Airborne Infantry represent an oft-overlooked facet of modern warfare where their value comes in their speed, tactical flexibility, and the element of surprise. This, in turn, comes at a price as these field elements go to war with little in the way of armored vehicles and useful artillery options as their entry is typically through air-dropping directly into contested enemy areas. As such, the weapons and gear on a soldiers back is sometimes all that these infantry are given to work with to achieve victory.
Against this backdrop, great strides have been made to provide modern fighting airborne elements with the proper tools to use against an unsuspecting enemy - and this includes the compact, lightweight "air-droppable tank" featured in some armies of the globe, giving these infantry at least something in the way of a vehicular advantage. For the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) ground troops, which models itself largely after Russia and Western powers like the United States, the service relies on the "ZBD-03" Airborne Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV) to give its airborne infantry members a fighting chance.
The ZBD-03 has the industrial designation of "WZ506".
Design work on the vehicle began in 1998 where the vehicle was prototyped as the "ZLC-2000". Quantitative serial production began in 2000 which led to formal service entry in 2003 under the designation of "ZBD-03". The base ZBD-03 vehicle has since been developed into a Command Post (CP) and Anti-Tank, Guided-Missile (ATGM) carrier variant, the former including enhanced communications equipment and the latter featuring the HJ-8 "Red Arrow-8" tank-killing missile. An Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) model is also noted.
As built, the vehicle has a road weight of 8.8 tons (short) and a running length equal to 18.3 feet, a beam of 8.5 feet, and a height of 7.2 feet. Armor protection is by way of welded steel which effectively shields against small arms fire and artillery spray. Drive power is from a diesel engine outputting 210 horsepower, giving the vehicle road speeds of up to 42 miles-per-hour with a range out to 370 miles. A built-in amphibious function has the tank traveling in water sources up to 3.7 mph. The hull sits atop a hydropneumatic suspension system from cross-country travel. The running gear includes five double-tired roadwheels, three track-return rollers, a front-mounted drive sprocket, and rear-mounted track idler.
Internally, the vehicle is crewed by three - driver, commander, and gunner - and can support up to five combat-ready infantry personnel as passengers, though in somewhat cramped conditions.
Primary armament is a 30mm automatic cannon, fully-stabilized for "firing on-the-move", seated in the frontal face of a power-assisted turret. A 7.62mm co-axial machine gun is installed next to it to provide an anti-infantry solution. 2 x 6 Smoke grenade dischargers (twin banks of three dischargers) are featured at the turret frontal sides. Circular firing ports at the rear sides of the vehicle allow passengers to bring their personal weapons to bear if need be.
In Chinese service, the ZBD-03 directly succeeds the aging BMD-3 IFV design of late-Soviet-era origin - though in same battlefield role. It can be hauled quite comfortably in the hold of the Xian Y-20 four-engined tactical airlifter or similar aircraft. As in Soviet-Russian doctrine, the ZBD-03 would be air-dropped to airborne troopers to be quickly and easily arranged for battle when on the ground, utilizing its track running gear to get into the fight in as short a time as possible. Its 30mm autocannon is serviceable against enemy infantry and light armored vehicles while the ATGM feature adds a much-needed tank-killing quality. Achieving the element of surprise, coupled with speed in the process, gives the Chinese airborne infantry an edge in the opening rounds of an offensive. As the ZBD-03 also has inherent water-crossing and cross-country capabilities, it does not necessarily require the use of roads. The smoke dischargers help to conceal the vehicle's movements from prying eyes at range.