The modern Chinese Army has been heavily influenced by its early relationship with the post-World War 2 Soviet Union. As such, many of its designs today owe their origination to imported solutions and this includes aircraft, armored vehicles, and small arms. The Type 63 Light Amphibious Tank of the Cold War period (1947-1991) followed suit, produced locally by NORINCO (China NORth INdustries COrporation) but clearly influenced by the Soviet-era PT-76 light-class assault vehicle.
The Type 63 was produced from 1960 until 1963 and service introduction occurred in 1963. Design was undertaken by the Military Engineering Institute (MEI) and the No.60 Research Institute with production had out of NORINCO's Factory No.615 and Factory No.256. More than 1,550 units were eventually produced.
The Type 63's industrial designation is "WZ211".
While the Chinese approach mimics both the form and function of the PT-76, its internal makeup is more closely associated with the Chinese-made Type 77 tracked Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). This helps to increase the performance power of the vehicle all the while retaining its amphibious traits and light armor protection.
The vehicle weighs in at 19.83 tonnes and has a running length of 8.44 meters with a beam of 3.2 meters and a height to turret top of 3.12 meters. Internally, the crew is made up of four personnel (vehicle commander, driver, gunner, and loader). Protection is light, mainly against small arms fire and artillery spray, and reaches 11mm of welded rolled steel armor at the hull front (10mm along other faces).
The turret is well-rounded for good ballistics protection and the glacis plate is very shallow, promoting a low-profile along the horizon. The driver sits at front-left in the hull with the remaining crewmen all housed in the rounded turret. Two hatches are positioned along the turret roof line. The main gun barrel overhangs the bow of the hull and sports a fume extractor just aft of the muzzle.
Primary armament is the 85mm Type 62-85TC rifled main gun set in the front turret face. Forty-seven 85mm rounds are typically carried into action. This gun is backed by a 7.62mm Type 59T machine gun set in a co-axial mounting and intended for use against enemy infantry. Up to 2,000 rounds of 7.62mm are carried. Optionally, the vehicle can be equipped with the 12.7mm Type 54 machine gun which is serviceable against low-flying aerial threats and light-armored vehicles. A second 7.62mm Type 59T machine gun can be installed on a trainable mounting as an additional Anti-Aircraft (AA) / anti-infantry measure.
While a typical armament arrangement for armored vehicles, this gives the Type 63 good counters against many target types. The 85mm main gun is not so useful against the stout armor of modern Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) but can be used with good results against lighter-armored vehicles, dug-in enemy troops, or soft structures.
The main gun can fire a typical array of projectile types depending on target in question. This includes Armor-Piercing (AP), High-Explosive (HE), Armor-Piercing, High-Explosive (APHE), High-Explosive, Anti-Tank (HEAT), and smoke-producing rounds. The gun has an elevation span of +18 and -4 degrees while traversal, thanks to the turret, is a full 360-degrees from center.
Power is from a single 12150L-2 12-cylinder liquid-cooled diesel-fueled engine developing 402 horsepower and driving a conventional track-and-wheel arrangement. The arrangement sees six roadwheels to a hull side with the drive sprocket at rear and idler at front. No track-return rollers are featured in the design. The suspension system is of the torsion bar variety, giving the tank strong cross-country capabilities. The engine is mated to a planetary manual transmission system.
Performance specs include a road speed of 65 kph with a range out to 370 kilometers. Range can be extended by carrying external fuel drums over the hull rear. The built-in amphibious capability sees the vehicle reach water speeds of up to 12 kmh. In this action, the vehicle is propelled through the water by way of two water jets seated at the hull rear. However, there is some preparation of the tank required by the crew before taking to the water, mainly setting up bilge pumps and erecting a trim vane at the glacis plate.
Since introduction, the Type 63 has been fielded primarily by Southeast Asian and African customers - Burma to Vietnam. Former customers include Albania, Pakistan, the Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, North Korea, and North Vietnam. Current operators are Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Sudan, Tanzania, Venezuela, and Vietnam. China is, by far, the largest operator of the series which, at peak usage, reached 1,200 units. However, only around 800 make up the current stock today (2020) at its battlefield usefulness continues to decline.
The Type 63A emerged as an upgraded Type 63 and reworked to better suit Chinese marine requirements for amphibious assaults - including ship-launched capabilities when going from ship-to-shore (the original design was intended mainly to cross rivers). This has led to the vehicle being given a new, more powerful engine and water propulsion systems. The 85mm main gun has also been upgraded to a more potent 105mm form. The marine variant entered service in 1997 and carries the industrial designator of "WZ213" though its modernized nature has also given the variant the "Type 63M" or "Type 99" designators.
The Type 63A-I is the Type 63A with a lengthened bow, enlarged side skirt armoring, and support for Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks for enhanced protection against more modern tank threats (like missiles).
Several variants of the base Type 63 model have been spawned including the Type 63-I with new engine, the Type 63-II with laser rangefinder and night vision support, and the Type 77 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). The Type 77 is fully amphibious and carries the industrial designator of "WZ511". The Type 76 is an Armored Recovery Vehicle (ARV) variant of the Type 63 tank, retaining the running gear but carrying mission-specific equipment for the role. The Type 89 is a Self-Propelled Artillery (SPA) vehicle offshoot of the Type 63, armed through a 122mm main gun and built from both the Type 77 APC and Type 63 Light Tank stocks.
The Type 63 Light Tank is a proven combat performer for its time. It was used by North Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1955-1975) and also featured in the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese War (1979) and Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009). The Pakistani Army also featured the design for a time during its war with India in the Indo-Pak War of 1971.