The Buzz

China's Deadly Type 99 Tank vs. Russia's T-90 and America's M-1 Abrams: Who Wins?

China has a lot of tanks. Like, eight to nine thousand of them.

Who else would bother to maintain such a ridiculous number?

The United States. And Russia. (Note that such counts include vehicles in storage and reserve. The numbers for tanks in operational units are lower in every case).

However, the majority of Beijing’s tanks are old designs, particularly Type 59 and 69 tanks more or less directly copied from the 50s-era Soviet T-54 tank. Such is their profligacy that I once had the pleasure of bumping into one in a children’s playground in Tianjin serving the needs of the (young) people.

However, China’s top of the line tank, the Type 99, has commanded healthy respect from international observers, even though it has never been exported, nor used in combat. The reason is simple: the reported performance parameters are equal to many top Western designs, and the Type 99 also packs a few unique tricks of its own.

Today we’ll look at how the Type 99 stacks up to two important contemporaries, the American M1A2 Abrams and the Russian T-90A tank.

Before we get our hands greasy with the technical details, we should consider: does China even need tanks?

It’s a reasonable question to ask. China’s major military efforts have been directed towards the Pacific.

Some might ask, how likely are the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams tanks ever to clash with the Type 99?

To which one should consider: can either vehicle swim across the Pacific Ocean and exchange shots over Scarborough Shoal?

Kidding aside, it seems a pretty unlikely except in amphibious invasions scenarios fit for Operation Flashpoint computer games. On the other hand, Taiwan has expressed interest in purchasing Abrams tanks, and Australia operates 60 as well, so never say never.

However, the question is more relevant when we consider the Russian T-90. Moscow currently maintains good relations with Beijing, with which it shares a border, but the two powers are not close allies, having nearly come to war during the late 1960s.

Most importantly, Russia is selling its weapons to India and Vietnam—including systems which are quite clearly earmarked to oppose the Chinese military, such as the Brahmos cruise missile, and, well…over 1,000 T-90 tanks, many of which are deployed along its Himalayan border.

China fought a war with India in 1962 over that border, and another with Vietnam in 1979 to punish the nation for opposing the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. (Vietnam would like to order T-90s as well.)

Today, the Chinese military persists in seeing India—a potential future superpower—as a threat, and has extensively militarized their shared border and built roads allowing heavy military vehicles to pass through the steep mountains. China is also allied with Pakistan, which has repeatedly warred with India, and occasionally transfers military technology to it.

Lastly, one should consider the scenario of a potential civil war or government collapse in North Korea. What Beijing’s policy would actually be in such an event is the trillion dollar question, but one scenario would involve Chinese ground forces intervening to restore order in North Korea—leading to potential clashes with Korean troops.

So, even though an actual armed conflict would be unnecessary and vastly counterproductive for everyone involved—like most wars!—there are some contexts in which tank combat could occur on China’s borders, particularly verses Russian-made tanks.

Enough politics, onto the lumbering death machines!

First, to introduce the contenders…

The Abrams, of course, is the classic American design which devastated Soviet-made Iraqi armor in the 1991 Gulf War without losing a single tank to enemy fire. The Abrams isn’t exactly new, but the Army has continuously tweaked the ammunition, armor package, and sensors to keep it up to date.

The T-90 is Russia’s first post-Cold War tank. Though not quite a peer of the Abrams, it still boasts significant improvements in accuracy and protection, particularly in models equipped with later-generation explosive reactive armor. While Russia is introducing its revolutionary new T-14 tank, for now its 550 T-90As remain its frontline armored vehicle.

Moscow has developed the more advanced T-90AM but did not place it into full production.  However, 354 of the similar T-90MS export variant have been sold to India for deployment on its border with China. In total, India has over 1200 T-90s, while Algeria eventually intends to operate over 800.

China’s Type-99 combines a hull that closely resembles an elongated T-72 with a Western-style turret inspired in part by the German Leopard 2. First appearing as the Type 98 prototype tank in a National Day parade in a 1999, the vehicle was re-designated the Type 99 and entered service in 2001. At 57 tons, it comes in between the 70-ton Abrams and the 48-ton T-90 in terms of weight. Several upgrades, including the new Type 99A2 variant, boast advanced new technologies. Beijing fields nearly 500 Type 99s in sixteen armored battalions, and has produced 124 of the newer 99As so far. The type is not offered for export, though some of its technology is used in China’s VT4 export tank.