In July 2014, the China Daily website quoted a senior military officer who divulged that the PLA had begun developing an unmanned armoured vehicle. A month earlier, state-owned defence contractor, China North Industries Group Corp, had established China's first research center dedicated to developing unmanned ground vehicles.
“Unmanned ground vehicles will play a very important role in future ground combat. Realising that, we have begun to explore how to refit our armoured vehicles into unmanned ones,” said Major General Xu Hang in 2014. The PLA general headed the Beijing-based People's Liberation Army Academy of Armoured Forces Engineering, which has spearheaded the development of the unmanned tank prototype.
Highlighting China’s formidable military design and development capability, that project has apparently achieved its first goal – to drive a tank by remote control. While driverless technologies are being developed by civilian corportions like Google, an unmanned tank would present purely military challenges as well -- like networking it with surveillance devices, detecting enemy targets, aiming its powerful main gun, and firing it accurately.
“A Type-59 tank converted to remote control could have multiple training and battlefield purposes. In training it could be used as a moving target for tank and anti-tank gunners, adding more realism to target practice. In battle, it could be used in formations as a decoy to distract and confuse enemy reconnaissance and surveillance”, says Dennis Blasko, a former US military intelligence officer who is a leading expert on the PLA.
However, using it as a battlefield weapons would require the integration of remote target acquisition and fire control technologies – a more technologically challenging task – says Blasko.
Even if only in the future, the prospect of hordes of remotely operated tanks is worrying for Indian defence planners who, over the preceding decade, have beefed up defences along the Sino-Indian border by moving up two brigades of tanks, each with about 150 T-72 tanks.
A tank is a heavy, armoured vehicle that can move off roads since it has tracks rather than wheels. Its thick steel skin protects its crew – usually a driver, gunner, radio operator and commander – from enemy bullets. Its heavy gun, which can fire armour piercing ammunition to destroy enemy tanks or high explosive shells against infantry out in the open, has earned it the sobriquet “the bully of the battlefield”.
Ever since the tank first appeared – in 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, in World War I – weapons designers have sought to counter the threat it poses. Over the decades, the development of the armour-piercing projectile, shoulder-fired rocket propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles and the attack helicopter; were all initially hailed as the death-knell of the main battle tank.
Yet, all these panaceas were countered by improvements in the tank’s mobility, firepower, lethality and advances in armour protection. Now, some – including the Chinese – believe the answer to the tank is the unmanned tank.
The PLA could potentially field unmanned tanks in the thousands. The one that appeared on CCTV was a Type 59, of which some 5,000 were in service till the turn of the century, when the PLA began replacing them with the more modern Type 69 and Type 79.
The English-language Chinese daily, Global Times, quoted Liu Qingshan, the chief editor of Tank and Armoured Vehicle, as saying that the Type 59 tank fleet is still well maintained.
However, a future Chinese unmanned tank is unlikely to be based on the T-59 platform. A tank’s key drawback is the weight of its armour, which impedes its speed and mobility. Because the armour is mainly needed to protect the crew, removing humans from the equation permits a much more thinly armoured (and lighter) tank.
The future unmanned tank, therefore, is likely to be thinly protected, destructive in firepower and heavily networked through digital networks with airborne and ground-based surveillance devices that provides the tank fleet with an all-round view of the battlefield.
In India, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is still focusing on developing the next-generation manned tank. The PLA however is looking further ahead.