Type 59/-I / WZ-120 Main Battle Tank
Type 59-II/A / WZ-120B Main Battle Tank
Type 59D/D-I / WZ-120C Main Battle Tank
Much PLA equipment was produced from Soviet designs of the 1950s, but weapons were incrementally upgraded, eventually with Western technology. The Type 59 main battle tank was based on the Soviet T-54. In the early 50's China was supplied with a quantity of Soviet T-54 Main Battle Tanks (MBT). China undertook production of a copy of the T-54A as the Type 59 MBT (also referred to by its industrial designator WZ-120).
The overall layout of the Type 59 is similar to the T-54 series with the driver's compartment at the front, fighting compartment in the center and engine and transmission at the rear. The Type 59 has a four-man crew.
The Type 59 is similar to the Soviet T-54 and shares many of the same characteristics. More recent T-59 production models have infrared searchlights for the commander and gunner, a larger infrared searchlight mounted above the main armament that moves in elevation with the main armament, a laser rangefinder (fitted to some models) right of the infrared searchlight mounted over the main armament and night vision equipment that includes new periscopes for the commander, gunner and driver (not fitted on all models). Initial Type 59s lacked night vision equipment that had been found on Soviet T-54s.
The Type 59 has two layers of armament: main and secondary. Main armament for the Type 59 consists of a 100mm Type 59 rifled gun that is capable of firing foreign and domestically developed Chinese rounds. Normal ammunition load for the main armament is 34 rounds. Secondary armament consists of three weapons: a 12.7mm anti-aircraft Type 54 machine gun, a 7.62mm Type 59T machine gun at the bow and another 7.62mm 59T machine gun mounted coaxially to the right of the main armament.
Significant upgrades were made the Type 59 from 1979 to 1989. The No. 617 Factory incorporated new hydraulic booster technology to the door covers, a simpler fire control system, laser rangefinder and automatic fire extinguisher into the Type 59-I MBT. A basic armored recovery vehicle, without turret, and capable only of towing operations, was also developed.
In second improvement of the Type 59, the Type 59-II MBT (also referred to by its industrial designator WZ-120B) was given a 105mm tank gun capable of firing APDS, HEAT, and HESH rounds, a two-axis stabilizer, a light spot fire control system, automatic fire extinguishing, new communication equipment, a 580 hp diesel engine, and IR-proof coat. NORINCO offered the weapon system upgrades as a seperate package for existing Type 59 operators. A variant featuring an 105mm gun with a thermal sleeve was developed called the Type 59-IIA. A Type 59 in the United Kingdom was reportedly fitted with an improved L7A3 gun, and a Type 59 chassis was also one of many used to test the Marksman AAA turret.
An experimental variant was reportedly constructed to test integration of Western technology into Chinese tanks and also as an armament testbed. The Type 59 Gai was said to have at one point been fitted with an indigenously developed 120mm smooth bore gun, roughly similar in capabilities to the US M256.
Type 59s have been employed in various conflicts around the world in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Notable users of the vehicle have been China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea and Pakistan (more than 1,300). Chinese Type 59s were also sold or given to Albania, Bangladesh, the Congo, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. Iran also acquired a large number of Type 59 tanks, and developed an indigenous upgrade program referred to as the Safir-74, with the resulting tanks sometimes referred to as T-72Zs.
A new GEC-Marconi Centaur fire control system is available, and British Barr and Stroud thermal based FCS can be fitted. A Type 59 in the United Kingdom was also reportedly fitted with an IR18 thermal imager.
The Type 59 continued to have the largest presence relative to other MBTs in the PLA into the 21st century. In 2000 there were believed to be some 6,000 tanks, according the January-May 2001 edition of Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment: China and Northeast Asia, though the Military Balance put the number at around 5,500. By 2002 that number was believed to have declined to around 5,000 where it appeared to have leveled off. The IISS estimate remained static as of 2008.
The IISS numbers do not reflect how many of these vehicles were brought up to the Type 59D/D-I standard, developed during the 1990s and first fielded in 1995. Both tanks feature a number of basic improvements, most notably the FY Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) suite on the turret and front hull. Fire control components first fitted to the Type 80 were refitted to the Type 59D series, and they were also capable of firing an indigenous gun-launched missile, derived from the Russian 9K116 (AT-10 Stabber) gun-launched missile. The main difference betweenthe Type 59D and D-I is the main gun. The Type 59D has an older Type 79 105mm gun, while the Type 59D-I has a Type 83A 105mm gun.
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