Whereas many militaries are moving towards lighter and more mobile armoured vehicles, Asia’s infatuation with tanks shows no sign of wavering. In fact, the reverse is true, with several nations adopting main battle tanks (MBTs) for the first time in recent years.

28th Jan 2013

 Heavy armour


Byline: Gordon Arthur / Hong Kong

Whereas many militaries are moving towards lighter and more mobile armoured vehicles, Asia’s infatuation with tanks shows no sign of wavering. In fact, the reverse is true, with several nations adopting main battle tanks (MBTs) for the first time in recent years. Furthermore, three Asian countries – China, India and Pakistan – are expected to account for 60.38% of global tank production through till 2017. There is also considerable investment in new indigenous designs in Japan and South Korea. In terms of firepower, armour protection and mobility, the tank remains unchallenged as the weapon of choice - with combat operations in Afghanistan revealing it is a mistake to regard the MBT as irrelevant in modern warfare.

Indian subcontinent
This article offers a survey of MBTs in Asia and a logical place to start is the Subcontinent, where two nuclear-armed militaries rely heavily on conventional armoured formations. In any potential clash, Rajasthan’s desert plains would offer ideal terrain for tank-versus-tank combat. India relies mostly on Russian tank designs, while Pakistan depends mostly on Chinese technology.

State-owned Heavy Industries Taxila (HIT) makes Al-Zarrar and Al-Khalid MBTs in Pakistan. The 46-ton Al-Khalid entered service in 2001 and more than 300 are in Pakistan Army service. HIT manufactures around 20 Al-Khalids annually and the army is expected to eventually induct some 600 examples. A Ministry of Defence Procurement official told Defence Review Asia that an improved Al-Khalid I version is nearing induction, with key modifications including a more powerful diesel engine, better ammunition storage, enhanced fire control system (FCS), faster autoloader, Varta electro-optical jammer, improved command and control, and a Sagem thermal imager.

An Al-Khalid II is in early developmental stages as well, with redesigned turret, modular armour and 1,500hp power pack. Approximately 50 Chinese engineers are now in Pakistan working with HIT on various projects. The Al-Khalid is a license-built version of the Chinese MBT-2000, but HIT has been annoyed that China is marketing it without Pakistani permission. Thus, HIT signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Norinco at IDEAS 2012 in Karachi on 8 November regarding Al-Khalid exports. This MoU arranges for joint marketing, profit sharing and ongoing technology transfer. A HIT spokesman said potential Al-Khalid export markets are Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East. However, the company acknowledged sales in a competitive international arena are a very difficult prospect. HIT will not even try to market the less-capable Al-Zarrar as its technology is too outdated.

Across the border, the core of India’s tank fleet is some 1,900 T-72M1 Ajeya MBTs, supplemented by the more capable T-90S Bhishma. Project Rhino is upgrading the T-72, and one of the most important improvements is the first-time installation of a Thermal Imaging Standalone System (TISAS) for the FCS though there is no confirmation India ever selected a supplier. The first 250 tanks have begun their overhaul but not all are being upgraded to the same degree since the fleet will be replaced around 2020 anyway. However, a complete Combat-Improved Ajeya will include a new FCS, Tadiran radios, muzzle reference system, gyro-based navigation system, upgraded gun stabilisation, explosive reactive armour (ERA) package, laser warning system and PZL-Wola S-1000 1,000hp diesel engine.

Because of frustrating delays with the Arjun design, India filled a capability gap by inducting the T-90S that enjoys logistics commonality with the T-72. Early vehicles were procured from Russia, while it has been produced locally by the Heavy Vehicles Factory at Avadi since August 2009. India’s tanks include a Thales Catherine thermal sight, Israeli air-conditioning system and Russian Kaktus K-6 ERA. A total of 1,640 T-90 tanks could eventually be accepted into Indian Army service by 2020. In 2009, Saab’s LEDS-150 won a contract for 1,657 hard-kill active protection systems (APS) to be retrofitted. India has approved the deployment of six T-90 tank regiments to the Chinese border to beef up mountain infantry divisions, for which the army wants around 350 new T-90MS tanks. One brigade will deploy to Ladakh and another to Bengal, the first time Indian armoured formations have been sent to the border area. This is in response to a Chinese armoured division in Lanzhou and two armoured brigades in Chengdu.

While Russian-derived tanks make up the bulk of the fleet, India has also invested heavily in the indigenous Arjun. Indeed, the design from the state-run Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was hugely over budget and behind schedule before it was reluctantly accepted by the Indian Army in 2004. At that time the army agreed to take 124 tanks, but it was not till a comparison test against the T-90S in 2010 that it finally gained some respect. Two Arjun regiments are in service. Still needing improvements, the DRDO came up with the Arjun Mk.II possessing 93 modifications such as an infrared jammer, commander’s panoramic sight with night vision, ERA, air defence weapon, navigation system, improved tracking and the ability of its 120mm gun to fire Israel’s Laser Homing Attack (LAHAT) missile. Some 124 Arjun Mk.IIs were ordered on 9 August 2010 and the first should be introduced in 2014/15. Development trials of the Mk.II began in June 2012. The 66-ton Mk.II is heavier so it will be powered by an indigenous 1,500hp engine.

The DRDO was conducting feasibility studies on a 50-ton Future Main Battle Tank (FMBT) slated as a replacement for the T-72M1. However, recent reports suggest it has been binned because tank technology has not evolved quickly enough to require a new design. Instead, the DRDO will focus on newer Arjun versions (e.g. Mk.III) and one task will be to pare down its weight.

Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia has been undergoing something of a ‘domino effect’, with MBTs arriving for the first time in Malaysia in 2007, soon after in Singapore, and eventually in Indonesia this year. The Indonesian military is receiving a more substantial defence budget, raising the spectre of procuring MBTs for the first time. Media reports originally linked Indonesia to the purchase of 100 decommissioned Leopard 2A6s from the Netherlands, though Dutch lawmakers scuttled this deal.

Indonesia promptly turned to Germany, which was also selling off surplus stock. The deal under consideration, which awaits contract signature, should include 113 Leopard tanks (41 2A4, 62 2A4 Revolution, and ten recovery and bridge-layer vehicles). Confident the deal would go ahead, Rheinmetall showed a Leopard 2A4 Revolution at Indo Defence late last year. Christened Leopard-RI, this variant features an upgrade package that mimics the one on Singapore’s Leopards. The deal will also provide 50 Marder 1A3 IFVs for the army. Debate remains over whether the heavy Leopard 2A4 is suitable for an archipelago with an underdeveloped road network.

Taking advantage of a previous German selloff, Singapore procured 96 Leopard 2A4s, 30 of which were spare-parts donors. The 66 Leopard 2s were immediately put through an upgrade programme engineered by IBD, the resulting vehicle called the Leopard 2 SG. It is fitted with IBD’s Evolution suite that boasts fourth-generation Advanced Modular Armour Protection (AMAP), which employs steel alloy, aluminium-titanium alloy, nanometric steel, ceramic inserts and nano-ceramics. Steel slat armour is installed on the hull and turret rear and flanks while the hull bottom is reinforced against mines. The Evolution suite increases the tank’s weight from 55.15 tons to 60 tons. An APS from ADS Gesellschaft is likely to be part of Singapore’s installation, but it has not been seen in public so far. In light of this sales success, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW) established an Asia-Pacific hub in Singapore in February 2010. As well as MBTs, Singapore has inducted the supporting Leopard 2 Armoured Recovery Vehicle (LARV) and Armoured Vehicle-Launched Bridge (L2-AVLB).

The Malaysian Army led Southeast Asia’s rush to MBTs when it ordered 48 Bumar Labedy PT-91M Pendekar tanks from Poland. The first vehicles delivered in 2007 featured a Polish ERA package, Sagem SAVAN 15 FCS, new 1,000hp S-1000R engine and RENK ESM350M transmission. The integration of the Malaysian-specified engines and transmission caused initial difficulties but the 11th Royal Armoured Regiment was declared fully operational on 1 September 2010. While Malaysia would like to expand its tank fleet, this has been deferred indefinitely while other higher-priority items such as the AV-8 wheeled vehicle family are acquired.

Thailand’s tank fleet is varied and ageing, but it has looked to Ukraine to modernise its fleet. The government signed a US $240 million contract for 49 T-84 Oplot MBTs in September 2011, the T-84 being chosen ahead of the South Korean K1A1. Thai-Ukraine cooperation is at an all-time high considering the earlier purchase of BTR-3E1 8x8 armoured personnel carriers (APC). Thailand could possibly acquire up to 200 Oplots to allow retirement of the elderly M41A3.

East Asia
China is the other major Asian player in terms of new tank production. The zenith of Chinese designs is the Norinco ZTZ99. The ZTZ99 (Type 99) entered service in 2001. It features significant advances in technology and protection, and some 500 are estimated to be in service. It has an ERA suite, laser warning system and 125mm ZPT98 main gun. The newest variant is the ZTZ99A2 with improved ERA, modified rear hull and turret, new panoramic commander’s sight, millimetre-wave radar, upgraded FCS and digital battle management system (BMS). Another advance is an APS similar to the Russian Arena. The newest developmental project is the Type 99KM with modular APS, active laser defence system and larger-calibre gun able to fire next-generation kinetic ammunition.

China has never offered the ZTZ99 for export, but Norinco is developing and marketing the third-generation MBT-3000. This is an upgrade of the MBT-2000 and it could reach the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) next year. The MBT-3000 has a 125mm gun capable of firing missiles, and is powered by a 1,300hp turbo-diesel engine. Incidentally, Bangladesh will have acquired 44 MBT-2000 tanks and three recovery vehicles from China by 2014.

While the ZTZ99 represents the top end of elite PLA armoured divisions, the 42-ton Type 96 (ZTZ96) is the backbone. Production of this type began in 1997 and more than 1,500 are estimated to be in service, including reported deployments in Tibet. The most advanced variant is the 41.5-tonne ZTZ96G that boasts ERA modules. Of special note is a recently spotted Chinese light tank featuring a 105mm gun in a turret fitted on a lighter chassis.

The Korean Peninsular is another regional hotspot, with the North possessing some 3,500 MBTs. The North showed off the P’okpoong (‘Storm’ or M-2002) MBT at last year’s national parade in Pyongyang. Based on a heavily modified T-62 chassis, it employs Chinese and Russian technology and was designed to close the combat disparity between the older Chonma (1,000+ in service) and the South Korean K1. Production of the P’okpoong has only picked up in recent years (estimated at 250 in 2012). Newer examples have a 125mm gun and the P’okpoong III has ERA.

South Korea’s tank fleet relies on an estimated 1,500 Hyundai Rotem K1 and K1A1 with technical assistance from General Dynamics Land Systems. Hyundai Rotem has been developing an upgrade package to address the K1A1’s deficiencies, and it includes a BMS, GPS, identification friend-foe (IFF) system, and driver’s thermal viewer and camera. The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) has been testing this modernised K1A1. While K1A1 production for the ROKA has concluded, officials say the production line could reopen if a log-sought export order is finally received.

Hyundai Rotem also developed the 55-ton K2 Black Panther for the ROKA. Bearing a K1 familial look, it is a very sophisticated tank. South Korea wants 397 K2s but it is an expensive platform thanks to technological wizardry such as a 120mm L/55 main gun coupled to an autoloader, missile approach warning system (MAWS), BMS and indigenously designed soft-kill APS. It also fires an innovative high-trajectory, fire-and-forget KSTAM (Korean Smart Top-Attack Munition) anti-tank round. The K2’s introduction has been delayed till March 2014 because of mechanical problems with the locally developed Doosan DST 1,500hp engine and S&T Dynamics automatic transmission. Officials admit the first 100 production vehicles will use imported MTU-890 engines and RENK transmissions.

The K2 Product Improvement Program (PIP) to be released several years later will have features such as non-explosive reactive armour, upgraded suspension (including a high-resolution terrain-scanning system) and hard-kill APS. The 120mm armament may also be replaced by an electrothermal-chemical gun. Designers are also attempting to integrate an unmanned wheeled vehicle into the K2’s systems to give a remote scouting capacity.

The K2 will be marketed overseas as exports will help cover development costs, with target markets including South America, South Asia and the Middle East. South Korea has been giving technical assistance to Turkey’s Altay MBT programme. Approximately 20 Hyundai Rotem engineers are in Turkey helping Otokar with three aspects of the Altay’s development – its basic design, 120mm gun system and protection system. However, Turkey dissolved some parts of the contract due to programme delays.

Japan deployed its new Type 10 MBT in 2011/12, and its introduction is critical to the planned slashing of the tank fleet down to some 400 vehicles. The high-tech Type 10 is lighter than its predecessor, the Type 90, which was designed to take on Soviet armour. Some 341 Type 90 MBTs were made but its 50-ton weight precluded easy transportation by road or rail. The 44-ton Type 10 overcomes these difficulties, and the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries product will eventually allow full retirement of the Type 74. The Type 10 builds on lessons from counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare in Iraq. For example, it has a remotely controlled .50-cal machine gun atop the turret, while the modular armour package (particularly on the flanks and rear) can be adjusted to suit threat levels. In the turret is a 120mm L/44 smoothbore cannon that fires a new APFDS round with greater penetration. Its 1,200hp engine is connected to an innovative continuously variable transmission (CVT) that allows the vehicle to drive equally fast either forwards or backwards. BMS connects tanks to each other and to higher headquarters. Both Japanese and South Korean tanks feature hydropneumatic suspension, as the ability to kneel is extremely useful in rugged terrain since it give the gun more elevation and depression. Some 68 Type 10s should be in service by FY2015.

The last East Asian nation we will mention is Taiwan. This mountainous island does not represent ideal tank country, but the Republic of China Army (ROCA) operates a sizeable tank fleet. It installed M48 turrets onto M60A3 chassis to create the CM11 Brave Tiger. Around 450 of these modernised tanks are in service, each with a license-built 105mm M68A1 gun instead of the original 90mm weapon. They also have a modernised FCS with ballistic computer and Raytheon AN/VSG-2 Tank Thermal Sight (TTS). The country’s most advanced type is the M60A3 TTS procured in 1996-97. Whilst Taiwan is overdue for a new medium tank to replace M41s and M48s, the military needs to get its CM32 8x8 APC into service in significant numbers first. Considering the only country willing to sell military hardware is the USA, the single off-the-shelf candidate is the Abrams. The government is negotiating with the USA to purchase refurbished M1A1s, though critics argue this type is too heavy for Taiwan’s road and bridge infrastructure. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence said in 2011 it needed 200 new MBTs.


Defence Review Asia at a glance