The Type-98, or T-98 Main Battle Tank (MBT) comprises the first of a new generation of heavy armour currently in development by the People's Republic of China. Now in full production and deployment, the T-98 and its variants represent a respectable and sophisticated adversary to any currently MBT currently deployed in the world theatre.
It has long been the assumption of Western intelligence agencies that China could only ever win a land-based conflict by attrition - mindlessly flinging millions of ill-equipped troops into the teeth of a technically superior but numerically inferior opponent's guns. China's vast population advantage, almost 1.7 billion at last count, lent credibility to the idea that losing troops was low amongst the concerns of China's strategists. This assessment was at one point a highly accurate one, as demonstrated during the events of the Korean War. China pledged to defend its smaller neighbour against a far superior US force, often equipping soldiers with early Soviet-era bolt-action rifles alone. As a result, though the conflict was never properly resolved, over one million PLA personnel lost their lives. In retrospect, this was attributed to the almost non-existent Chinese armoured force versus a US deployment strategy that relied heavily upon tanks and APCs.
Learning from the engagements in Korea and from the successes of Allied operations in the Gulf, China's military R&D has made a drastic shift towards rapid deployment and power projection capability. Historically, China has followed a deployment model and research strategy deeply reminiscent of the late-period Soviet Union. This resulted in the production of thousands of lower-quality armoured vehicles and jet fighters during the 70s and 80s in a rush to build a presentable defensive military, with designs like the J-5 Farmer fighter based on Soviet MiGs and MBTs lifted unaltered from stolen Soviet designs. Whilst this philosophy is acceptable for a purely defensive force, as the PLA is primarily intended to be, a modern offensive army demands flexibility and capability over vast numbers. The PLA has recently shown a tendency towards a more Western design and deployment scheme; a trend characterised by the Type-98.
The T-98 MBT brings the PLA firmly onto the international playing field, incorporating all modern advances in armour technology and adding a few unique innovations of its own. The T-98 was first seen in the October 1st military parade in 1999, the first in China since 1984. At the time little was known about the specifications of this new weapon, but as the years have passed a great deal of information has leaked through the bamboo curtain.
The T-98 looks remarkably similar to the older Russian T-72, a capable but ageing design intended to match the best MBTs in current service, the British Challenger II and the American M1A2 Abrams. The hull appears to be almost exactly the same as the T-72, although a little longer, but the major difference (and greatest departure from earlier PLA designs) is the 'box-like' turret, clearly inspired by Western tanks. The T-98 also sports rubber-padded treads, hull skirts to protect them and complete NBC warfare capability. It weighs in at 50 tons, and is powered by a new 1200 horsepower diesel engine; not as technologically advanced as NATO designs but just as capable on the battlefield. In general, the T-98 appears to be a very good match for any NATO platform currently operating. The stereotype of the Chinese military being a poor copy of the Russian technology base appears to be slowly falling away. Although still not as well armoured as Western designs, the T-98 does represent a great leap forward in battlefield technology for the PLA.
Although the secondary armament of the T-98 is still in a state of flux, with a wide variety of mounted machine guns (of which there are two per tank) appearing from all levels of PLA development, the primary armament is very much set. The T-98 is armed with a 125mm smoothbore gun, roughly equal in performance to the 120mm rifled ordinance used by the Abrams and Challenger designs. Interestingly the weapon is also fitted with a carousel autoloader which reduces the vehicle's crew compliment to three; this design is believed to originate from Russian weapons research. The most controversial aspect of this weapon, particularly among worried Western strategists, is the ammunition it will fire. Traditionally the PLA has used standard High Explosive Anti Tank (HEAT) warheads or similar, but it is becoming known that the T-98 will carry Depleted Uranium rounds as well. This form of ammunition, used until now exclusively by the US, has the unique property of being self-sharpening as it penetrates armour instead of impacting and deforming. The ammunition for the T-98 is apparently imported from Israel in the form of the M711 125mm APFSDS round, presumably in the interim until China can scale up their current 100mm DU round to fit the T-98 larger bore cannon. This ammunition could prove a decisive factor in any tank battle, as the effectiveness of DU rounds during the Gulf War demonstrated. The turret of the T-98 also offers hunter-killer style optics for both commander and gunner, ideal for night and low-light fighting. Laser rangefinding and target acquisition hardware is also visible atop the tank.
As far as any current intelligence can tell, the Chinese have yet to develop an equivalent to the joint US-UK designed 'Chobham' armour. Although this immediately puts the T-98 at a disadvantage against the heavy Abrams and the even better armoured Challenger II, it still possesses the most advanced armour of any PLA vehicle. The armour is known to be composite in nature, although the exact recipe is kept a strict secret. A great deal of effort has been undergone in the design of the T-98 to modernise the construction of the tank to better resist incoming fire, the most apparent being the addition of armoured hull skirts and a transition to a more box-like design philosophy. This is particularly evident on the turret, which is shaped to deflect incoming rounds off to the side and has substantially increased forward armour.
So far the T-98 has seemed a more or less standard MBT, capable but not outstanding. This was indeed the assessment made of its lesser relatives, the Pakistani Al-Khalid and the prototype T-90. However, the T-98 has two distinct innovative features that distinguish it amongst the ranks of other designs. Firstly, the turret of the T-98 contains huge 'armour cavities', basically big holes in the turret that armour blocks bolt into. The T-98 is the first tank to support this configuration, and it suggests a long-term deployment life for the tank. As the turrets are damaged, or newer armour technologies are invented, old blocks can be quickly switched in the field for newer ones. This could prove very useful if the PLA ever develop Chobham-equivalent armour, as the older tanks can rapidly be brought up to a presentable level of protection without expensive and time-consuming modifications.
The second and most startling new feature of the T-98 is the inclusion of a Laser Warning System coupled to a high-powered laser weapon. The weapon was first remarked upon during the 1999 parade, and has since been confirmed to match the profile of a known Chinese laser weapon, the ZM-87. It sits far back on the turret, next to the large glass dome of the LWS. Laser warning devices are used on many tanks, and are designed to detect when an enemy tank or spotter is painting the tank with a laser rangefinder. It is almost universal practice to first determine target range with a laser designator before firing, so the warning system is a very good way to determine if you are under attack. The Chinese system operates uniquely; if the tank is painted with a laser, the turret is then traversed to face the enemy unit and the laser weapon fired back at the aggressor. The weapon is unlike contemporary Russian systems such as the Drozd and Arena, which attempt to shoot down incoming projectiles, it instead reflects down through the targetting optics and blinds the gunner of the enemy tank. The laser first uses a low-power beam to locate the optical lenses of the enemy, then dramatically increases the beam gain directly along that path. The weapon is reportedly able to destroy/damage human eyesight at 2-3km, which increases to 5km when viewed through MBT combat optics. Out to 10km, the weapon can cause temporary flash-blindness which is enough to incapacitate a tank crew long enough to retaliate. This weapon is truly unique, and should not be confused with the electro-optical 'dazzlers' used by Iraqi tanks during the Gulf War, such devices were used to confuse the optical guidance circuitry of Allied anti-tank missiles.