Video Report: Army Research Lab Develops AI-Enabled Robot Tanks
By Mark Episkopos, The National Interest
China’s collection of over 7,000 tanks, while numerically impressive, is inflated by increasingly outdated iterations of 1950’s Soviet T-series tanks like the T-54. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has taken active measures over the past several decades to renew their aging lineup, culminating with the Type 99 that can give competing U.S. and Russian flagship tanks a run for their money.
But as the Type 99 evolved in the direction of greater firepower and expanded armaments suite with the recent Type 99A, the need became apparent for a lighter, mobile modern tank that can effectively operate in China’s plateaus, forests, and water-heavy regions.
Enter the Type 15. Sporadic sightings of the light tank were previously reported by Chinese citizens, but its existence is now formally confirmed by the Chinese Defense Ministry.
“We’re following the overall plan and focusing on key equipment – we have made major achievements in our equipment build-up. As for the Type 15 light tank, according to my information, it has been handed over to our troops,” The South China Morning Post (SCMP) quoted defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian as saying.
The Type 15 has a 1,000 horsepower engine, about twice that of the Type 62 tank it is replacing. It boasts a 105 mm gun capable of firing armor-piercing shells and guided missiles, as opposed to the 85 mm gun of its Type 62 predecessor. Military expert Song Zhongping put the difference bluntly to the SCMP: "The Type 62 tank is lagging behind. The Type 15 tank has much better protection capability and maneuverability.”
The Type 15 is less powerful but also significantly lighter than the Type 99, at 35 tons versus the 58 tons of its larger cousin. Its lighter frame is accompanied by a hydro-pneumatic suspension system. Also found in Japan’s Type 10 tank, it dynamically adjusts ground clearance to maximize maneuverability and combat efficacy on uneven terrain.
Having established the Type 15’s design purpose and catalog of improvements, the pressing question becomes where and when the PLA plans to deploy it. The Type 15 was already making headlines in 2017, during the China-India border standoff in the Tibet region. A major political impetus for the Type 15 was the need for a tank that can operate in the high-altitude Tibetan hills, in preparation for a prospective resumption of Sino-Indian hostilities.
Being that the Type 15 is specifically adapted for navigating sea-based obstacles, we can also expect to see it in maritime theaters. In point of fact, China has been actively bolstering its military presence around the disputed zones off its southern coast. The Type 15 is a prime contender to modernize and consolidate the PLA Navy’s armour division by replacing the aging Type 59 and Type 63 tanks still in service.
An almost-identical iteration of the Type 15, the VT-5, will be making it to export markets. It will face stiff competition from Japan’s aforementioned Type 10, especially after the lifting of Tokyo’s self-imposed arms export ban. The Type 10 weighs a tad more at 40 tons, but boasts a slightly greater horsepower of 1,200. The Type 10 also offers an indigenously-produced gun compatible both with standard 120 mm NATO ammunition as well as proprietary armor-piercing fin-stabilized discarding sabot (APFSDS) rounds.
Still, the two are close enough in performance that their appeal will be heavily shaped by prices and external diplomatic forces. While China has a track record of leveraging its remarkable economies of scale to edge out its arms competitors, it remains to be seen if the Type 15’s export variant will fall into this trend.
Mark Episkopos is a frequent contributor to The National Interest and serves as research assistant at the Center for the National Interest. Mark is also a PhD student in History at American University. This article first appeared last year.