#20 - Type 15 Light Tank (15式轻型坦克)
Mobility for the PLA’s Future Fights
Nicknamed Black Leopard (黑豹), the Type 15 (15式) is supposedly designed to operate in rough terrain and at high altitudes with more mobility than either the Type 96 or Type 99 Main Battle Tank [MBT] (99式主战坦克). What can we learn about how the PLA plans to employ the Type 15 from its design?
Mobility truly means lightweight. Since the Type 15 weighs ~35 tons compared to the ~73 tons of the US M1A2 Abrams SEPv3, it has many advantages. The Type 15 is able to cross more classifications of bridge than the Abrams platform, which requires extremely sturdy bridges and bridging equipment. The lighter weight makes it easier to achieve a higher horsepower to weight ratio, which is key to operating at high altitude. Lighter vehicles with tracks also have less ground pressure, meaning they are more difficult to get stuck in sand or mud.
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Historically, tanks deployed to the Asia Pacific have tended to be lighter because of two reasons. The first is shipboard mobility requirements for moving between islands with undeveloped or less than ideal infrastructure. During WWII, the M4 Sherman employed by US Army and US Marine formations weighed ~32 tons, while the Imperial Japanese Army fielded the Type 97 Chi-Ha (~15 tons). Compare this with the continental heavy tanks fighting in Europe at the time. The Germans fielded the Tiger I (~55 tons) and Tiger II (~70 tons), while the Russians fielded the KV-1 (~45 tons). Historically, the Asia Pacific theater favors mobility over tonnage.
The second reason is track gauge. During manufacturing, mobilization, and movement to the front or ports, railroads are critical to the transportation of armored formations. Russian track gauges (1520mm) are quite broad and the country is relatively flat, which means there are very few tunnels or other constraining factors on train loads. The US and China both employ standard gauge (1435mm) and have some restrictions due to railroad tunnels transiting the Rockies or mountain ranges in Guangdong and Sichuan provinces. Japan and Taiwan operate on much narrower gauge (1067mm) and feature numerous complications from mountainous terrain. As of 2023, the Asian industrial base is not as suitable for heavy tanks as Europe.
The Type 15 has tracks instead of wheels in order to master rough terrain. The much larger surface area of the track (versus a tire’s small contact patch), as well as track’s ability to bite into the ground offers superior movement over difficult terrain. While it is significantly less likely that the platform will get stuck in the mud, it also means that the Type 15 will tear apart any improved roads used in transit, especially if multiple tanks use the same road. This is not ideal for follow-on logistics operations.
This choice immediately tells us a lot about this platform. Cross-country mobility was prioritized over top speed and movement over paved or unimproved roads. This is logical, since it is likely that the Type 15 will be employed throughout the Himalayan region, which lacks robust infrastructure and features extremely challenging terrain and weather. Another likely region of employment for the Type 15 is Taiwan, which periodically experiences monsoons and occasional floods, both causing mudslides. A third possible area of employment for the platform is the Sino-Vietnamese border, covered by thick jungle and low mountains, with few high quality roads outside of the narrow coastal plain.
Both the Himalayas and Taiwan are extremely mountainous and the thin oxygen in these regions is a major engine performance killer.
For example, a US M1A2 Abrams has a horsepower to weight ratio (HPWR) of 20.5 HP per ton (73 US tons with an engine output of 1500 horsepower). In general, an engine loses about 3% of its horsepower for every 1000 ft of elevation. At 10,000 ft, this is roughly a 30% horsepower loss, which knocks down the M1A2’s HPWR to an anemic 14.3 HP per ton. This power loss significantly affects the vehicle's speed and mobility. Turbocharging, and to an extent supercharging, can ameliorate the loss in engine power, but then these forced induction systems must be modified to blow the thin mountain air harder to achieve a similar level of performance as at sea level.
Himalayan valley roads in the disputed western Aksai Chin area can reach a punishing 15,000 feet. That levies a ~45% power reduction, and that is just at the valley floor, not the high ground. Fighting across this region can easily occur at 9,000 ft and up. Deployments, border exercises, and militarized standoffs along the Sino-Indian Line of Actual Control (LAC) revealed capability gaps in India’s armored forces. The V-92S2F and V-92S2 engines that power India’s current T-90S/T-90SM Bhishma and T-72 main battle tanks are turbocharged, but as recently as 2020, all of these tank models struggled to operate in high mountain passes.
To remedy this situation, the Indian Army is pursuing the acquisition of new light tanks, India’s draft requirements for a future light tank can be found here. Of note is the minimum HPWR of 25HP to 1 ton, a max weight of 25 tons (quite light), and a preheater.
Another performance killer at elevation is the extreme cold. As the Indian Army discovered, lubricants must be swapped out for cold weather specialized mixtures and different, lower octane fuel must be burned at altitude. Vehicles need to be warmed often for subsystems not to break in the -45 degree celsius weather. The Type 15 was identified maneuvering throughout the region during border standoffs, so it is likely that the vehicle already has adaptations to handle these problems.
From Sea to Mountain Peak
In a Taiwan invasion scenario, the PLA faces three major obstacles. First, it needs to land forces on the island. Secondly, it needs to fight in urban terrain. Thirdly, it needs to fight across Taiwan’s high mountain ranges to consolidate control of the island. The Type 15 offers advantages in each of these phases.
When landing combat power, the Type 15’s small size and weight makes it much easier to land by amphibious vessel or drop from the air. About two Type 15 tanks can be landed for every one Type 99 main battle tank. When landing on the beach, the Type 15 has much lower ground pressure than other vehicles due to its tracks and light weight. This will enable it to more easily negotiate sand. Once landed and fighting for breakout from the beach or drop zone, the Type 15 is more able to traverse the numerous bridges of questionable load bearing capability across Taiwan.
In urban fighting, the Type 15 is smaller and more able to maneuver over streets and alleys. It will also cause much less destruction of asphalt roads than the heavy Type 99.
Finally, highway 14 in north central Taiwan reaches altitudes of 9500 ft, while highway 20 in south central reaches up to 8300 ft. These altitudes impose a roughly 27% power loss and the terrain can be highly restrictive. The Type 15 was designed with these limitations in mind.
Is it Really a Light Tank or a Next Generation Fighting Vehicle?
Discussion of the Type 15 in English news sources has generally been confined to the above points. In Chinese language media, some authors push back against the concept that the Type 15 is simply an improved light tank. This author (CN) points out that third generation tank development featured heavier and heavier tanks with more advanced armor and stronger main gun rounds to penetrate the new armor.
This development spiral may be a dead end. Cheaper guided missiles, drones, and precision guided munitions have revealed major weaknesses in tank development. This calls into question how future tanks will be employed. Is a future tank more like a WWII heavy tank used for shock attack and killing other tanks? Or will they be more like a battlefield orchestrator, using their advanced sensors and communications to control ground/air drones, provide situational awareness to infantry, and provide target quality data to higher headquarters and other shooters in the battlespace? The US and PRC have both likely decided that future tanks will be more like the latter.
In this employment philosophy, tanks don’t need super heavy armor. They will likely stay behind the front line while they control unmanned tanks which move forward with sensors and missiles. Indeed, the Type 15 already has an unmanned version. Drones can also be launched from the manned or unmanned tanks, which both have the power generation, communications bandwidth, and space to furnish high quality displays for drone ground control stations.
When manned tanks do take the risk of moving directly to the frontlines, they will be defended not by thick armor but by active protection systems (APS). These systems identify incoming projectiles (including missiles) and generally use hard-kill methods like smaller munitions to destroy incoming threats. It is likely that the PLA has already incorporated the GL5 APS into the Type 15.
With the Type 15 being both tracked and light, there is plenty of capacity for the platform to carry more weight. That weight is best used for these new protection systems, C4ISR systems, unmanned ground vehicle control stations, and other next generation capabilities.
Type 15 Questionable Attributes
The PLA chose a 105mm rifled gun as the main weapons system. This tells us that the developers did not prioritize maximum advantage in tank versus tank encounters.
The two best categories of anti-tank rounds do not fire well from a rifled barrel. This is because Armor Piercing Fin Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS) rounds need maximum muzzle velocity to increase force, and the rotational forces imparted by a rifled barrel decreases velocity. High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds employ a shaped charge to spit a molten metal jet upon contact with the target which is more powerful when perfectly aligned in one rod. Rotating forces cause the molten metal spike to widen, reducing penetration capability.
With rifling it would only excel at firing High Explosive Plastic (HEP) rounds. These rounds feature a steel nose cone designed to bury into concrete, earth, or other defensive structures. Once the nose cone buries, the rest of the round is composed of plastic explosives, which deform and widen to cover a larger surface area. The fuze is delayed to wait until after deformation, then explode. The effect is somewhat similar to placing a demo charge against the target. The outward explosion of the plastic causes spalling on the other side of the target/wall, sending large fragments of the target itself ricocheting around the inside of the target. Rifling is good for HEP for the same reason it is bad for HEAT - the rotating force causes the plastic explosive to spread out wider. HEP in general is quite effective supporting infantry in the assault.
The ultimate X factor is training. There is fragmentary evidence that PLA armored formations lack synthesis between equipment and tactics. This is likely both a doctrine and training gap. There will be little ability to employ the Type 15 as a next generation fighting vehicle if tank crews lack training, as seems to be the case. And Type 15 crews must be ready for the worst. Even if the US chooses not to deploy forces in a conflict over Taiwan, the Taiwanese Army has pushed for purchase orders of M1A2 tanks.
Taiwan is a space-restricted battlefield in general, especially for amphibious and airborne forces landing on small beachheads and drop zones. The Type 15 may be forced into short range encounters with Abrams tanks equipped with specialized depleted uranium APFSDS rounds as well as depleted uranium composite armor and APS. The Type 15’s rifled main gun rounds will likely be unable to knock out Abrams. PLA Army armor will need to rely on gun-launched anti-tank guided missile (GL-ATGM) volleys or supporting fires to suppress Taiwanese armored formations.
Consequences for Strategic Competition:
The US, India, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are engaged in an armored vehicle arms race with China and Russia. While the Ukraine War has confirmed that missiles and drones will be key to armored warfare, there are still too many unknowns. What is the future of gun-launched munitions in warfare? Should tanks stay behind the lines and employ forward sensors and munitions or be employed on the front line to engage enemy tanks and strongpoints? Are heavier or lighter tanks more effective?
With the fielding of the Type 15 and Type 99A, PLA armored forces almost certainly outclass their most likely adversaries in Taiwan and India (at least for now). However, they are most likely inferior to their most dangerous adversaries; the Korean K2, Japanese Type 10, and the US M1A2 Abrams. The PLA will be eyeing this capability gap as the US and China both move towards more advanced concepts for armored fighting vehicles.
This is a topic to monitor, because past operational advances in tank employment have caused major global strategic shifts. These advances include Germany’s armored doctrine culminating in the 1940 invasion of France and US armored doctrine culminating in the Battle of 73 Easting during the Gulf War. Similar advances could restore mobility to modern battlefields in the face of current stalemates like the Ukraine War or the Sino-Indian border standoff.
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