Chinese unmanned tanks pose new threat on Sino-Indian border - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 21 March 2018

Chinese unmanned tanks pose new threat on Sino-Indian border

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Mar 18

In 1962, even strong Indian Army defences in sectors like Ladakh and Walong were eventually overrun by human waves of Chinese soldiers. The scenario for a future war is now even bleaker – with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) throwing in waves of unmanned tanks to blast and crush Indian defences.

Footage recently aired by the state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) showed China’s first unmanned tank being driven by remote control. While the footage did not show the tank’s main gun or other weapons firing, Indian armour experts believe that capability would only be a matter of time.

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. 


  1. is it really... unmanned???


    Please retract your comment on DRDO and publish it.

  3. Good point about the robot tank not needing to protect crew so it can be lighter, but don't you want to keep lots of armor to protect the tank itself from arty, ATGM etc?

    Excellent you have drawn attention to this: Chinese are becoming very innovative and we need to be able to deal with their innovations.

    My guess is the system is at least 10-years away robust IOC. The theory of these things is easy, but the practical side is difficult.

    Keep up the good work, Ajai. And thanks for all that you do to educate us.

  4. Dear Col. Shukla,

    I am sure you are not surprised with DRDO's focus and our "acche din" narrative while the Chinese are thinking far ahead. So much for the land of Kautilya.

    The question is moot but I cant stop wishing the private industry would invest in researching these things. Of course, to what end.

    Thank you for another good article.

  5. Long back (about 8-10 years ago) I did read that DRDO developed a Drive By Wire BMP. Drive by Wire/Light is normally the first step that one takes before making any vehicle fully autonomous.

  6. We should start developing swamp of robots which can hit same ERA tile twice just with grenades or some otehr low weight projectiles.I felt that would be great.Either a commander with swamp of 10+ robots or each soldier with a robot company.


    DRDO has already tested this.

  8. Informative and excellent writings from Broadsword again!
    Remote controlled tanks would be useful in mountainous terrain in high altitude to get through infantry dug in positions and barbed wire. In Doklam remote controlled armoured bulldozers would have been useful to the Chinese, as no lives lost if they are destroyed by the opposition and no escalation.
    In mountain terrain at high altitude, remote controlled tanks and armoured bulldozers could be disruptive at peace time stand offs, but would be vulnerable to ambush via missile and gun positions prepared at mountain vantage high points.
    Tanks are built for the plains, with the sole purpose of being able to take extraordinary punishment and being able to dish it out. A modern MBT is a very safe place to be in on the battlefield. From the point of view of enemy infantry, a tank is a very scary thing indeed.
    A modern squadron of tanks, supporting and covering each other, moving at high speed, forward and reverse, entering a skirmish over rough ground, from different directions, is a formidable force. It is this co ordination of interlinked support between tanks, in perfect communication, a ballet of gunfire across the squadron, is what a tank commander hopes to achieve, note the tanks guns fire at a much slower rate compared to machine gun or small arms.
    Tanks fighting together, in a workmanlike manner to destroy infantry positions and enemy tanks in the attack, is the objective.
    The co operating tank commanders in the squadron, with their their training are the tanks best defence, better than even the tanks Armour. The other tanks in your squadron covering you is what makes your own tank invincible above everything else, tanks in small groups are true force multipliers.
    Remote controlled tanks would be much cheaper to build, would save lives but would come at the cost of being less effective, technology has to advance far more to replace humans in the tank.
    The war with China will be a ‘Air Land War’ through Pakistan, the Chinese will try and achieve air superiority and in that event, the main enemy of the Indian Tank will be the Attack Helicopter firing missiles from the air.
    It could also mean attacks from future remote controlled aircraft drones as well. And by then the advanced fully re-engined stealth J20 with its Missiles.
    In 1958 Marshal Zhukov of the Soviet Union visited the Indian Military Academy, a senior officer of the Indian Army (when he himself was a 29 year young Lt Col & chief instructor at the time) described to me how the Marshal, while looking at the map with the canals, winked at him and said “With 5000 tanks I will go through them like knife through butter”.
    I use the Marshals words changed, to say if India does not pull its socks up, then that will be our own fate when confronted by Chinese Armour.

  9. Just a little correction-Marshal Zhukov visited IMA in early 1957 (January I think). I was there and sat next to him at the top table at dinner.


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