At the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Moscow, the Russian army unveiled its newest-generation main battle tank (MBT), the T-14 Armata. Analysts immediately began to speculate on the tanks capabilities while potential buyers are said to be lining up. Recently a high ranking Russian official has stated that China has expressed interest in acquiring the T-14 for its ground forces though state-owned China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO), the principle Chinese weapons manufacturer has already shown displeasure with this. Though the T-14 is years away from being exported, it is interesting to see a state-owned company already mounting a campaign against a purchase that may or may not happen in the future. Furthermore, there is little reason for the Chinese to want to procure the T-14.

Is China Actually Interested In Russia's Newest Tank?

Russia’s T-14

The T-14 is the newest Russian tank to be fielded in over two decades and is one of several heavily armored vehicles that share a common platform, the Armata. The T-14 is the MBT version while there are others ranging from the T-15 infantry fighting vehicle to self-propelled guns. The Russian army today fields three types of MBT, the T-90, T-80, and T-72. The T-72 and T-80 date back to the early 1970s while the T-90 which has been in service since the early 1990s is essentially a modernized T-72 variant. The T-14 was first seen in public in the days leading up to the Victory Day parade during rehearsals though at the time its turret was shrouded.

Armed with a 125mm smooth-bore cannon, the turret of the T-14 is unmanned and relies on an autoloader. Unlike past Russian tank designs, the T-14 pays greater attention to crew survivability and so the three-man crew operate from a reinforced chamber at the front of the tank. Weighing in at under 50 tons, the T-14 is said to reach speeds of 50 to 56 mph while protection against anti-tank rounds, rockets, and missiles is provided by dual-reactive Malachit armor and the Afghanit active protection system. By comparison, the newest iteration of the U.S. Abrams MBT, the M1A2 weighs close to 70 tons, has a speed of 42 mph and is armed with a 120mm smoothbore gun.

Russia has stated its intention to acquire around 2,300 T-14s over the next 15 years to replace the bulk of its mainly Soviet-era tank force. Production levels might not come close to meeting those figures given the high cost of the tank and the current and projected forecasts of the Russian economy. Already the Russian Ministry of Defense has come into conflict with UralVagonZavod (UVZ), the T-14 builder, over the high cost of the tank. Last year, deputy chairman Oleg Bochkarev of the Russian Military-industrial Commission said that the tank is too expensive for the Russian army. Right now the Russian economy is reeling from low energy costs, and sanctions imposed on Russia due to its actions in East Ukraine.

Opposition from NORINCO

On the Chinese messaging service WeChat, NORINCO has begun a campaign against the T-14, taking numerous jabs at the tank and questioning why a country would consider purchasing the Russian tank over those built in China. During the rehearsals for the Victory Day Parade, a T-14 embarrassingly broke down before the reviewing stand. While the sight of one of Russia’s newest tanks being towed away provided fodder for Western commentators, NORINCO though took it as a chance for marketing arguing that that the T-14s transmission is underdeveloped and that its own VT-4 tank has yet to encounter a similar problem. Truth be told, the T-14 is a new tank and like any other new complex piece of machinery it has teething problems. Regardless, NORINCO seized on the opportunity to attack the T-14. By using WeChat, NORINCO avoids the diplomatic fallout that would occur if it were to criticize Russia on its own company website.

NORINCO has also criticized the high cost of the T-14 which is comparable to that of the U.S. Abrams at around $6 million USD a piece. NORINCO argues that its MBTs are just as advanced as the T-14 though at a lower price, and are more accessible to the global market to those nations that traditionally do not purchase armaments from the west. Sales of NORINCO products are booming with an average 20 percent annual growth over the past five years and the company is looking to expand into emerging economies in Asia and Africa. China is already making significant inroads into Africa though it is not all positive. Nevertheless, contacts are being established and the cheaper price offered by China on military hardware is far more appealing to cash-strapped African governments.

NORINCO is currently offering the MBT-3000 (VT-4) along with the MBT-2000 and VT-2 among other vehicles for export. Though lacking some of the features of the T-14 such as the active protection system, these MBTs are considerably cheaper with the VT-4 coming in around $4 million. NORINCO has argued though that its VT-4 is more advanced than the T-14 in several areas. When one adds on additional training and maintenance costs, these tanks become all the more appealing to a country that does not require such an advanced tank.

Foreign Interest in the T-14

Foreign interest in the T-14 includes China, India, Vietnam, among other nations though the degree of this interest is speculative. The announcement of this foreign interest can be attributed to Vladimir Kozhin, aide to Russian President Putin who has specifically mentioned India and China as being interested parties despite the high cost of the T-14. Regardless, Russia has already indicated that Russian procurement of the T-14 is first and foremost and that export of it is over a decade away; never mind that the tank has yet to be field tested. Even if one disregards the price, the T-14 might fail to eventually be exported. China and India have vibrant indigenous weapons industries and why should they wait ten years when they have the capability to produce sophisticated weaponry themselves. Other countries such as Vietnam which lack sophisticated domestic military industrial capabilities would be better off purchasing last-generation Russian tanks such as the T-90MS which are considerably cheaper to acquire and maintain yet still adequate for defense needs.

On the other hand, Russia might aim to enter into co-development and co-production deals with foreign nations to offset costs of the T-14. Already such deals have proven quite successful with India where both nations are currently co-developing a next generation stealth fighter as well as long range cruise missiles. But will the same be true in China? Russia has repeatedly expressed dismay with China over the latter’s reverse engineering of its weaponry. After years of being Russia’s biggest buyer of military hardware, China is now largely self-reliant for military hardware. Earlier this year in fact UVZ rejected the idea of selling the T-14 to China on the grounds of preventing technology theft.

China and the T-14

The truth is China does not need the T-14. Chinese weapon development has grown by leaps and bounds over the years and what NORINCO can offer at a fraction of the price will be more appealing to Beijing than a foreign tank that will not be exported for years. The VT-4 is an advanced tank and there is little reason to believe that the Chinese cannot develop an MBT even more advanced in the coming years. It is possible that Chinese interest in the T-14 is merely a way to test Russia’s level of trust, especially as both countries are attempting to deepen their partnership. Nevertheless if NORINCO can continue to reach new markets and with its lower prices compared to the west and Russia, it has the potential to eventually become the dominant player on the international arms market or at least, have the most reach.

By Stephen Paul B