In service with China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force since 1959, the Type 59 battle tank today comprises approximately one quarter of the service’s heavy battle tanks and is set to continue to see service for years to come.
The tank entered service shortly after the Korean War to provide a much needed upgrade to Chinese armored warfare capabilities, and over 10,000 of the 36 ton combat vehicles were produced over 27 years.
While the Type 59 provided the mainstay of the PLA’s armored warfare capabilities for over two decades, it has since the late 1980’s gradually been phased out of service with only advanced heavily modernized variants such as the Type 59G and Type 79 today remaining in service.
Even these serve primarily in reserve units and for training purposes where more advanced platforms such as the Type 96A form the mainstay of Beijing’s armored warfare capabilities.
Further enhanced derivatives of the Type 59 were developed specifically for export, and were manufactured more recently, including the Al Zarrar tank developed for Pakistan which entered service from 2004, and the Al Kafil developed for Iraq which entered production in 2020.
With the PLA having evolved into one of the most modern armed forces in the world, fielding numerous technologies well ahead of their analogues deployed by rival powers, the place of the venerated Type 59 in the military today has repeatedly been put to question.
With China having recently developed the Type 99A, one of the leading battle tanks in the world, the pre Vietnam War era Type 59 appears to have few uses for the PLA despite the extensive upgrades it has since undergone.
The PLA has however found a new use for its older battle tanks, one which closely reflects its use for its now retired J-6 and J-7 jet fighters. The PLA Air Force converted these old fighters into drones which could be remotely piloted, and the PLA Army in much the same way is set to field vast divisions of unmanned battle tanks based on the Type 59.
While old fighter jets are still dangerous and potentially highly effective in combat, they remain too vulnerable to modern defenses to risk a pilot’s life.
The very same applies to the Type 59, which can add considerably to the army’s firepower and be used as expendable attack units when unmanned.
The tanks are equipped with machine guns, a 100 mm rifled main gun and limited defensive anti aircraft weapons.
Type 59 tanks are planned to be equipped with artificial intelligence rather than remote controls for unmanned operations, making them more survivable against countermeasures designed to neutralize or commandeer hostile drones.
China’s Global Times state run paper stated regarding this development, citing expert Liu Qingshan: “A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence.”
While the Type 59’s armor is insufficient to protect its four crew members against modern threats from anti tank missiles and other battle tanks, as a drone the PLA could launch the high speed and heavily armed platforms in wave attacks against enemy positions – much like the human wave tactics it used at times the Korean War but far more lethal and with far less risk to the lives of its servicemen.
The Type 59 remains a sturdy and highly reliable platform, one which the PLA evidently would seek to avoid scrapping if possible.
Developing it into an advanced unmanned heavy battle tank could well provide Chinese forces with a unique asset unseen anywhere else in the world, and the sheer number of tanks which could be deployed should these technologies be perfected would be more than enough to overwhelm almost any adversary – while reducing reliance on newer manned tanks and thus avoiding placing personnel at risk as much as possible.
Experience developing AI for operating tanks could also in future allow China to develop purpose built unmanned tanks, and to reduce crew requirements for its next generation of manned tank designs.
Military Watch Magazine / ABC Flash-Point Military News 2021.