As a nation that produced exceptionally poor tanks during World War II, Japan during the postwar period had quite a reputation to overcome. Wartime tanks such as the Type 97 “Chi-Ha” were a decade or more behind the rest of the world during a period of exceptionally quick tank development.
As Japan rebuilt industry and specialized in cars and trucks, it also built up a cottage tank industry to replace American M4A3E8 and M24 tanks donated to the Ground Self-Defense Force. The Type 61, Type 74, Type 90 and now the Type 10 tanks have all been credible designs more than capable of turning the tanks of Japan’s potential adversaries into smoldering scrap. Remarkably, each design bears little in common with previous versions.
Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute, the research and development arm of the Ministry of Defense, began developing the fourth-generation Type 10 main battle tank in 2002. The tank was designed to complement the heavier Type 90 tank and replace the thirty-year-old Type 74 outright.
The Type 10 was designed to be a smaller tank, and thus more tactically and strategically mobile. Much of Japan’s road infrastructure is built to accommodate smaller cars and trucks, and mountainous terrain often includes bridges with specific weight limitations. There are also laws that prohibit heavy vehicles—including GSDF tanks—from operating on most roads. The Type 10 was designed to be a smaller tank to comply with road laws and be small and light enough to cross some of the larger civilian vehicle bridges. This also makes the Type 10 more suitable for air and sea transport.
The Type 10 was designed to be a fast, highly mobile tank. It is powered by a four-stroke, eight-cylinder diesel engine generating 1,200 horsepower. The results in a horsepower-to-weight ration of twenty-seven horsepower per ton, making it speedy for a main battle tank. It is capable of forty-three miles per hour on roads and, thanks to a continuously variable transmission, can go just as fast in reverse.
The Type 10’s armor is described as an improvement over the Type 90. The base armor configuration gives the vehicle a weight of forty tons, or just 60 percent the weight of an M1 Abrams. Additional bolt-on armor raises the weight of the vehicle by another eight tons. The armor itself is a ceramic composite. The modular, replaceable nature of the armor and the high horsepower-to-weight ratio should help ensure that the Type 10’s armor can remain state-of-the-art while the antitank threat evolves.
In addition to armor, the tank is protected by a laser warning receiver that informs crews when the tank is painted by a laser-guided missile beam. The warning receiver is connected to a set of smoke dischargers that automatically enshroud the tank in a smokescreen whenever it detects an enemy laser.
The main armament is in the form of the 120-millimeter smoothbore gun developed by Japan Steel Works. The gun is fed by an automatic loader, which removes the need for a human loader. The L44 caliber gun is the same as that on the M1A2 Abrams and can be more safely traversed in forested terrain, but the gun position can accommodate a longer L55 caliber gun as a future upgrade. The tank has a 360-degree day-and-night sight, and front-facing sights for the commander and gunner.
Secondary armament for the Type 10 consists of a M2 .50 caliber heavy machine gun at the tank commander’s station in a remotely operated turret. A coaxial 7.62-millimeter machine gun is mounted at the base of the main gun and is operated by the gunner.
One of the more interesting aspects of the tank is a networking capability that allows tanks to form wireless networks on the battlefield. Little is known about this Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) system, but it can allegedly tie into the infantry-oriented networking and communications “Regiment Command Control System” for tank-infantry cooperation. The tank can even share data collected from the 360-degree sight on the RCCS.
Another feature worth noting is the active hydropneumatic suspension system. This allows for a smooth ride during cross-country travel, making firing while on the move much more accurate. It also allows the tank to adjust its stance like a low-rider car, raising the left side, right side, front or rear in order to mold itself to the local terrain. The suspension system can help the tank make full use of broken terrain to fight from a hull-down position, in which the tank uses terrain to minimize its profile while remaining capable of engaging targets to the front.
The Type 10 is an excellent overall design, but much of its early development period took place before the use of improvised explosive devices—especially those using shaped charges—became commonplace. The tank’s light weight also makes it likely it has only minimal protection against blasts from below.
Japan’s relaxation of its arms export ban means the Type 10 could be the first Japanese tank ever exported. Ultimately though the advantages it has over similar, time-tested vehicles such as the M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 are relatively minimal, and it is unlikely the Type 10 will have much overseas success. Regardless, Japan is set on producing its own tanks, so overseas success or not, Japan will continue to pay the premium for its own homegrown main battle tanks.
Kyle Mizokami is a defense and national security writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and the Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: Japanese Type 10 tank. Wikimedia Commons/@Toshinori baba