Type 59 / WZ-120 Medium Tank

A significant amount of the equipment produced domestically for the PLA initially was initially based on Soviet designs from the 1950s. These systems were often incrementally upgraded, eventually with copies of Western technology. The Type 59 medium tank was based on the Soviet T-54. In the early 50's China was supplied with a quantity of Soviet T-54 tanks. China subsequently undertook production of a copy of the T-54A as the Type 59 (also referred to by its industrial designator WZ-120). The overall layout of the Type 59 was 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 similarly also has a 4-man crew.

The Type 59 is similar to the Soviet T-54 and shares many of the same characteristics. Later Type 59 production models had infrared searchlights for the commander and gunner, a larger infrared searchlight mounted above the main armament that moved 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 included 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.

Like the T-54, the Type 59 has a main and secondary armament. Main armament for the basic Type 59 consisted of a 100mm Type 59 rifled gun, derived from the Soviet D-10 series fitted to the T-54, and was capable of firing foreign and domestically developed Chinese rounds, including armor piercing and high explosive types. The gun has a barrel length of 5350 millimeters, a muzzle brake, and a maximum rate of fire of 7 rounds per minute. Normal ammunition load for the main armament was 34 rounds. Twenty of those rounds were ready ammunition inside the turret. Two additional rounds were fixed to the vehicle's left deck, 4 to the right deck, 2 on the right side of the turret, 5 on the turret's tail, and a final round in a compartment underneath the fighting compartment floor. Secondary armament consisted of 3 weapons: a 12.7mm anti-aircraft Type 54 machine gun (Chinese copy of the Soviet DShK), 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.

The vehicle's hull was steel, consisting of a combination of welded rolled steel structure and homogeneous steel armor, with the driver positioned at the front off set to the left. The vehicle had a fighting compartment in the middle, where the turret and turret ring were situated, and its powerplant in the rear. The vehicle's turret was cast in iron. The vehicle commander, gunner, and loader were situated in the fighting compartment. A security door located at the rear of the driver's seat linked the driver's compartment and the fighting compartment.

The vehicle had a twelve cylinder v-type water-cooled diesel engine, rated at 382 kilowatts (520 horsepower), capable of 2,000 revolutions per minute, a maximum torque of 2,256 newton metres (plus or minus 98 newton metres or 230 kilogram-force, plus or minus 10 kilogram-force), a maximum torque speed of 1,200 to 1,300 revolutions per minute, and a minimum torque speed of not more than 500 revolutions per minute. The engine's average fuel consumption was not more than 238 grams per kilowatt-hour (175 grams per horsepower-hour) and also had an average oil consumption rate of not greater than 10.9 grams per kilowatt-hour (8 grams per horsepower-hour). The engine had a water-filled tube-fin radiator and water-filled oil cooler. The tank used a fixed shaft gearbox with 5 forward gears and one reverse gear, and uses multi-disc dry clutch, 2 planetary steering, and single-side external spur gear reducer. The vehicle used a torsion bar suspension, with each side having 5 steel road wheels. On the left and right side of the first and fifth road wheels on either side there was a hydraulic shock absorber. The vehicle also used single pin-type metal track plate, with 91 links per side.

The basic Type 59 was equipped with a 1950s era gun sight. The vehicle could be equipped with 4 periscopes. These included a front mounted one equipped with a vehicle length command viewer, a mount on the right side of the turret for a hand observation periscope, and an observation position on the left side of the turret with 2 periscopes that could pitch in the vertical plane and could also be rotation in the horizontal plane. The tank was also equipped with a horizontal gun stabilizer and electric drive unit for aiming the gun to a stable level of accuracy of plus or minus 1 mils. The vehicle was also equipped with semi-automatic fire extinguishing system, as well as 2 portable fire extinguishers. The vehicle was equipped with a 2-tube electric ignition smoke system as well, that diverted engine oil into the exhaust chain to generate smoke.

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. Pakistan also subsequently developed a modernization program for its Type 59 tanks, with the resulting vehicles referred to as Al-Zarrar.

The Type 59 continued to have the largest presence relative to other tanks 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, but had declined to 4,300 by 2013. The IISS numbers did not reflect how many of these vehicles had been brought up to the Type 59D/D-I standard, which had been first fielded in 1995.

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