China’s Got a New Mountain Tank
The U.S. Army struggled for years to acquire a similar vehicle
The Chinese army appears to have fielded a brand-new light tank suitable for mountain warfare. New photos depict the diminutive fighting vehicle, which China has reportedly dubbed “ZTQ,” trundling across rough terrain.
The ZTQ, which Beijing apparently developed in order to help defend China’s western land border, is impressive in a lot of ways—and not the least because the U.S. Army, the world’s leading ground combat force, tried and failed for years to acquire a similar vehicle.
More and more, Beijing is matching American military capabilities with new warships, stealth fighters and combat helicopters. The ZTQ represents one military niche where China has actually exceeded the Pentagon’s own accomplishments.
We don’t know much about the ZTQ aside from what we can glean from the few photos, which have circulated in China’s popular Internet military forums for a few years now.
In the early photos, which first appeared in 2011, someone had taken pains to partially obscure the tanks’ turrets with camouflage netting, perhaps in order to mask the exact layout of the vehicles’ armor protection.
Many of those early pics depict the ZTQs—which seem to pack 105-millimeter main guns—on train cars, apparently heading for China’s mountainous Tibet region. This according to the very attentive China Defense Blog, which routinely reposts the most interesting semi-official photos of Chinese weaponry.
The heaviest main battle tanks can struggle on steep inclines. Moreover, the more complex—and thus heavy—that a tank is, the more it relies on a steady supply of fuel and parts, ideally via paved roads.
Of course, the less an armored vehicle weighs, the thinner its armor is likely to be. But a good commander can make up for a light tank’s lack of protection by avoiding direct confrontation with other tanks.
All that is to say that an uncomplicated light mountain tank can be pretty useful. For its own part, the U.S. Army once maintained a force of light tanks for jungle and airborne operations. The 17-ton M-551 Sheridan entered service in the 1960s and saw widespread use in Vietnam.
The Sheridan wasn’t perfect—its gun was awfully unreliable—but it was light enough to avoid getting stuck in the mud like other, heavier tanks. And cargo planes could drop it by parachute, lending paratroopers a degree of firepower they otherwise lacked.
The M-551 left service in 1996. The Army tinkered with a new light tank, the experimental XM-8, but abandoned it in favor of wheeled vehicles such as the Stryker. Wheels are great for traveling swiftly down a paved road, but less useful off-road than tracks are. The Americans don’t air-drop the bulky Strykers.
Today the Pentagon possesses arguably the world’s best heavy tank—the 70-ton M-1A2SEPv2—but doesn’t have a light tank equal to China’s new ZTQ. To be fair, America isn’t trying to defend a mountainous land border like China is.
But that’s not say the U.S. won’t ever need a light tank that can wage war in the mountains. It’s not hard to imagine American troops someday eyeing the ZTQ with envy.