With decades of experience in owning and operating Soviet/Russian combat tanks, it was only natural for the Chinese military complex to begin design, development and manufacture of their own indigenous tans. NORINCO (NORth INdustries COrporation) unveiled their Type 85 second general battle tank in 1988. Much experience was garnered in its development cycle and the evolution of the series further emboldened Chinese engineers to further their capabilities. Ultimately, the Type 85 was revised to become the Type 90 prototype series which, though not selected for serial production by the People's Liberation Army (PLA), it was the basis for the joint venture and locally-produced Pakistani MBT-2000, perhaps better known as the "Al-Khalid" Main Battle Tank. China continued development of the Type 85 to produce the improve Type 88 family line, these entering service in number in 1988. Production of the type lasted until 1995 to which some 450 examples were built.
The Chinese then took their Type 85 and produced the "Type 85-III" pilot vehicle and added much to expand her battlefield qualities. This included the installation of a more reliable and powerful 1,000 diesel engine. For improved protection, Explosive Reactive Armor (ERA) blocks were added to critical facings. In this revised form, the Type 85 was evaluated successfully and formally accepted into the inventory of the Chinese Army as the "Type 96". Despite the designation, the Type 96 did not begin frontline service until 1997. The arrival of the newer, more modern and capable Type 96 also canceled any further production of the aforementioned Type 88 series - the Type 96 essentially replacing the Type 88 in battlefield function for the PLA. Production of the Type 96 itself went on to total an estimated 2,500 and is thought to be ongoing as of this writing. The Type 96 is expected to form a major portion of PLA mechanized forces, spearheading major advances while being supported by the much more expensive, complex and capable 125m-armed Type 99 Main Battle Tank systems. Production of Type 96 MBTs is handled out of the First Inner Mongolia Machinery Factory.
The Type 96 is a 47-ton behemoth intended to counter other current 2nd Generation Main Battle Tanks in the world. She is armed with a 125mm smoothbore main gun and defensed by a 12.7mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun on her turret as well as a coaxially-mounted 7.62mm general purpose machine gun for anti-infantry defense. Armor protection remains classified to date though it is known to be modular in design and make use of ERA blocks for improved point defense. Like other Chinese indigenous tank designs, the Type 96 follows in both form and function along the lines of Soviet/Russian tank offerings which is expected considering the once-close defense relationship held between the two countries. The Type 96 is powered by a 1,000 horsepower diesel engine which supplies a road speed of 70 kilometers per hour and an operational range of 450 kilometers on internal fuel. External fuel stores can be mounted to help increased ranges out to 600 kilometers as needed. The vehicle is suspended by a torsion bar system for strong cross country performance.
All told, the Type 96 is of conventional design. The vehicle sports six double-tired road wheels to a track side. The track upper portions are protected over in saw-toothed armor skirts for basic point defense. The glacis plate is well-sloped to the point of being near-horizontal. The driver sits at the left-front of the hull, the engine being fitted to a compartment in the rear of the design. The turret sits in a bustle fitted to the front center of the hull and is low profile in nature, making for a tougher target to visually acquire and engage, particularly in low-lying foliage. The main gun protrudes a distance away from the turret and a fume extractor is identified at its midway point. Concerning the turret design, it features well-sloped facings for excellent ballistics defense. The heavy machine is added on a heavy duty mount on the turret roof, offset to the right hand side at the commander's cupola. Two banks of six smoke grenade dischargers are fitted to either turret side and can be used to shield the tanks progress as needed. Crew accommodations amount to only three personnel as an mechanical autoloader is used to manage the ammunition stores. The crew consists of the driver, tank commander and gunner - in Western tank types, the loading function is almost always handled by a human loader while the Soviets/Russians have utilized autoloaders for quite some time now.
Bangladesh has shown some interest in acquiring the Type 96 though current operations have centered on China as the sole Type 96 operator in the world (since updated to include Sudan).
An upgraded variant, the Type 96B, was debuted in 2016 and entered into the regional International Army Games hosted by Russia. The variant sports all-modern digital communications, situational awareness and sensors. A new ventilation system has also been developed. On the whole, the vehicle had retained its basic form and function. Possible upgrades to the drivetrain, wheels and suspension system as well.
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