China is converting old Soviet tanks into autonomous vehicles
A New Life for the ZTZ-59.
An Old Classic
The ZTZ-59 is a copy of the Soviet Type 54 tank, which first entered service in the People’s Liberation Army in 1959. However, new technology is giving the 40 ton vehicle new life.
Versions of the ZTZ-59 have been modified to operate without a human driver inside. Viewing operations via tank mounted video cameras, operators can guide the vehical by an off-board system with a joystick. As with any other driverless system, potential upgrades may allow for greater autonomy.
While images of a robot tank evoke science fiction futures, the reality of this particular vehicle’s purpose is to act as a moving target for exercises and weapons targeting. It makes a more realistic target for anti-tank missile and artillery crews to shoot at. Indeed, the ZTZ-59 needs a human loader to load ammunition into its 105 mm main gun, and there are no visible signs of an autoloader on the tank.
However, the robotic ZTZ points to a wider use of robotic systems by China’s army, much as the conversion of the equivalently aged US M-60 tank into a robotic mine clearance vehicle via the “Panther” program became part of a larger and ongoing US Army foray into unmanned ground vehicles.
Since 2014, a series of pictures have emerged of converted Chinese armored vehicles, which had been modified into autonomous robots with cameras and LIDAR for navigation. China is also offering smaller machine gun equipped robots for export, and has expended significant resources in building legged robots. While the ZTZ-59 robotic tank is strictly noncombatant for now, it will only be a matter of time until the PLA, like every other major military, deploys greater numbers of robotic vehicles.
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Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area. They both are Associates with the U.S. Air Force University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.