China is planning to fortify its border with India leveraging a large deployment of light tanks, a development that brings the possibility of heightening tensions between the two countries and prompting a clear Indian response.
An Indian newspaper, in response to reports that China would advance this deployment across a “Line of Actual Control” along the border, quotes an Indian military official saying that “Chinese light tanks won’t be of any match to the Indian T-72 and T-90 tanks in a war situation.”
The Indian Army has deployed more than 50,000 troops and its T-90 and T-72 tanks along the border region, supported by BMP-2 Infantry Combat Vehicles. The Indian force has also added artillery systems, transport tactical vehicles and additional long-range weapons.
Russian-built Indian T-72s and T-90s might be positioned to overmatch Chinese light tanks, however the development does raise some interesting questions about China’s new VT5 light tank, a platform which may present certain kinds of advanced mobility and firepower threats despite having a lighter weight.
The VT5, first revealed publicly by China during a military parade last year, is a roughly thirty-five-ton armored vehicle which does seem to incorporate certain similarities to the Army’s now-in-development Mobile Protected Firepower (MPF) vehicle.
For instance, the Chinese VT5 uses an under-armor firing technology quite similar to the U.S. Army’s Common Remotely Operated Weapons System. The VT5 uses reactive armor and is also engineered as an expeditionary vehicle intended to keep pace with faster-moving infantry vehicles and traverse rugged terrain.
The Chinese light tank fires a wide range of ammunition from a 105mm rifle gun with a “thermal sleeve and fume extractor” with a range of 3,000 meters, according to Army Recognition magazine, The rounds, the article explains, include Armor Piercing, High-Explosive Anti-Tank and High Explosive rounds, somewhat analogous to U.S. tanks and Army plans for the MPF.
Also, while the Indian paper may have primarily been addressing a light-tank threat, it may be that Chinese main battle tanks could also pose a significant threat to India along the border.
Therefore, alongside the VT5, Beijing’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) upgraded T99 Main Battle Tank is considered threatening as well, given that the upgraded T99A variant includes a thermal imaging scope, ballistic computer and weather measurement sensors” according to an Army Recognition essay from 2011. Interestingly, its technological maturation may be somewhat analogous to the U.S. Army’s Abrams Tank. The Abrams is, in most respects, an entirely different vehicle than when it first emerged as part of the Big 5 weapons programs in the 1980s.
The T99 first appeared more recently in the late 1990s, however much like the Abrams tank, it is entirely conceivable that upgrades have kept the platform current and highly lethal with electronic warfare, improved ammunition, longer-range sensors and advanced armor composites. The U.S. Army’s M1A2v4, for example, incorporates a high-resolution Forward Looking Infrared Sensor along with an autoloader and 120mm multi-purpose ammunition rounds
There have also been major armor improvements and applications over the years, along with more on-board power made possible by an Auxiliary Power Unit. The success of Abrams upgrades, and its combat performance has inspired the Army to believe that there will likely be a long-term requirement for “heavy armor” such as the Abrams tank. In short, while upgrades to the T99 may be a cause for some concern, there do not seem to be indications that the tank can outmatch the Abrams.
A 2020 assessment from GlobalFirepower estimates that the very large Chinese Army is comprised of as many as 2 million active-duty personnel and 510,000 in reserves, more than two-or-three times larger than the U.S. Army’s standing active force. The assessment also says the Chinese have 33,000 armored vehicles and 3,500 tanks.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.