Following the phenomenal success of my piece on Japan’s Future Fighters, I have decided to look at another element of Japan’s forces: the Main Battle Tank (MBT). Japan’s military forces (or if we don’t want to get caught up in semantic arguments: defence forces) are undergoing a change in posture reflecting the increased weakening of Article 9 of the Japanese Post-War Constitution. Japan’s current MBT is the Type-90 (T-90).
The T-90 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which produces among other things licensed defence products such as the PATRIOT anti-ballistic missile platform, the F-15J, and the F-2. It entered service in 1990 (hence the moniker). It is relatively lightweight at 50.2 tonnes when compared to the superlative M1 Abrams (61.4 tonnes), Challenger 2 (62.5 tonnes), or Merkava (65 tonnes), as well as having a smaller profile. The introduction of an ammunition auto-loader eliminated the need for a fourth crewman, one of the first tanks to do so. Its 120mm smoothbore cannon design is produced under license from the German company Rheinmetall, which is also found in both the Merkava and Abrams, but the rest of the design and production is wholly homegrown. It uses multi-layered armour, combined with modular ceramic composite armour, particularly on the frontal areas. In addition, the system has benefited from laser and thermal-guided gun and turret controls, supposedly one of the best fire control systems in the world.
The T-90 reflects Japan’s role in the Cold War and its own image of its post-Cold War role, essentially the defence of the Japanese islands against a conventional armed attack. It was designed and built to operate across the range of environments in Japan as an anti-tank weapon. However, with its design over 20 years old, and the concept nearly 30, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has picked up the TK-X or Type-10 (T-10).
The T-10 addresses some of the flaws of the T-90. The weight of the T-90 restricted its operations to Hokkaido as Japanese road laws forbade the use of the heavy transporter trailers needed to cart the tank around the country. The TK-X fundamentally weighs 40 tonnes and can be carried on standard commercial trailers. Furthermore, the T-90 had vertical turret boards that were likely to absorb the brunt of an anti-tank weapon whereas the T-10 has been designed with sloped turret boards to deflect some of the impact. Furthermore, the T-10 allows for more significant side armour by way of modular components.
What the T-90 did well, in many cases the T-10 is designed to do those things just a little bit better. It is a mid-generation (‘3.5 generation’) tank continuing the trend towards armour vs. armour conceptions of defence despite the possibility of a wider role for the GSDF in coming years. This particular future MBT may thus, in some ways, be outdated by the time it enters service (if trends continue).
To be fair, however, Japan’s current peacekeeping role better suits medium- or light-armoured vehicles. It is in the future procurement of these systems that we will see how well the SDF has taken onboard expectations of Japanese capabilities in peacekeeping operations. Until that time, we can assume that it is business as usual at the GSDF.