PLA becoming mechanized above all else
China is now manufacturing two families of 8x8 wheeled medium-weight armored vehicles, the China North Industries (Norinco) ZSL09 (ZBD09 or VN-1 export designator), being rapidly acquired by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and the Poly Industries Type-07, which so far is only offered for export. The 20-ton ZSL09 family offers greater firepower and, since its emergence in 2007, has been developed into about the same group of 10 variants as the Land Systems Stryker, its U.S. counterpart.
It is the PLA's preference for greater firepower that marks a key difference in the U.S. and Chinese operational concepts for this class of vehicle. The Stryker vehicle family was originally intended as an interim main platform for the U.S. Army's Stryker Brigade, which emerged from then-Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's recognition of the need for an independent, medium-weight (and less expensive) brigade-size force for contingencies short of full-scale Cold War-level armored conflict.
The Stryker Brigade has stressed deployability and maneuverability while seeking to leverage superior information, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and command and control (C2) capabilities to produce more rapid and decisive battlefield effects. The most heavily armed Stryker, the M1128 Mobile Gun System (MGS), armed with a low-recoil 105-mm gun, is intended to provide infantry fire support, not to fight tanks. The Army has considered but so far declined to acquire artillery and anti-aircraft versions of the Stryker, as they have not been required for counterterrorism and insurgency conflicts of the last decade.
The PLA's new medium wheeled vehicle is consistent with its key objectives of “mechanization,” the improvement of mobility and combat capability while reducing manpower, plus the potentially more important goal of “informatization,” the exploitation of new information technologies that are easier to build into new platforms. New 8x8 and 6x6 vehicles feature digital command and communication systems that allow for sharing of imagery and data. There are dedicated C2 versions of both, and a new version of the ZSL09 apparently is dedicated to supporting digital communication at the regimental level.
For the PLA, superior firepower remains a key objective even for its new medium-weight formations, largely because of its regional situation; historic rivals Russia and India have long stressed heavy armor capabilities that would overcome medium vehicles. This has likely dictated another PLA preference that contrasts with the independent Stryker Brigade: PLA medium infantry and artillery regiments built around new wheeled vehicles usually have a tracked vehicle company, often for anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). These regiments remain wedded to larger division or brigade structures that include heavier tracked armored regiments, plus supporting artillery and anti-aircraft units.
However, all-wheeled regiments capable of independent operations still appear to be a possible trend for the PLA. For example, an early unit to develop medium wheeled regiments has been the 112th Div. of the 38th Group Army in the Beijing Military Region. Its 335th Regiment is estimated to have 93 ZSL09 8x8 vehicles in three companies. So far, these companies have the infantry fighting vehicle (IFV) version of the ZSL09, armed with a 30-mm cannon turret that also carries the 3,000-meter (9,842-ft.)-range HJ-73 anti-tank missile. The companies also use the command/communication and recovery versions of the ZSL09. The regiment gets fire support from a company of 18 PLL09s, the 122-mm howitzer-armed version of the ZSL09 and a company of 18 PLL05s, a version of the WZ551 6x6 with a 120-mm automatic mortar. Rounding out the regiment is a unit of six new PGZ07 tracked twin-barrel 35-mm cannon AAA, firing a copy of the Rheinmetall Ahead time-fuzed “shotgun” shell.
What could make these regiments more independent is the emergence of two new prototypes of the ZSL09 since last year, one armed with the 105-mm gun turret first seen on the ZTD05 tracked amphibious fighting vehicle, and the other with a single-barrel 35-mm cannon turret combined with a radar/optical targeting system.
The PLA has already demonstrated that its wheeled vehicles will form an important element of its power-projection capabilities. Units comprising older 6x6 ZSL92s and/or PTL02 tank destroyers have been deployed to multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization and combined-arms “Peace Mission” exercises since 2005. They usually travel on flatbed rail cars but ZSL92s were featured this year in a mobility exercise using new large civilian roll-on/roll-off ferries. Both 6x6 and 8x8 families are also expected to be compatible with the PLA Air Force's anticipated four-turbofan Xian Aircraft Y-20 strategic transport.