China Readying its Expeditionary Forces For Multi-Domain Operations, Fielding Heavier Tanks

Foreign Affairs

 Hong Kong: An official Chinese TV channel film recently  showed members of the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) examining new ZTQ-15 light tanks after an exercise. The surprising revelation that Chinese marines are bulking up on heavier armoured vehicles is a very important development, media reports said.

Indeed, this is the first time the PLANMC has owned genuine tanks – as opposed to armour like ZBD-05/ZTD-05 amphibious vehicles or ZTL-11 8×8 tank destroyers. As the PLA’s premier amphibious and expeditionary force, the marine corps is obviously eyeing a new and broader range of missions.

Firstly, what is a ZTQ-15 (also known as Type 15) tank? It is the PLA ground force’s newest tank, first fielded by the 123rd Combined Arms Brigade in the Southern Theatre Command, and then in Tibet and most recently in an unidentified Xinjiang unit. At 36 tonnes, this light tank is 9.2 m long. Crewed by three soldiers, it is armed with a 105 mm rifled main gun that utilizes an automatic loader. The weapon can even fire a laser-guided projectile with a 5km range. A 1,000 hp diesel engine powers it to speeds of 70 km/h and it has a 450km range. A modular protection package consisting of composite armour and explosive reactive tiles can be added too.

The PLA is believed to have started inducting the Norinco-built ZTQ-15 in late 2018. A variant for export is the VT5, first shown in 2016. The first VT5 export customer is Bangladesh, with deliveries of an estimated 44 tanks imminent. Returning to June’s CCTV footage, it showed ZTQ-15 tanks loaded aboard railcars ready for transport. The report did not indicate the location, nor which unit. Significantly, the CCTV said a PLANMC exercise had recently been conducted in a high-altitude area, indicating either Tibet or Xinjiang.

A critical snippet of information in the report revealed that a marine infantry battalion had been re-equipped with these tanks as a combined-arms battalion. This strongly suggests that the PLANMC is readying itself to better conduct multi-domain operations. Indeed, the thrust of the CCTV clip was how the PLANMC is modernizing to become a more-rounded combined-arms force rather than merely an amphibious one.

The PLANMC currently has six combat brigades: the 1st Marine Brigade (Zhanjiang, Guangdong); 2nd Marine Brigade (Zhanjiang, Guangdong); 3rd Marine Brigade (Jieyang, Guangdong); 4th Marine Brigade (Quanzhou, Fujian); 5th Marine Brigade (Qingdao, Shandong); and 6th Marine Brigade (Linyi, Shandong). If one of these brigades already has a battalion fielding Type 15 tanks, it is entirely possible the same will eventually occur in every marine brigade.

This restructuring of the PLANMC into a multi-domain force commenced in 2017. The corps has already received 8×8 armoured vehicles in recent years, which permit rapid road movement to far-flung destinations. Furthermore, such vehicles can be more easily transported by aircraft or ship. However, issuing heavier tanks is a further major capability boost for the marines.

Now that Chinese marines are fielding heavier tanks, a role previously reserved for ground forces, the lines between ground forces and PLANMC seem to have become more blurred. The bottom line is that it reflects a Chinese desire to project heavier forces in an expeditionary manner to overseas locations.

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