After Mao Zedong and the communists took power in China in 1949 they obtained several hundred Soviet T-34/85s. These were used to equip a single mechanized division. After some delay the Chinese began to produce a copy designated the Type 58, but this was swiftly redundant with the appearance of the T-54. It is not clear if the Chinese ever had a full manufacturing capability for the T-34/85 like the Czechs and Poles, or simply conducted sub-assembly and refurbishments.
Initial Chinese perceptions of the utility of the tank were greatly influenced by their experiences in Korea and Indochina. In Korea the terrain had confined the North Korean tanks to the roads and they had proved vulnerable to enemy air attack. General Wei Guoqing, the chief Chinese advisor to the Viet Minh in Indochina, had witnessed how they had defeated the French without recourse to tanks. China’s most significant contribution to the Viet Minh’s war effort had been artillery and anti-aircraft guns, not tanks. The French had employed the M24 Chaffee light tank and the M4 Sherman medium tank which had given then little discernible strategic advantage.
Many senior Chinese generals saw little scope for the tank in the `people’s war’ again the capitalists. They were steeped in the tradition of the `human wave’ attack, as used during the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War. Besides, the neighbouring Soviet Union was a fellow communist state so there was no threat from that quarter – or so the Chinese thought.
In the 1950s Moscow supplied the People’s Republic of China with a number of T-54As. The Chinese subsequently built their own version, the 36-ton Type 59 MBT that appeared in late 1957. These were constructed by Factory N. 617 in Baotou in Chinese Inner Mongolia. The Chinese selected the location because it was a city built up around heavy industry, in particular steel. In addition being close to Mongolia meant that it was remote. Once Baotou became the site of a plutonium plant the Chinese had to disperse their tank-building facilities for fear of nuclear attack by America or the Soviet Union.
The early-model Type 59 looked almost identical to the T-54 but was not equipped with a main armament stabilizer or infra-red night vision equipment. Later models were fitted with a fume extractor similar to the T- 54A, an infra-red searchlight for the commander and gunner plus a larger one above the main gun, with a laser rangefinder just to the right of it. To arm the Type 59 China produced a copy of the D-10T tank gun but the Chinese designation for this weapon is not known.
Type 59 Main Battle Tank
Subsequent upgrades resulted in the Type 59-I and Type 59-II, the latter being armed with a 105mm rifled gun. Outwardly the Type 59-I was the same but featured a simplified fire-control system and laser rangefinder, plus low pressure engine alarm and an automatic fire extinguisher. Also the cupola door cover and safety door cover were fitted with a hydraulic booster to improve opening and closing. On the Type 59-II the barrel was fitted with a distinctive fume extractor and thermal sleeve. The Chinese produced up to 700 Type 59 a year by the 1970s, rising to a rate of about 1,000 a year by the early 1980s.
Type 59-I MBT
Factory No 617 carried out a number of improvements to the Type 59 ME which resulted in the Type 59-I. This featured hydraulic booster technology to improve the opening and closing mechanisms for the safety door cover and cupola door cover, installation of a simplified fire-control system, laser range-finder, engine low-pressure alarm and automatic fire extinguisher.
Type 59-II MBT
Further development resulted in the Type 59-II which has the 105 mm rifle tank gun that can fire APFSDS, APDS, HEAT and HESH ammunition, two axis stabilization system for the main armament, light spot fire-control system, automatic fire extinguishing and explosion suppression system, 580 hp diesel engine, new radios and communications system. The 105 mm rifled tank gun is similar to the Western L7 UK/M68 L71A and is fitted with a fume extractor and thermal sleeve. This has been referred to by US forces as the Model 1984 as this was the first year that was identified. The Chinese 105 mm rifled tank gun fires Chinese-developed ammunition and this gun is also installed in a number of other Chinese MBTs including the Type 79, Type 80 and Type 85. it is understood that the 105 mm rifled gun was originally supplied by Israel. The Type 59-II is also referred to as the Type 59B and has the industrial designation of the WZ120B. The 105 mm gun is called the Type 81. The earlier Type 59A was developed between 1985 and 1987 and believed to be fitted with a thermal sleeve for the 105 mm gun, improved armour, a new smoke generating system and an automatic fire detection and suppression system. NORINCO is now marketing a 105 mm laser-guided projectile.
Although Type 59-II is very successful design, the tank still rely on the West to supply parts. As a result, the Type 59-IIA was developed. By the end of 1984, the China First Tractor Factory and other production facilities began to develop a further upgrade to the Type 59-II. A prototype was completed by October 1985, featured an improved 105mm Type 83 gun, copied version from the Royal Ordnance L7, with a thermal sleeve, new domestic light spot fire control system with a 2-axis stabilizer, and composite armor. The automatic fire suppression system and automatic fire extinguishing devices were improved so that they could be used while generating smoke or firing the onboard smoke grenade launchers.
Type 59-III MBT
Chinese sources has mentioned a Type 59-II also referred to as the Type 59C.
The Type 59D1 (also known as WZ-120C) is an upgrade with explosive reactive armour, computerized stabilized fire-control system, the 105 mm gun of the Type 59-II, and night vision system.
Type 59D (also known as WZ-120D) is an upgrade with the Type 59D1, though it is strange. The Type 59D has a longer 105 mm gun, called Type 83A, or Type 94. The gun has a range of 2000 m, and may fire ATGMs out to 5500 m. A thermal sight is available.
An upgrade of the Type 59, featuring a redesigned turret and armor. It uses a turret similar to that of the Type 96A, a 125 mm gun, modern fire control systems, arrow-shaped armor, spaced armor, and possibly third-generation subsystems
Type 59 Armoured Recovery Vehicle
This consisted of a Type 59 with its turret removed. As it did not have a winch, it functioned purely as a towing vehicle. Armament was provided by a single 12.7mm machine gun. It is thought this ARV may have been a field modification rather than factory built.
NORINCO Type 59 retrofit package
NORINCO has offered an upgrade package for the Type 59 MBT. The original 520 hp diesel could be replaced by a new 730 hp diesel giving a much higher power-to-weight ratio and therefore greater acceleration on the battlefield. Other improvements include APFSDS-T ammunition for the 100 mm gun, rubber-bushed tracks, NBC system, friction shock-absorbers, main armament stabilization in both elevation and traverse and a new fire control system incorporating spot injection in the gunner’s sight.
NORINCO 120 mm T-54/Type 59 upgrade
China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO) has developed an upgrade package for the widely deployed Chinese Type 59 and Russian T-54/T-55 MBT that includes the replacement of the current 100 mm rifled tank gun by a 120 mm smoothbore gun. When fitted with this 120 mm smoothbore tank gun the Type 59 MBT is also referred to as the T-59 Kai.
As in the past, the exact origins of the Chinese 120 mm smoothbore is not known, except for the Western 105 mm rifled tank gun, all Chinese tank guns have been of Eastern design; these are the 100 mm rifled tank gun and more recent 125 mm smoothbore gun which is fed by an automatic loader.
The latter is fitted to the Type 90, Type 85-IIM and Type 85-III MBTs and has enabled the crew to be reduced to three: commander, gunner and driver.
Some years ago China did develop and place in production the 120 mm self-propelled anti-tank gun Type 89 which has a similar 120 mm smoothbore gun and the 120 mm weapon for the Type 59 upgrade is probably identical. The 120 mm self-propelled anti-tank gun is understood to have a bustle-mounted automatic loading system.
The 120 mm smoothbore gun is 6 m long and weighs 2,600 kg complete with breech mechanism. It is fitted with a fume extractor and thermal sleeve but has no muzzle reference system. To give an increase in barrel life the interior is chrome-plated.
As well as firing Western types of Armour-Piercing Fin Stabilised Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) ammunition, such as the German Rheinmetall DM23 and DM33 and HEAT multipurpose, it can also fire 120 mm ammunition developed by NORINCO.
Like the Western 120 mm smoothbore ammunition, this has a semi-combustible cartridge case, all that remains after firing is the stub. The penetrator has a respectable length-to-diameter rate of 25.2/1 and, complete with saddle weighs, 7.33 kg. When in flight the penetrator weighs 4.1 kg.
The NORINCO APFSDS round has a muzzle velocity of 1,660 m/s and is claimed to have a similar armour-penetration performance to NATO types of ammunition, for example around 550 mm of Rolled Homogenous Armour (RHA) at a range of 1,500 m. More recently another 120 mm round has been developed under the designation of the 120-II. This has a total weight of 22.5 kg, with the projectile weighing 7.4 kg. It has a muzzle velocity of 1,725 m/s and will penetrate 600 mm of RHA at 2,000 m.
Turret traverse is 360º with weapon elevation from -5 to +18º. A total of 28 rounds of 120 mm ammunition is carried compared to 34 rounds of 100 mm ammunition carried by the standard T-54/Type 59 MBT. To improve first-round hit probability a simplified fire-control system has been fitted which includes a laser range-finder. This enables the upgraded tank to engage moving targets when it is stationary quoted engagement times are around 7 seconds for a stationary target and 10 seconds for a moving target. Range, target horizontal angular speed and tilt angle of the 120 mm gun are input automatically, while charge temperature, ambient air temperature, muzzle velocity and crosswind are entered manually as required.
While the weapon is normally laid onto the target by the gunner, the commander can also take over, aim and fire if required. Various types of night vision equipment can be fitted as required by the user. This can be of the image intensification type or of the thermal type. The secondary armament remains the same and consists of a roof-mounted 12.7 mm machine gun, 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun and a 7.62 mm machine gun fixed in the glacis plate and operated by the driver.
Calibre: 120 mm Length: 6 m Weight: 2,600 kg Muzzle velocity: 1,660 m/s (APFSDS-T ammunition) Elevation: -5 to +18º Traverse: 360º
There are no known exports of this 120 mm smoothbore gun. Installed in 120 mm Type 89 self-propelled anti-tank gun. Recently China has also revealed an 8 x 8 armoured car/tank destroyer armed with a 120 mm smoothbore gun. Manufacturer Chinese state factories. It is also probably made under licence in Pakistan.
Mass 36 tonnes (35 long tons; 40 short tons)
Length 6.04 metres (19.8 ft) (hull)
Width 3.27 metres (10.7 ft)
Height 2.59 metres (8 ft 6 in)
Armor 20–203 mm
100 mm rifled gun
2 x Type 59T 7.62 mm coaxial machine gun, Type 54 12.7 mm air-defence machine gun
Engine Model 12150L V-12 liquid-cooled diesel 520 hp (390 kW)
Power/weight 14.44 hp/tonne
Suspension torsion bar
Operational range 450 km, 600 km with external tanks
Maximum speed 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph)