A key enabler for the PLA Army has been a consistent investment in information systems, especially over the last 15 years. The PLA has led China’s massive investment in its national fibre-optic cable network, which has enabled the widespread use of broadband computer networks for command, logistics and training purposes. Computer networks are complemented by use of satellite communications as well has high-frequency radio. There is also a greater trend toward combining video, voice and data, not only at high-command levels, but also for the individual soldier. Initial personal video-voice-data headsets were introduced for select Special Forces units in 2002 and these are being improved. Some Special Forces ha ve been depicted using gun-mounted video camera/helmet projectors to enable non-line-of-sight gun use. There is some evidence that the PLA Army is following US and European ‘digital soldier’ developments and is going to apply similar concepts tailored to its needs.
The PLA Army is also investing in information superiority, to include new information warfare and intelligence capabilities. The PLA hopes to apply “People’s War” strategies to information warfare by mobilising many units from its growing computer technology sector, which will specialise in computer network attack. At the tactical level there is also a greater investment in ELINT and SIGINT capabilities, as well as fixed and mobile radar that can support artillery, SAM/AAA and infantry units.
The 2004 report on Chinese military power by the US Department of Defense (DoD) to Congress provided details on improvements in the country’s command and control systems. The PLA continues to upgrade its communication capabilities, which eventually will rival the most modern civil networks. This is not a new development as command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence (C4I) modernisation and automation have been a PLA priority for nearly 25 years. According to the DoD report China is steadily improving its C4I capabilities by using commercial information technologies to advance ambitious plans to create a high-technology electronic environment capable of supporting a modern military in both peace and wartime.
Army aviation is also being steadily built up, with nine regiments and four special units now in place. At least two GAs have helicopter regiments while every MR has at least one helicopter regiment. Army aviation regiments vary in content. In early 2006 Chinese television covered an exercise that involved the combined use of Mi-17 and Z-8A transport helicopters, with WZ-9 and WZ-9G attack helicopters providing fire support. In March 2006, the PLA Daily reported that a dedicated attack helicopter regiment was working up in the Jinan MR. It has been expected that the PLA would eventually build a far greater army aviation capability. In December 2010, the first active WZ-10s appeared in service with the 5th Aviation Regiment, 1st Group Army, Nanjing Military Region. This marks a substantial step forward for the Chinese dedicated combat helicopter industry. A whole suite of new dedicated weapons platforms were devised for the WZ-10 including the HJ-10 anti-tank missile and a new 25mm nose mounted chain gun — a first for Chinese helicopters. Thus far around 11 have been counted.
Utility and Transport Helicopters
However, while PLA helicopters played a key role in rescue operations for the 12 May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, there was also widespread dissatisfaction that the PLA was not able to devote more helicopters to this crisis. Subsequently a higher priority has been accorded to the development of new medium and heavy transport helicopters. In early 2006, 24 Mi-17I were ordered from the Ude Ulan factory, while in previous years the PLA has made repeated orders of the Mi-17V5/7 series from the Kazan factory. By 2007 there was a Russian-Chinese joint venture in Chengdu to repair Mi-17 helicopters amid reports of a Chinese intention to co-produce this helicopter, but by early May 2008 Russian reports noted this venture would produce 20 kit-based Mi-17s a year, with the capacity to increase to 80 annually. It is not clear whether the PLA will continue to purchase Mi-17s from Russia and the Russian decision to enter into the kit assembly arrangement is likely an attempt to remain competitive with Europe’s export of helicopter technology toChina. The centerpiece of China-European co-operation is a six-tonne helicopter programme, designated theEC 175 by Eurocopter and the Z-15 by HAI. The design resembles the AgustaWestland AW139. Development of the Z-15 started in 2006, a prototype flew in December 2009 and deliveries were expected in 2011. In late 2007, a European source insisted to Jane’s that it would not be produced for the PLA; however, in late 2009 a different European source told Jane’s that Eurocopter accepted thatChina would develop multiple military versions of the Z-15. This would be consistent with China having produced military versions of every Eurocopter helicopter it has copied or co-produced.
After the May 2008 earthquake, Chinese officials advocating additional helicopter purchases also promoted the development of a Chinese 10-tonne helicopter. During the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, a concept 10-tonne helicopter very similar to the Sikorsky S-70 was displayed in model form. This helicopter may be Chinese Medium Helicopter (CMH) programme reported in the middle of the last decade as having been derived from the Z-10 helicopter programme. More recently Chinese sources have called this helicopter the Z-18. Internet sources also indicate a possible Chinese interest in developing a larger tandem rotor helicopter. In addition, limited production of the Chinese-made CHAIG Z-8 helicopter – a reverse-engineered equivalent of Aerospatiale SA 321Ja Super Frelon- has resumed in the form of the Z-8A for the PLA Army and the HAI Z-9 (a license-built Eurocopter AS 365N Dauphin utility version remains in production. In March 2010, the CHAIG AC313 13.8-tonne helicopter made its first flight. It is based on the Z-8 but with a redesigned fuselage with a flat bottom, featuring greater composite use and crash resistant seats and fuel tanks. It apparently uses three new indigenous turbine engines and has a new cockpit dominated by five flat-screen displays. It is not yet known whether the PLA will purchase theAC313.
In 2006 Russia’s Rostervertol made a greater push to market its advanced heavylift Mil Mi-26 helicopter to both military and civil users in China. By early 2007 one of these 20-tonne payload helicopters had been delivered to a private Chinese company. Russia’s dispatch of one Mi-26 to assist with May 2008 earthquake relief likely advanced Rostervertol’s sales effort. At the 2007 Beijing Airshow Russia’s Mil was marketing a smaller 12-tonne capacity version of the Mi-26, which was actually a preceding design, but it does not appear to have harnessed Chinese interest. In addition, in late 2009 a Russian source indicated that Russia may be part of a new Chinese programme to develop an indigenous 13-tonne helicopter.
China’s long awaited heavy attack helicopter, called the WZ-10, began flying in April 2003. Clear images of this helicopter released in 2005 and 2006 confirmed the influence of the AgustaWestland AW129 and the Eurocopter Tiger tandem-seat attack helicopters on this design, which will feature a five-blade main rotor, advanced V-shaped fuselage to help deflect ground blasts, a nose-mounted sensor suite, chin-mounted 23 mm gun, plus missile and rocket armament. It is expected that a new ATGM, new AAMs plus unguided missiles will arm this helicopter. Images of a new ATGM confirmed that it is laser guided and in the same class as the US Hellfire. Imagery released in 2007 indicated this new ATGM was influenced by the South African Mokopa, while Chinese sources indicate it may have a 10 km range and that its laser seeker may be as sensitive as that on the US Hellfire II. The WZ-10 may also eventually feature a mast-mounted radar, which has been tested on a Z-9. This attack helicopter will be proceeded in service by the CHAIG WZ-11, a scout/attack version of the Z-11 training/utility helicopter, a copy of the Eurocopter AS 350. The prototype armed Z-11 began flying in late December 2004. It features a roof-mounted low-light/auto-tracking targeting sensor and can be armed with up to four ATGMs or pods for unguided rockets and cannon. Some sources expect the Z-11 will perform the mission of scout and attack, similar to the US OH-58.
In addition, a new version of the Harbin WZ-9, the WZ-9G, first revealed in 2004, is now entering PLA Army Aviation regiments. The WZ-9G features a more powerful engine and a nose-mounted sensor ball that provides much greater lower-hemisphere coverage. The Z-9 configuration does not permit chin-mounted cannon, but the WZ-9G likely can carry a greater compliment of missiles, plus rocket and gun pods. Training helicopter numbers have also grown. PLA Army helicopter training regiments fly the Change Z-11 and in 2005 starting using the HC-120 (EC-120) Colibri, the product of a 2004 co-production agreement between Eurocopter and the HAI.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) The PLA Army has a significant interest in UAVs and operates numerous company and squad level UAV systems that feature programmed flight via laptop control. In the early 1990s the PLA developed theASN-206, a twin boom tail pusher UAV similar in size to the Israeli Searcher. The UAV company NRIET has since developed a series of medium size UAVs for surveillance and aerial target missions. It remains to be see whether the army or air force will control new Predator-1 size UAVs being developed by the Guizhou Co. and one other Chinese company. In late 2004 China Aerospace revealed a new soldier-carried micro-UAV system that weighs a total of 20 kg for the aircraft, computer and bungee-cord launcher. In late 2006, Chinese military press coverage indicated the PLA was also experimenting with small hand-launched UAV based on a commercial toy model. PLA Army interest in helicopter UAVs was revealed following 2005 Japanese press revelations thatChina had copied the capable Yamaha small helicopter used in Japan for surveillance and agricultural missions. At the 2008 Zhuhai Airshow, AVIC revealed the U8E, a 220 kg UAV with a 40 kg payload and a 100 km range and four hour endurance. Suited mainly for surveillance, it is not clear whether this UAV can be armed or that it has been adopted by the PLA.
At the 2006 Zhuhai show China revealed that it is also working on ducted-fan driven vertical UAVs similar to those now under development for the now cancelled US Army Future Combat System programme. In addition, the PLA appears to be investing in the necessary mobile control and command facilities to receive and disseminate UAV-obtained data. The PLA has also experimented with unmanned armoured vehicles, developing a digital remote control system for a tracked APC.
Companies like the Nanjing Research Institute on Simulation Technique (NRIST) produce a range of medium-endurance tactical UAVs that resemble Israel’s IAI Hunter series and this company features both vehicle and personal digital command systems. In late 2005, reports on a new APC outfitted with post-mounted sensors and low-light/IR sensors, indicated that it was also equipped to receive video imaging from a small hand-launched delta-wing UAV. In 2006 Chinese media coverage revealed a Special Forces six-wheel ATV outfitted to carry and deploy small hand-launched UAVs.
Modernisation Type 59 MBT
In early 2004 it was reported that the PLA was upgrading part of its large fleet of Type 59 MBTs to enhance their firepower and battlefield survivability. The latest version, the Type 59D, is the most ambitious upgrade to date. Based on the Soviet T-54 design, the Type 59 is estimated to still make up 70 per cent of the PLA’s tank fleet, with about 5,500 in service. NORINCO has over the years developed a number of upgrades for the Type 59, including the installation of a 105 mm NATO-standard rifled tank gun and a computerised fire-control system. The baseline upgrade was subsequently improved with a thermal sleeve for the 105 mm gun, improved passive armour, automatic fire-detection and -suppression system and a new smoke-generating system. The Type 59D also features explosive-reactive armour (ERA) and is armed with a co-produced version of the 105 mm Russian Bastion gun-launched laser-guided missile.
Active Tank Defence Systems
In mid-2006, Russian sources disclosed that China’s NORINCO was interested in the Engineering Design Bureau (KBM) ARENA-E active tank defence system. ARENA-E uses a small radar to detect incoming anti-tank rockets and automatically destroys them with shotgun like shells. However, interest in this technology has reportedly been discarded by the PLA and replaced by a laser countermeasure system. Some Shtora systems have been seen occasionally on test units.
Type 92B / WZ551
The original Type 92 was armed with a 25 mm cannon that was developed from an anti-aircraft gun and was ill suited for the light 6 x 6 chassis. Over the past few years an increasing number of new and existing Type 92s were converted to the Type 92B model. The Type 92B is armed with a 30 mm cannon, thought to be a reverse engineered Russian 2A72, and a firing rail for a HJ-74 (AT-3 Sagger copy) anti-tank missile. Furthermore there are two banks of three smoke dischargers on either side of the welded turret. It is beginning to equip the more elite of the mechanised brigades and took part in the ‘Peace Mission 2010’ SCO exercises.
Type 86A / WZ501 IFV
The reverse engineered BMP-1, called Type 86 in PLA service, have been gradually upgraded over the past decade. Currently the most up to date variant is the Type 86A. It is armed with the same newly developed ‘all-purpose’ turret as the Type 92B. By replacing the 73 mm BMP-1 cannon, the 30 mm turret saves considerable space inside the cramped interior. The Type 86D is being equipped to the mechanised infantry battalions in armoured regiments.
WZ502 ‘Big Change’
Images of improved IFV turret design indicated an upgraded version of the ZBD97, called the WZ502 ‘Big Change’, WZ502G or ZBD08, modified to be better equipped for mechanised warfare. Imagery of the IFV version with the ZBD04-style turret first appeared in 2007 and images of the improved IFV turret design emerged in late 2011. This is heavier and has since 2009 begun to be delivered to PLA units in several versions. Key changes include the elimination of the vehicle’s waterjets and large trim vane, plus a lowering of the hull profile and the addition of buoyancy boxes at the rear to maintain vehicle balance while in the water. Most versions also include skirts to cover the upper treads, which the ZBD04 lacks. It is based on the Russian Bakhcha acquired in the late 1990s with a unique combination of 100 mm smoothbore gun, 30 mm cannon and 7.62 mm machine gun. It is armed with a co-produced version of the 9K116 Bastion laser-guided gun-launched anti-tank missile.