The Type 99 is by far the most nimble of the bunch, able to sprint up to 50 miles per hour on roads. The M1 Abrams and the T-90MS used by India follow behind at 42 and 45 miles per hour respectively, while the T-90A trails at 35. However, the gas-guzzling turbine-powered M1A2 can only travel 240 miles before requiring refueling, while both the Type 99 and T-90 have ranges over 300 miles. Furthermore, the M1’s greater weight makes it the hardest to transport and deploy.
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).
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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.