2 February 2016

5 Unique Chinese Weapons (and Why They’ve Built Them)

By Leo Timm
January 30, 2016

China's new ZTQ light tank in Tibet. (Sina Military Network)

Chinese military hardware has a tendency to be dismissed as second-rate knockoffs of Soviet Cold War models and stolen Western tech, like the Soviet-built “Chinese” aircraft carrier, or the two Chinese fifth-generation jets under development that closely resemble the American F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

But with a burgeoning expenditure and a mind to expanding its influence at home and abroad, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been outfitting its forces with some interesting, if not as flashy, equipment and innovations that haven’t quite caught on in Western militaries.
The ZTQ ‘Mountain Tank’

The ZTQ light tank in Tibet. (Sina Military Network)

Not much is known about this Chinese light tank that appeared in 2011. From the few photos uploaded to military blogs and Chinese social media since then, it can be seen driving in desert or mountains or sitting on flat rail cars. It sports a Western-style turret and appears to be armed with a 105 millimeter main cannon.

The ZTQ appears to be intended as a fire support weapon to back up airborne troops and other forces without easy access to heavy weapons or the logistics needed to support them. This would make it perfect for Chinese forces stationed along the along the Indian border in the Himalaya mountains, or in the jungles bordering China’s Southeast Asian neighbors such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

Considering that the tanks currently deployed in the remote extremes of China are mostly the 50-year-old Type 59 (a derivative of the venerable Soviet T-55 model) or Type 62 light tank, the ZTQ would represent a significant upgrade.

Chinese ZTQ light tanks being transported. (Sina Weibo)

ZTQ light tanks in transport. (top81.cn)

Nuclear Missiles on Trucks

In the late Cold War, the U.S. military began work on a nuclear missile, the Midgetman, that was sized down to be launched from a large truck, called a Transporter-Erector-Launcher (TEL), which would have toughened the American arsenal against first strike in a hypothetical nuclear war.

Despite successful testing and development, the project was cancelled in 1992 due to concerns about the weapon’s continued utility after the end of the Cold War and the breakup of America’s main rival state, the Soviet Union.

Chinese military officials see things differently. While China’s reported nuclear arsenal is small, with just several hundred warheads compared to the several thousand deployed by Russia and the United States, it has been hard at work upgrading its missiles and launchers. China has long deployed nuclear missiles that can reach North America on TEL trucks, and the technology has only been improving. Last February, the Chinese military released a photo of a new TEL that may be able to carry the DF-31B, a missile with as many as ten MIRV (multiple independent reentry vehicle) warheads.

A new, potentially off-road missile launch truck made by the Tai’an Corporation that could be for the new “DF-31B” ICBM reportedly tested in September 2014. (People’s Liberation Army Pictoral)

According to Richard Fischer, Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, the new TEL is noteworthy because it is an all-terrain, off-road vehicle. This means the Chinese rocket forces have more options (and camouflage) when choosing a launch site.

A Full-Fledged ‘Coast Guard’ Warship

Last year, reports revealed a pair of 10,000-ton plus coast guard cutters under construction in Shanghai’s Jiangnan shipyard. Designated so far only by a number, the two known ships in this class are over twice as large as the largest of American coast guard ships.

The ships, which appear to be lightly armed, would instead be able of ferrying vast amounts of equipment, supplies, and people across long distances. The vessels could also carry Z-8 multi-role helicopters capable of moving men and material very quickly without the need of existing ports.

One of the new Chinese coast guard cutters under construction (Sina Weibo)

One of the new Chinese coast guard cutters under construction (Sina Weibo)

If fully outfitted to the estimated 15,000 tons, the new vessels would be 50 percent heavier than the U.S. Navy’s Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser, which displaces about 9,800 tons.

But perhaps the more relevant comparison is to the Shikishima class ships of the Japanese Coast Guard. Displacing 9,000 tons each, these patrol ships are capable of reaching Europe without resupply.

A 450-ton Hovercraft

While we’re on the subject of large ships, the Soviet-built Zubr-class hovercraft comes to mind. While China did not design this beast, they have acquired this beast for their own fleet.

A picture taken on September 26, 2013, shows a Russian Navy Zubr class hovercraft (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)

Displacing 450 tons and measuring nearly 200 feet in length, the Zubr is three times larger than the next best thing, the U.S. Navy’s LCAC. It can carry three tanks to the LCAC’s one, eight armored personnel carriers, or 375 fully-armed troops.

The vast size and speed of the Zubr—it is capable of moving across choppy water at 60 miles per hour—combined with heavy weaponry, including turrets armed with artillery rockets and surface-to-air missiles, makes it the ideal vessel for solving a very Chinese problem: how to manage a landing on and sustain an invasion of Taiwan. The swamp-like beaches of the island’s western shores are unconducive to traditional landings, but would pose no object for the air cushions of military hovercrafts.

China has already bought two Zubr hovercraft from Ukraine, along with the license to produce more domestically.

A picture taken on September 26, 2013, shows a Russian Navy Zubr class hovercraft (Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles

Despite rapid expansions in the last couple decades, for the foreseeable future the Chinese navy is doomed to lag far behind that of the United States, which operates multiple fleets worldwide.

As the Soviets before them, the Chinese seek to level the playing field with an abundance of long-range anti-ship missiles which would be used to overwhelm Western fleets. But this strategy has its downside: with the improvement in anti-air weapons, even a swarm of supersonic missiles might not be enough to sink an American carrier.

DF-26 anti-ship missiles on parade in Beijing in September 2015 (Sina Military Network)

This is where the anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) comes in. Though the feat of targeting a moving object such a ship with a ballistic missile is no small one, defense against ballistic missiles, because of their speed and trajectory, is no lesser challenge.

Development on a weapon began in the 1970s as a Soviet project, the R-27K, but it was never deployed because of a treaty agreement limiting the number of ballistic missiles.

Subject to no such limitations, China has been actively pursuing the concept of being able to smash multi-billion dollar enemy vessels from above. In 2010, it was announced that the world’s first ASBM, the DF-21D, had come online. It has a range of 900 miles and contains multiple warheads that can be maneuvered in flight to pursue moving targets. According to the United States Naval Institute, one hit is enough to destroy an aircraft carrier.

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