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Type 69 / WZ-121 Main Battle Tank
Type 69-II Main Battle Tank
Type 79 Main Battle Tank

The Type 69 (also known by its industrial designator WZ-121) main battle tank is effectively a Chinese copy of the Soviet T-55 tank and an improved version of the Type 59 main battle tank, with improvements in gunnery and automotive areas. It is a relatively inexpensive and easy to operate tank, but it is of an outdated design by modern standards.

To improve the design of the Type 59 medium tanks, in 1963 a tactical and technical requirement was established. Proposals for a next generation medium-sized tank were made in 1963. Development of a new tank was charged to the No. 60 Research Institute and the No. 617 Factory of the Fifth MMB and by 1964 the design was completed. Production of prototypes began in 1965, but unfortunately the advent of the Great Cultural Revolution slowed down the program. During the Sino-Soviet conflict in 1969, the Soviet T-62 captured in Zhenbao/Damansky Island made Chinese authority panick. The Type 59 (Chinese version of T-54A) was immediately considered outdated, and the design requirements were correspondingly aligned to T-62. The first attempt was Type 69 (WZ-121) with a 100mm smoothbore cannon, and it was even worse than unsuccessful. The gun was weak, and other components were not much better than those on original Type 59. The Type 69 is considered acceptable but not enough, then a completely new tank became necessary.

A trial tank was finally produced in 1970, but the design of the new tank was eventually completed in 1974 and was designated as the Type 69 Medium Tank. This series was first seen in public in 1982.

The new tank featured a 100mm smoothbore gun, 426kW (580 hp) engine, two-way stabilizer and infrared night vision devices night sights.Compared to the Type 59 tank, the new tanks were improved in firepower and mobility as well as night combat performance. The interior is cramped and can be difficult to operate in. The 36-ton Type 69 main battle tank has improved armor, a gun stabilizer, a fire control system including a laser range finder, infrared searchlights, and a 100mm smooth-bore gun. The Type 69-III (also known as the Type 79) has an 105mm gun. This tank can lay its own smoke screen by injecting diesel fuel into its exhaust pipes on the left side of the hull.

Type 69 tanks are employed in countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It was been used in combat by both sides during the 1980's Iran-Iraq war. It has been used by the Iraqi Army in the 1991 Gulf War and reportedly used by the Sri Lankan Army. In the Sri Lankan case these might have been confused with an influx of Chinese arms along with the acquisition of ex-Czechoslovakian T-55 tanks.

The PLA's inventory of Type 69/79's according to The Military Balance, has experienced a dramatic degree of fluctuation in recent years. In 2000 the number of Type 69/79s peaked at around 1,200 tanks. The January-May 2001 edition of Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment: China and Northeast Asia issue put this number much lower, at around 300. It was possible that IISS was counting both active and inactive vehicles, though this might not be the explanation as IISS did not sufficiently explain their figures. By 2002 that number had declined to around 150 Type 69s and 500 Type 79s. Further reductions by 2003 brought the number of Type 79s down to 300 tanks. At this rate, this type of main battle tank was should be phased out by 2005. However, IISS reported that 300 tanks were still in inventory as of 2008.

Model evolution and variants

Based on the chassis of the tank variants include a Type 69-II main battle tanks, Type 69-II B-type command tanks, Type 69-II C-style command tanks, Type 69-II-C1-style command tanks and 69-3 (Type 79) main battle tanks and 653 medium-sized tank rescovery vehicles.

A second version of the Type 69, or the Type 69-II, was developed in 1983 at the No. 617 Factory. The newly improved tank included a simple fire control system, laser rangefinder, rubber shielding skirt, turret grid shield, and a hydraulic booster system for improved steering. The Type 69-II also included a double-pin rubber track plate, protection from NBC weapons, and a 100mm rifled gun capable of firing APDS and HEAT rounds.

The Type 69 MBT was first produced with both smoothbore (Type 69-I) and rifled (Type 69-II) guns. After extensive testing, the rifled gun proved to be more accurate and had greater armor penetration characteristics. Smoothbore production was discontinued after only 150 such equipped Type 69s were built.

The design of the Type 69-II's chassis was used as a foundation for other kinds of tanks and armored vehicles in the PLA. It served as a chassis for tanks performing an array of various function such as command tanks, bridge-laying tanks, recovery vehicles. The bridge laying tanks were capable of creating bridges over trenches, cliffs, canals, and rivers. The Type 84 AVLB is essentially a Type 69 MBT with its turret replaced with a bridge launching mechanism. The bridge launches over the front of the vehicle and when fully open can span a gap of up to 16 meters and support tracked and wheeled vehicles weighing up to 40 tons.

The recovery tanks were capable of hauling 70 tons and lifting 10 tons, which helped in the recovery of damaged tanks. The Type 653 ARV is designed to, along with recovery of damaged vehicles, undertake major repairs such as changing powerpacks, clearing obstacles and preparing fire positions. Type 69 ARV standard equipment includes a front-mounted hydraulically-operated dozer blade, a hydraulic crane on the right side, a main winch with a capacity of 70 tons, an auxiliary winch, tools, tow bars and cables. A small quantity were sold to Thailand.

The improved Type 69-II MBT helped lay the foundation of the Type 79 MBT, which was essentially an upgraded Type 69-II. The Type 69-II MBT Command Tank Type B (Type 69-IIB) is fitted with additional radio sets for the command and control function at Regimental level. An export only version with a common radio aerial for the additional radios was called Type 69-IIC.

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