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By Charlie Gao,The National Interest
As China modernizes and develops its airborne corps, it appears to be basing it off the Russian or Soviet model. Chinese airborne troops are not part of the ground forces, but rather part of the air force (PLAAF). They are also considered to be a strategic asset, capable of rapidly deploying to crisis areas to protect Chinese interests.
The armored spine of these forces is the ZBD-03 airborne infantry fighting vehicle (AIFV). Like the Russian BMD series of AIFVs, the ZBD-03 is designed to be air-dropped from a transport aircraft for insertion behind the enemy front. But how good is the ZBD-03? How does it compare to Russia’s latest BMDs?
Unlike Russia, China’s airborne forces only recently started using AIFVs. When China formed its first airborne units in the 1950s with only infantry, the Soviets were fielding the ASU-57 airborne assault gun (America also fielded the M56 Scorpion airborne tank destroyer at this time). The Soviet Union followed this up with the heavier ASU-85 airborne assault gun.
When the IFV concept emerged in the 1960s, the Soviets fielded their first AIFV alongside their first IFV: the BMD-1, which shared its armament with its heavier grounded cousin, the BMP-1. These were followed by the BMD-2 and BMD-3 in Soviet service and the BMD-4 in Russian service. Russia also developed the BTR-D series of airborne fighting vehicles which had more internal space, but also could mount heavy weapons.
China arrived late into the airborne fighting vehicle scene. The military only began development of these vehicles in 1975: seven years after the BMD-1 had already entered production. Design proceeded through the 1970s, and by 1980 the first prototypes were given to airborne troops for testing.
The prototype WZ141 mounted two recoilless rifles and two HJ-73 (a variant of the Soviet 9M14 Malyutka) anti-tank guided missiles on top of those. However, political situations resulted in the canceling of the WZ141 project, and Chinese AIFV use would continue to stagnate until the 1990s.
In the 1990s further deteriorating relationships with Taiwan lead to renewed interest in airborne forces. China purchased a few BMD-3s in 1996 to study how they were made and test integrating armor into their forces.
Development of their own AIFV, the ZBD-03, began shortly afterward. In many ways, the ZBD-03 can be seen as a fairly antiquated design. The driver and commander positions are in the hull, with the commander sitting right behind the driver. The gunner is placed in a small turret behind the driver and gunner. The compartment for infantry is positioned behind the turret at the rear of the vehicle.
In contrast, the Russian BMD-3 and BMD-4 place the vehicle commander in the turret. The Soviets tried putting the vehicle commander in the hull behind the driver in the BMP-1 and found it far inferior to putting the commander in the turret, due to the limited ability to search for targets with the commander's periscope (as targets to the rear would be blocked by the turret itself). It also places size limitations on the size and thus the quality of optics for the commander—such as if the periscope or sighting devices for the commander are too large, it will interfere with the traverse of the gun.
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The armament of the ZBD-03 is far inferior to the BMD series. Chinese websites say that the 30mm autocannon mounted on the ZBD is analogous to the Russian 2A72. The 2A72 is considered to be inferior to the 2A42 autocannon it is derived from due to reduced accuracy resulting from the lack of muzzle brake and lightening of the barrel. All BMDs except the BMD-4 use a 2A42 as their primary armament. The BMD-4 uses the 2A72, but it is a secondary armament to the 2A70 100mm main gun. The ZBD only stores 350 rounds for its 30mm cannon to the BMD-3’s 860 rounds.
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It also only mounts the ancient HJ-73 ATGM (seen as recently as 2016 in exercises, the mount appears to have been removed in 2017 exercises). This ATGM moves incredibly slow compared to more modern designs and lacks penetration.
All Russian BMDs from the BMD-1P (fielded in 1977) forward mount superior ATGMs in the 9M111 “Fagot” and 9M113 “Konkurs” series. The latest BMD-4 can fire 9M117 ATGMs: laser-beam riding 100mm missiles which are practically space-age compared to the HJ-73.
Russian BMDs also possess far superior sighting and sensing equipment. The latest BMD in Russian service, the BMD-4M possesses one of the best sighting suites out of all Russian armor. Thermal sights are present for both the commander and gunner on the BMD-4M, along with the hunter-killer capability to allow it to engage armor effectively. No such capability is even remotely present on the ZBD-03.
While the ZBD-03 is far from useless, it is outclassed and outgunned by practically every BMD in Russian service. Its ancient ATGM is a major hindrance to its capability to fight modern armor, and its 30mm cannon appears to be subpar compared to foreign counterparts. The commander position in the hull limits the modernization potential of the vehicle. If China hopes to get serious about airborne operations, it may need to take a hard look at modernizing or replacing the ZBD-03.
Charlie Gao studied Political and Computer Science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.