South Asia’s Type 59 tanks reviewed

South Asia’s Type 59 tanks reviewed

Over the years China exported hundreds of Type 59 tanks to the armies of South Asia, primarily Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in different variants.

The Type 59 itself is a Chinese-produced version of the Soviet T-54A tank, an early model of the famous T-54/55 series.

The first of the vehicles were manufactured in 1958 and was accepted in to service in 1959, with serial production commencing in 1963.

The original Type 59 was armed with a 100 mm rifled gun and powered by a 520 hp (390 Kw) liquid-cooled diesel engine having a maximum operating range of 450 km without external tanks and 600 km with external tanks.

The power to weight ratio of the tank was 14.44 hp/tonne and the tank was manned by a crew if four including the driver, commander, gunner and loader.

The armour protection was only 20 to 203 mm.

By the 1990s the world discovered the export model tanks from the Soviet Union and China were no match for the superior Western tanks during the Gulf War with hundreds of such tanks littered across the battlefield in destroyed conditions.

To save the fleet from total loss armies, which operated the T-54/55 and Type 59 series tanks began upgrading them in earnest.

China developed the Type 59D (also known as WZ-120D), which is fitted with a longer 105 mm gun, known as the Type 83A or Type 94. The gun has a range of 2,000 m, and may fire ATGMs out to 5,500 m. A thermal sight is also installed. Early generational explosive reactive armour (ERA) tiles are also fitted to enhance protection against projectiles. A more comprehensive package based on the Type 59D was also installed on the Bangladesh Army’s Type 69II tanks, which were renamed as Type 69IIGs.

The Type 59D was sold to the Myanmar with about 160 units supplied according to international arms transfer records.

In 1965-66 China delivered the first 200 Type 59 tanks to the Pakistan Army, followed by 550 more in 1967-1970, 100 in 1972 and 825 between 1978 and 1988.

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A more comprehensive upgrade to the Type 59 tanks were provided to the Pakistan Army by Chinese vendors in form of the Al Zarrar package. The Pakistani Type 59s were rebuilt by the Heavy Industries Taxila in Pakistan to improve in over 50 areas including introduction of modern armaments such as a 125mm smoothbore gun capable of firing APFSDS, HEAT-FS and HE-FS rounds. The gun was fitted with a semi-automatic loader and image stabilised fire control system.

The Al Zarrar was also given ERA tiles, better protection against mines in the underbelly, new 730 hp engine and improved suspension.

About 1,100 Type 59s and Al Zarrar tanks remain in service with the Pakistan Army today.

The Bangladesh Army on the other hand started equipped its armour regiments with a delivery of 30 T-54s from Egypt by 1975. These were later converted to use Type 59 parts with support from China. By 1980 the Chinese delivered another 36 Type 59Ks. By 2004 the Bangladesh Army had 780 Type 59Ks and Type 69 tanks in its inventory from Chinese and Iraqi stocks.

The Bangladesh Army procured another 300 Type 59 tanks in 2010 from China along with upgrade kits. Overall it has 562 Type 59 and Type 69 tanks in service presently in upgraded form. Other tanks are kept in storage or cannibalised for spares.

By 2014 the Bangladesh Army began upgrading its entire fleet of Type 59 tanks indigenously with the help of a Chinese company. These tanks were to be renamed as the Type 59G (BD) or Durjoy.

The Bangladeshi Type 59G (BD) featured a comprehensive upgrade to increase the firepower, battlefield survivability, manoeuvreability and performance of the Type 59 tanks.

A 125mm smoothbore main gun with a new turret was fitted, which is similar to the Type 96A tank’s turret. The main gun is capable of firing ATGM from its barrel and is equipped with 28 rounds. A secondary Type 85 heavy machine gun that is manned by the commander. This anti-aircraft gun carries 600 rounds and the coaxial 7.62mm machine gun has 3,000 rounds for anti-personnel use. There are also two banks of sextuple 81mm smoke grenade launchers fitted on left and right sides of the Durjoy tank.

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The Durjoy’s APFSDS round can penetrate over 500 mm of RHA at 2 km.

Defensive suites such as 3rd generation ERA are fitted on the front, turret and side skirts to offer it improved protection against shells and anti-tank guided weapons. There is also cage armour on the back of the turret to protect the tank from RPG strikes.

To enhance crew comfort and safety the Durjoy tank is equipped with an air conditioning system and is protected against NBC agents. A collective automatic fire suppression system is also fitted to ensure minimum damage.

Sensors such as a laser warning receiver, laser designator, combat data link and thermal imaging system are also installed. Communications equipment including a XDZ-1 SATCOM and VRC-2000L frequency hopping radio are also fitted.

The Durjoy also received a new 730 hp engine, which is possibly the same as the one fitted on the Pakistani Al Zarrar tanks.

Road noise is lessened with installation of rubber padded tracks.

The Durjoy tank is presently the most advanced modification or upgrade of the original Type 59 tank. Together with its cost effective price point and enhanced capabilities the Durjoy is still a very capable fighting platform for the Bangladesh Army.

The Type 59/69 incarnations are likely to be in service with the armies of South Asia for at least another two decades making them some of the oldest tanks to be still in active service. The Bangladesh Army has already begun augmenting its Type 59G (BD)/Durjoy tanks with the VT-5 tanks from NORINCO.

In 2020 it received its first regiment of the VT-5, which is essentially a medium weight tank that was designed to be operated in mountainous regions. The VT-5 can be airlifted but is not amphibious. It is already proving to be a very capable platform compared to other light tanks in its category.

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