigenous Arjun MBTs are in service with an additional 124 surprisingly ordered in May this year. The indigenous Arjun has been a source of contention with the high cost of the program along with the fact that much of the tank’s components are imported. The Indian army has been reluctant to place orders for it, despite the fact that the Indian Defense Research and Development Organization has stated that an overall purchase of 500 Arjuns would rationalise the tank's enormous development costs. Instead the Army is continuing to place its emphasis on the T-90 - of which eventually 1650 will be in service. However the Arjun has been said to have outperformed the T-90 in trials held earlier this year, prompting the 124 tanks order. Some 2400 T-72Ms are operated by the Indian Army - though they lack night fighting capability. A planned program to fit these tanks with thermal imaging fire control systems is ongoing, though a system has yet to be selected.
Pakistan sources its tank fleet largely from China in the form of both direct purchase and joint development. The Al-Khalid tank, based on the Chinese MBT-2000 design is poised to be the backbone of the Pakistan tank fleet. Around 400 Al-Khalid Is are already in service with the follow-on Al-Khalid 2 MBT now starting to join the pool of heavy armour. The Pakistani army also fields 320 Ukrainian built T-80UDs while the remainder of its fleet includes 300 Chinese type 69 and 400 type 85 - both built under licence - and 400 Al-Zarrars which are a rebuilt and upgraded Chinese Type 59 MBTs.
With the continuous threat of a land invasion by North Korea, it is not surprising that South Korea has developed an impressive level of self-reliance and has a large tank fleet totaling an estimated 2,300 MBTs. The mainstay of the country’s heavy armour since 1985 has been the indigenous Hyundai Rotem K1 with a 105mm rifled gun and its successor the K1A1 with 120mm smoothbore gun. An estimated 1,500 tanks in total have been produced, including 484 K1A1s, the last of which was manufactured in 2009.
The focus of the RoKA is now on fielding the next-generation K2 Black Panther. This MBT offers several improvements over the K1A1, including a 120 mm L55 smoothbore gun providing increased range, and a computerised fire-control system which features a Samsung/Thales dual-axis day/thermal sighting system. This has an integrated eyesafe laser rangefinder for the commander and gunner, and a commander's roof-mounted panoramic sight that enables hunter-killer target engagements, as well as an automatic target tracking system to improve first round hit probability. A defensive aids suite that includes laser warning receivers, radar warning receivers and the Russian Arena-E hard-kill active protection system is also present in the design.
South Korea is expected to field at least 500 K2s, though production has been delayed, with the 2010 budget for the programme reduced from KRW88.2 billion (USD77.9 million) to KRW38.2 billion. Defence Minister Kim Tae-young explained to Parliament in June 2010 that a one-year delay would occur - though a 100 tank production run by 2014 would nevertheless be met. Still, the development of the K2 has bought Hyundai Rotem a spinoff success with an interesting strategic partnership with Turkey to develop a new MBT for that country’s requirements.
Some 4,500 MBTs are estimated to be in service with the North Korean army - though given the country’s secretive nature, this number is highly speculative. The North Koreans field the Soviet T-62 (est 800 tanks) and T-55s (est. 2000 tanks), Chinese Type 59s (est. 1000). In addition there are believed to be five versions of the indigenous Ch'ŏnma-ho (Flying Horse) design - based on the Russian T-62 – with estimates of the number in service varying from 1,400 to 2000. The newer P'okpoong (Storm) is entering service and appears to be also based on the T-62. An estimated 100-300 of these tanks are said to be in the field and it is expected that their numbers will grow to at least 1,400.
Given that the United States is its primary arms supplier, it is not surprising that Taiwan’s fleet of close to 1230 MBTs are all of US designs, with the most modern being the M60A3 (480 tanks). The 105mm CM-11 (450) and CM-12 (250) and M48A3 (50) round out Taiwan’s tank fleet with the CM-11 being a combination of a modified M-48A2 turret with an M-60 hull and the CM-12 being M48A3 production models receiving the same fire control and weapons upgrades as the CM-11. Cuts in the Taiwan defence budgets have delayed the Army’s plan to acquire new tanks - though it is likely that once the program begins, given Taiwan’s closeness with the United States, the M1 Abrams is likely to be the choice of MBT for Taiwan.
Japan operates a fleet of 550 105mm armed Type 74 MBTs, introduced in 1975 and 340 120mm armed Type 90s introduced in 1990. The new Type 10 MBTs will slowly enter service beginning 2011 with 13 tanks with an estimated 16 more planned for 2012. Although planned to replace the Type 74s and Type 90s, the future of the Type 10 is somewhat uncertain given that, like many countries, Japan faces financial pressure on its defence budget.
Singapore has been said to have maintained some 100 modified Centurion MBTs, known as the Tempest, though existence of these vehicles has been the subject of much debate. This is because Singapore refuses to confirm or deny the existence of them along with the fact that no photos exist of these mysterious creatures. The Tempests has often been said to have been based in Taiwan where Singapore conducts training. Singapore has now introduced into service the Leopard 2A4 MBTs, formerly used by the German Army and of which 96 were purchased - 66 for operational use and 30 as spares. The Singaporeans have yet to give any indications of follow-on buys though Germany naturally is keen to sell more and they have been heavily marketing to Singapore for an additional purchase. Still no word has emerged yet of any follow-on buy. The Singaporean Army has been extensively deploying its Leopards in various exercises overseas, as land space in city-state prevents large scale armour and mechanized exercises being carried out.
The Malaysian Army formally launched its sole tank regiment, 11th Kor Armor Diraja (Royal Armor Corps), equipped with the Polish-made Bumar-Labedy PT-91M ‘Pendekar’ Main Battle Tanks operational in a ceremony on 1st September. Malaysia ordered 48 PT-91M MBTs under a MYR1.4 billion (USD375 million) contract signed in Kuala Lumpur on 11 April 2003 by the Malaysian Ministry of Defence and Poland's Bumar, with the 11th KAD receiving it’s first tanks in February 2008.
The PT-91M has met a mixed reception from the Malaysians. Officially the Army is happy with the tanks but the programme had been subject to various delays owing to the difficulties in integrating the many subsystem changes and modifications to the standard PT-91 design in line with Malaysian requirements such as the addition of a Sagem fire control system. The Malaysian army has recently stated that a second tank regiment would not be required - though in the past it was expected that the number of tanks in Malaysian service would grow to at least 2-3 regiments. This projected growth would be in line with the Army’s overall plans to transform two of its four existing Divisions into combine armed formations featuring an equal amount of tanks, AFVs and artillery.
The 3rd Division has largely fulfilled this goal with the 2nd Division slated to follow soon. This would thus necessitate an additional regiment of tanks though – as mentioned above - the Army now has stated one tank regiment is sufficient for Malaysia. The change position may be due to the fact that the Army has not have been entirely happy with the PT-91M but do not wish to complicate it’s logistics and support arrangements by fielding a second regiment of tanks equipped with a different MBT type. The Malaysian army is currently looking to field an armoured brigade but the proposed structure would instead incorporate - in place of a second tank regiment - a cavalry regiment equipped with the indigenous 8x8 AV-8 AFV currently under development which the army hopes to field in late 2012.
Cambodia recently took delivery of 50 T-55 tanks, surplus from an unnamed Eastern Europe country to add to its 170 or so MBTs in service (said to be around 150 T-55s and 20 Type 59s). The recent purchase appears to be prompted by continuing tensions around the Thai-Cambodian border and the Cambodians have been mindful of the fact that their forces are outgunned by the Thais and have been thus seeking to increase their military capabilities.
Thailand, Bangladesh and Vietnam are three other countries in Asia which have substantial MBT fleets. However financial constraints have largely prevent these countries from making new purchases - though Bangladesh has been said to have acquired some 50 Type 80 tanks from China. Indonesia operates a small number of light tanks, variously of French, British and Russian origin.
Thailand is looking to upgrade it’s M60A3 fleet of 178 tanks and 105 M48A5s though a combination of financial constraints, the army’s focus with the Southern Thailand insurgency and civil disturbances has resulted in this programme yet to materialized. In mid-2003 the army revealed a controversial plan to acquire 170 aged Swiss Pz68 heavy tanks, 24 recovery vehicles and 12 bridge-laying tanks from decommissioned stocks at a bargain price of USD49 million - much less than upgrading even part of the existing RTA tank fleet. However no further word has emerged of this plan and it is likely that this deal is unlikely to occur. Vietnam is also thinking of replacing its cold war era Soviet tank fleet - though with the Vietnamese concerns over Chinese claims in the South China sea, procurement of naval and air assets have been prioritized. This means that new tanks remain low on the list of priorities.
Finally, Australia operates a modest fleet of 59 refurbished M1A1 Abrams, which have replaced the ageing fleet of Leopard 1s.