China’s Newest Tank Gets Off on the Wrong Foot

August 15, 2016 Updated: August 16, 2016

A few months after details of a new Chinese light tank designed for mountainous terrain emerged in official channels, the state-run newspaper China Daily pronounced the tank the new pillar of the Chinese regime’s tank fleet. This most recent addition to China’s arsenal appears to have some of the same quality control issues as other high-tech Chinese armaments.

The vehicle in question is the Type 96B, also known as the ZTZ-96B, a variant of the Type 96A main battle tank that began service with the Chinese army in the 1990s. The Type 96B, like many other land-based weapons systems, was developed by the national defense industry’s Norinco company.

Photos uploaded to a Chinese military forum show the Type 96B in transport. (via
Photos uploaded to a Chinese military forum show the Type 96B in transport. (via

While cosmetically similar to its predecessor, the B model is reportedly endowed with several key upgrades. A social media post by Norinco on WeChat says that the tank has a modernized 125-millimeter cannon, new fire control, and a much more powerful engine with an accompanying transmission gear, the Diplomat reported.

In July, Jane’s 360, a military news site, reported that the newly-unveiled tank was set to compete in this year’s Tank Biathlon in Alabino, Russia. This mechanized sporting event is the best-publicized in Russia’s International Army Games, which includes contestants from Russia, China, India, and several other countries.

But during the competitions, a series of photos show the Type 96B, one of several examples China has sent to Alabino, encountering what looks like unexpected mechanical trouble. According to Defence Blog, the tank lost a road wheel and the Chinese team had to replace the vehicle.

The Type 96B breaking down. (via
The Type 96B breaking down. (via

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operates thousands of tanks, but the majority are obsolete locally-produced or modified variants of the Soviet T-54/55 main battle tank—the design is 1949 vintage and began development in the last days of World War II.

As the result of an expanding armaments program, the PLA has added about 2,000 Type 96A tanks to its armored forces, as well as several hundred of the much more expensive but higher-performance Type 99. In 2014, images began circulating on the Chinese internet showing a new Chinese light tank, popularly known as the ZTQ, being deployed in Tibet.

According to The Diplomat, the A model was hampered in last year’s Tank Biathlon because of its underpowered 780-horsepower engine, a weakness corrected by the Type 96B, which sports a 1200-hp engine. 

Russian T-72 tanks in the 2016 Tank Biathlon. (Russian Ministry of Defense)
T-72 tanks in the 2016 Tank Biathlon. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

But despite the PLA’s growing budget, its equipment is marred by industrial deficiency and corruption, especially in high-tech fields such as avionics, where’s China’s best Soviet-designed jet fighters must struggle with locally produced, failure-prone engines or make do with aging Russian-supplied engines.

In 2013, a PLA commander lost over half of the vehicles in his tank battalion to mechanical failure as they attempted a 9-day march during a training exercise in Inner Mongolia.