Chinese Army Equipment - Overview

Detailed listings of PLA equipment holdings are rather scarce in the unclassified literature. This surely reflects some combination of deficiencies in Western intelligence concerning the Chinese military, inefficiencies in the seepage of classified intelligence appreciations into the open literature, as well as disinterest on the part of open-source analysts in doing detailed beancounts, which is understandable given the paucity of data and limited audience for such exercises.

It would be interesting to have a better appreciation of Chinese equipment holdings, both to judge current military capabilities, as well as to assess modernization trends. This is particularly important in the case of the PLA, given the proliferation of new Chinese weapon systems that are either developed soley for export, or that have apparently failed to arouse interest from the PLA itself.

The annual The Military Balance by the International Institute of Strategic Studies as well as the annual The World Defense Almanac by the publishers of Military Technology provide the most readily available sources, which have been used here. A close reading of these invaluable references, however, makes it clear that their listings of equipment types leaves something to be desired. In more than a few instances, specific types of equipment are listed as being in inventory for a particular year, dropped in subsequent years, then re-appearing in the inventory list, as though they had been on vacation. Reasonably well-attested pieces of hardware are in some cases absent from these lists, and a few items are listed concerning which the more detailed online sources are entirely silent.

Traditionally Chinese weapons were given a simple "Type" designator consisting of a two digit year of manufacture or proposal followed by the Chinese word for 'type', and the description of the weapon. More recently designations have been based on a combination of Pinyin letters and numbers that are independent of the year of manufacture. Thus, a YW represents Armored Personnel Carrier and a WZ represents Armed Vehicle. In addition, in recent years systems that have been developed for export, or developed by a manufacturer but not yet accepted for service by the PLA, have unique designators but no associated "Type" nomenclature.


The PLA was for the most armed with captured enemy arms during the 1950s. The variety of weapons in the PLA inventory resulted in a lack of standardization, which prompted the General Logistics Department and the Ministry of Heavy Industry to make proposals on standardization in July 1950, during which the Korean War began.

During the Korean War, the infant defense industrial base of China produced duplicate copies of anti-tank rockets, field artillery, grenades, mines, and other munitions. The Korean War revealed to China the need for a more developed defense industry and more modern military. To furth er develop its military and the domestic capabilities to support it. An agreement was made with the Soviet Union in October 1951 allowing for Soviet assistance in the development of various weapons systems and munitions.

In May 1952, the Central Ordnance Commission gave the approval for the manufacturing of 18 models, in which 15 of them were based on Soviet designs. The remaining 3 were modified versions of previous Soviet models. Many of the weapons duplicated by the Chinese were designed in the 1930s by the Soviets.

New research organizations were created in order to aid in the standardization of weapons, such as the Documentation Translation Institute, the Chemical Research Institute, the Gun and Ammunition Research Institute, and the New Popularization Institute in 1952.

By 1953, the multi-faceted duplication of Soviet weapons for standardization purposes began. Smalls arms were duplicated and designated by type. A field gun and howitzer cannons were also designated by type in 1954. Up to 17 weapons had been classified by type in 1956 with the exception of the 85mm anti-aircraft gun.

Additional Sino-Soviet agreements were made in 1953 and 1956 regarding Soviet military assistance in the development of a broad array of weapons and munitions such as tanks, aircraft, guns, ammunition, and ship board systems.

From 1960 to 1976, the Chinese ordnance industry began to domestically develop an ind ependent base for production of the army’s weapons and equipment. Research institutes, such as the Tank Research Institute, the Tank Engine Research Institute, the Gun Research Institute, the Metallic Material Research Institute, and others were established in the 1960. The army itself set up research organizations such as the Artillery Force Science and Technology Institute and the Armament Research Institute which helped improve the a domestic defense-industrial base.

Despite China ’s improved ability to independently develop and produce weapons, the quality of such products was lacking. Many of the weapons produced and delivered to the PLA was unproven, resulting in inadequate budgets and persistent technical fla ws. The Commission of Industry for National Defence (CIND) implemented measures for improved quality control in August 1961. During the next several years, new weapons, ranging from tanks, new missiles, and artillery pieces were made.

In 1964, the Fifth Ministry of Machine Building (MMB) created the Precision Machinery Scientific Research Establishment. A year later, the Artillery Force Science and Technology Establishment and the Armament Research Institute of the General Logistics Department were placed under the auspices of the Precision Machinery Scientific Establishment. By 1966, 18 professional research institutes, various college research institutes, and over 50 factory design institutes were in China ’s ordnance industry.

In 1966, the Scientific and Technical Development Program focused its operations on developing anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and anti-ship weapons in regards to the Vietnam War. During the war, China supplied double-barrel 37mm anti-aircraft guns.

After Soviet trips invaded Zhenbao Island in March 1969, the Chinese placed more attention to developing anti-tank weapons. Research from this initiative helped the Chinese develop new rocket launchers, anti-tank munitions, tanks, and guns, thus improving the anti-tank capabilities of the PLA ground forces.

Significant changes were made when Deng Xiaoping headed the Chinese government, as the military became a focus of Deng’s “Four Modernizations”. As for the modernization of the China ’s military, the defense industry was significantly reorganized and more energy was placed in research and development . At that time, the defense ind ustry had 22 professional research institutes. The Ten Year Development Program for Ordnance Scientific Research was created in December 1975 at a conference focused on the improving research and development.

Research and Development was later hampered by economic problems and the Great Cultural Revolution, but continued when it entered its next level of improvement after the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Central Committee in 1977. The reforms enacted stressed furth er contact with other countries for international exchanges of military technology. According to the CMC, the improvement and modernization of anti-tank, anti-aircraft, artillery, and tank capabilities became the focal point for the army in December 1977. At least ten weapon systems in the army were slated for the Sixth Five-Year Plan for National Defence. The new development goals of the reforms stressed “self-reliance” in the development and production of their weapons. Foreign technology was used as a means to improve the technology of the weapons. Eight additional research institutes were added and specialized in computer application, system engineering, and several other highly technical fields.

There was little evidence of the use of armored personnel carriers during the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict in 1979, and tanks were used as mobile artillery and as support for dismounted infantry. Artillery forces emphasized towed guns, howitzers, and truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers. In the 1980s some self-propelled artillery entered service, but the PLA also produced rocket launchers as a cheaper but not totally effective alternative to self-propelled guns. There was a variety of construction equipment, mobile bridging, trucks, and prime movers. A new multiple rocket launcher for scattering antitank mines appeared in 1979, but mine-laying and mine-clearing equipment remained scarce.

The Sixth Five-Year Plan resulted in over 130 weapons and pieces of equipment for the army such as tanks, artillery, and anti-tank weapons. Significant progress was made in the development of China ’s technological and technological base.

The Seventh Five-Year Plan resulted further modernization. In 1989, new self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, infantry vehicles, tanks, artillery, and small arms were developed or significantly improved for the army.

By the late 1980s the PLA ground forces, which relied upon obsolescent but serviceable equipment, were most anxious to improve defenses against armored vehicles and aircraft. Most equipment was produced from Soviet designs of the 1950s, but weapons were being incrementally upgraded, some with Western technology. One example of upgraded, Soviet-design equipment was the Type 69 main battle tank, an improved version of the Type 59 main battle tank, itself based on the Soviet T-54. The Type 69 main battle tank had improved armor, a gun stabilizer, a fire control system including a laser range finder, infrared searchlights, and a 105mm smooth-bore gun. In 1987 the existence of a new, Type 80 main battle tank was revealed in the Western press. The tank had a new chassis, a 105mm gun, and a fire control system. The PLA was believed to have atomic demolition munitions, and there were unconfirmed reports that it also had tactical nuclear weapons. In any case, nuclear bombs and missiles in the Chinese inventory could be used in a theater role. The PLA had a scarcity of antitank guided missiles, tactical surface-to-air missiles, and electronics to improve communications, fire control, and sensors. China began production of the Soviet Sagger antitank missile in 1979 but lacked a more powerful, longer range, semiautomatic antitank guided missile. The PLA required a mobile surface-to-air missile and an infantry shoulder-fired missile for use against helicopters and certain other aircraft.

The PLA believes the Ground Forces need to possess higher mobility and greater firepower. The Ground Forces began a process of reorganization and re-equipment in 1998. The objectives were to increase speed and mobility, to strengthen the Army's cross-sea projection for a possible Taiwan war, and to continue to reduce the size of the Army while improving its combat ability. The PLA is following the concept the US Army initiated with the Stryker Brigades.

NORINCO has developed three new wheeled combat vehicles in 200-2003 period. These include a 120mm gun armed eight-wheeled tank destroyer, another eight-wheeled vehicle armed with a 120mm howitzer or mortar, and a lighter 105mm gun armed six-wheeled tank destroyer based on the WZ 551 chassis. The intention is to complete, serialize and form a wheeled armored car family of the medium type brigades under preparation. Compared to a normal 50-ton main battle tank, the weight of most of this equipment was kept under 20 tons. The 120mm gun armed eight-wheeled tank destroyer exceeds 30 tons. They can all be carried by the Ilyushin I1-76 transport used by the Chinese Air Force, and the Xian Y-8 [a Chinese copy of the Russian An-12] is capable of carrying the wheeled armored vehicles based on the WZ551.

Join the mailing list