As a part of China’s People’s Liberation Army’s continued modernization efforts, China is now experimenting with converting outdated tank platforms into unmanned combat drones.

Footage released to the public last Wednesday on state-owned television shows a Type 59 Chinese tank being maneuvered via remote control, using a steering wheel and dual screened console to manage the tasks of tank operation. Although the video does not say, it seems likely that the two screens represent a navigational view of the front of the tank and a bore-sight view for targeting the tanks main weapons system, a 100mm gun.

From the outside, the only difference in the tank’s appearance seems to be two external antennas, mounted to the top of the tank’s turret.

According to the statements made in Chinese state media, however, the People’s Liberation Army doesn’t intend to stop with remote controlled tanks, they eventually hope to move toward using artificial intelligence to permit the tanks to conduct autonomous operations.

“A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence,” Liu Qingshan, the chief editor of Tank and Armored Vehicle, told China’s Global Times newspaper.

The Global Times went on to claim that the unmanned tanks will be tasked with working with other combat drones, as well as integrate information sourced from satellites, aircraft and submarines to help establish a complex understanding of the battlespace it occupies.

While the United States has also been working on developing autonomous tank platforms, perhaps the largest threat posed by China’s ground combat drone endeavors is the sheer number of T-59 tanks the People’s Liberation Army’s Ground Forces have at their disposal. Based on tank designs sourced from the Soviet Union in the twilight days of World War II, the Type 59 was the first domestically built tank China ever employed. Between 1958 and 1985 when production on the platform ended, as many as 10,000 Type 59 tanks were produced in Chinese factories. The platform proved to be long lasting, with thousands of them still in regular use today.

PLA Type 59 Tanks on display in a 1959 National Day parade. (Wikimedia Commons)

If the Chinese military were able to develop an easy to install method of converting their Type 59s that are nearing retirement, it would serve as a powerful force multiplier, allowing their tank crews to be assigned to newer platforms like the ZTZ-99A (Type 98), which is a third generation main battle tank, or the ZTZ-96A (Type 96A) lightweight, second generation tank while keeping their massive numbers of Type 59s available for monotonous operations, or if needed, to swarm on enemy positions and overwhelm them.

A line-up of Chinese armoured vehicles at Shenyang training base, in the foreground are two Type 59-II tanks. (WikiMedia Commons)

However, despite the massive numbers of tanks China maintains in their arsenal, it’s important to note that, for the most part, they can truly only be used for domestic defense at or near the nation’s borders. China does not currently possess the infrastructure necessary to rapidly move large numbers of tanks to other areas within their own nation, let alone the capability to deploy them to battlefields overseas. Currently, the People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces rely heavily on the same commuter trains used by the public when relocating personnel and equipment.

China’s efforts to reorganize and modernize their national military extends well beyond the development of remote controlled tanks. Last month, China announced that their first 5th generation fighter, the J-20, is now considered operational. The stealth aircraft, which is believed to have been based on stolen plans for America’s F-22, is hindered by outdated engines that significantly limit the jet’s performance, but China’s ability to mass produce weapons platforms like the Type 59 tank extends to aircraft as well, giving them a clear advantage in terms of numbers over the now out of production F-22.

China’s national navy has also ramped up production, with nearly 20 new warships launched within the past year, including new destroyers rumored to be a capability match for the American Arleigh-Burke class of guided missile destroyer and the nation’s first ever domestically produced aircraft carrier, the Type 001.

Feature image courtesy of Twitter