As China modernizes and develops its airborne corps, it seems to be basing it on the Russian or Soviet model. Chinese airborne troops are not part of the ground forces, but rather part of the air force (PLAF). They are also considered a strategic asset, able to deploy quickly in crisis areas to protect Chinese interests.
The armored backbone of these forces is the ZBD-03 Airborne Infantry Fighting Vehicle (AIFV). Like the Russian series of AIFV BMDs, the ZBD-03 is designed to be dropped from transport aircraft for insertion behind the enemy front. But how good is the ZBD-03? How does it compare to the latest Russian BMDs?
Unlike Russia, the Chinese airborne forces have only recently started using AIFVs. When China formed its first airborne units in the 1950s with only infantry, the Soviets used the ASU-57 airborne assault gun (the United States also used the M56 Scorpion airborne tank destroyer at this time) . The Soviet Union followed this with the heavier ASU-85 airborne assault gun.
When the IFV concept emerged in the 1960s, the Soviets fielded their first AIFV alongside their first IFV: the BMD-1, which shared its armament with its heavier ground-based cousin, the BMP-1. These were followed by the BMD-2 and BMD-3 in Soviet service and the BMD-4 in Russian service. Russia also developed the BTR-D series of airborne combat vehicles which had more internal space, but could also mount heavy weapons.
China is a latecomer to the airborne combat vehicle scene. The army only started the development of these vehicles in 1975: seven years after the BMD-1 had already entered production. Design continued into the 1970s, and in 1980 the first prototypes were handed over to airborne troops for testing.
The WZ141 prototype mounted two recoilless rifles and two HJ-73 anti-tank guided missiles (a variant of the Soviet 9M14 Malyutka) in addition to these. However, political situations led to the cancellation of the WZ141 project and the use of Chinese AIFVs would continue to stagnate until the 1990s.
In the 1990s, deteriorating relations with Taiwan led to renewed interest in airborne forces. China purchased a few BMD-3s in 1996 to study their manufacture and test the integration of armor into their forces.
Development of their own AIFV, the ZBD-03, began shortly thereafter. In many ways, the ZBD-03 can be considered quite an outdated design. The driver’s and commander’s stations are in the hull, with the commander seated just behind the driver. The gunner is placed in a small turret behind the driver and gunner. The infantry compartment is positioned behind the turret at the rear of the vehicle.
In contrast, the Russian BMD-3 and BMD-4 place the vehicle commander in the turret. The Soviets tried placing the vehicle commander in the hull behind the BMP-1 driver and found it far inferior to putting the commander in the turret, due to the limited ability to search for targets with the commander’s periscope (as targets in the rear would be blocked by the turret itself). It also imposes size limitations on the size and therefore quality of optics for the commander, for example if the commander’s periscope or sights are too large, it will interfere with gun traversal.
The armament of the ZBD-03 is much lower than that of the BMD series. Chinese websites say that the 30mm autocannon mounted on the ZBD is analogous to the Russian 2A72. The 2A72 is considered inferior to the 2A42 autocannon from which it is derived due to reduced accuracy resulting from the lack of a muzzle brake and the lightening of the barrel. All BMDs except the BMD-4 use a 2A42 as their primary armament. The BMD-4 uses the 2A72, but it is a secondary armament to the 2A70 100mm main gun. The ZBD only stores 350 rounds for its 30mm cannon compared to 860 rounds for the BMD-3.
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It also only mounts the old HJ-73 ATGM (seen as recently like 2016 in exercisesthe frame seems to have was removed in the 2017 exercises). This ATGM moves incredibly slow compared to more modern designs and lacks penetration.
All Russian BMDs of the BMD-1P (commissioned in 1977) front-mount superior ATGMs in the 9M111 “Fagot” and 9M113 “Konkurs” series. The latest BMD-4 can fire 9M117 ATGMs: 100mm laser beam missiles that are practically space-age compared to the HJ-73.
Russian BMDs also have far superior sighting and detection equipment. The last BMD in Russian service, the BMD-4M has one of the best sighting suites of any Russian armour. Thermal sights are present for both the commander and gunner on the BMD-4M, along with the hunter-killer capability to allow it to engage armor effectively. No such capability is even remotely present on the ZBD-03.
While the ZBD-03 is far from useless, it is outclassed and surpassed by virtually all BMDs in Russian service. Its old ATGM is a major impediment to its ability to fight modern armor, and its 30mm cannon appears to be inferior to its foreign counterparts. The commander’s position in the hull limits the vehicle’s retrofit potential. If China hopes to take airborne operations seriously, it may need to seriously consider upgrading or replacing the ZBD-03.
Charlie Gao studied political and computer science at Grinnell College and is a frequent commentator on defense and national security issues.