|Indonesia recently received their first Leopard 2A4 tank and Marder IFV from Germany as part of a larger deal.|
Photo taken from Kaskus forums c/o Audrey.
Is there a main battle tank race in the ASEAN region? Well, from MaxDefense point of view, there is a spike of purchases and interests for main battle tanks in the region that started a few years ago, and a so-called race is probably only happening in a few member countries.
Within the Southeast Asian region, only the mainland states of Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia traditionally operate tanks heavier than 35 tons, although it is a very well known secret that Singapore keeps an arsenal of main battle tanks since the mid 1970s to avoid giving their perceived threats a reason to include main battle tanks in their arsenal.
Traditional Tank Users:
Of all ASEAN armies, Vietnam has the largest tank fleet and has been a long time user of Soviet-era T-54/55 series and Chinese Type 59 medium tanks, with several units actually being Vietnam War veterans. Of the estimated 600 to 850 T-54/55 tanks in Vietnamese serivce, around 310 were modernized using Israeli technology into T-54/55M3 standards which involved the replacement of the original Soviet 100mm gun with a 105mm M68/L7 gun, installation of explosive reactive armor, smoke grenade launchers, a new German-made 1,000hp engine, a 60mm mortar and meteo-sensors technology. There were previous reports that Vietnam planned to purchase 150 T-72 main battle tanks from Poland, but did not materialize and budget was instead used to purchase naval assets.
|A Vietnamese T-54/55 series tank, modernized by Israel to T-54M3 standard.|
Photo taken from ttvnol.com
Laos and Cambodia:
These two countries are also long time users of the Soviet-era T-54/55 series medium tanks, with around 30 and 300, respectively. Most of their tanks were also received as far back as the Vietnam War era. So far there are no tank upgrade programs or new tank purchases for both countries, except for the transfer of 50 used T-55 medium tanks to Cambodia following tensions with neighboring Thailand on disputed territory.
|Cambodia recently received 50 used T-55 tanks after tensions with Thailand on a disputed temple.|
Photo taken from Reuters.
Myanmar is another country with a large standing army and a large tank force in the region, mostly made up of Chinese-made tanks like the T-59D reportedly numbering around 150 units, which it uses for several decades now; the Type 69 and Type 69-II main battle tanks reportedly at 130 units in service since 1990; and the Norinco MBT-2000, which China supplied several units in 2011.The Myanmar Army also reportedly possess 139 T-72 tanks, some purchased from Ukraine in 2002-2003 although the numbers are debatable due to absence of an accurate account of deliveries.
|A screenshot from a Myanmar video of a Chinese-made MBT-2000 allegedly on trials.|
Photo taken from China Defense Blog.
The Kingdom of Thailand has been operating around a hundred American M48 Patton medium tanks, with the first batch delivered to the RTA since 1979, and was reinforced by its first main battle tank, the M60A1 in 1991 and M60A3 in 1996, numbering a total of around 170 tanks. All are former US Army stocks and were sold to Thailand through FMS program. These tanks would soon be reinforced by a 2011 order for 49 brand new T-84 Oplot-M main battle tanks from Ukraine worth TB7.155 billion, although there are reports that Thailand used its option to buy as many as 200 tanks to replace the ageing M-41 Bulldog light tanks. There were reported criticisms on the government's decision to buy the Ukrainian tanks because of the auto-loader feature, while tank crews were said to prefer South Korean-made tanks.
|Thailand's first T-84 Oplot-M being presented to the Thai delegation in Ukraine last June 26.|
Photo taken from defence-blog.com (in Russian).
Aside from the traditional tank users, other ASEAN countries have also started getting main battle tanks as part of their army's arsenal. Originally believed to avoid tanks due to unfavorable terrain conditions, there countries have now accepted the need for tanks and integrated them to their doctrines.
The small island nation is believed to be in possession of British-made Centurion main battle tanks, specifically 63 units of Mk. 3 and Mk. 7 reportedly obtained from India in 1975 and additional units coming fro Israel in the early 1990s. All were said to be upgraded with Israeli technology and are locally named as the Tempest. There are no credible proofs though of the tank's existence with the Singapore Army as there are no available photo or credible open sources to prove them except for some few publications, although the Singapore government did not deny or confirm their existence. But this is now moot considering that Singapore purchased 66 ex-German Army Leopard 2A4 plus 30 several spare tanks, together with 10 Bergepanzer-3 Buffel armored recovery vehicles in 2007-2008. Most of the tanks were recently upgraded to Leopard 2SG standard with advanced modular armor protection from IBD Deisenroth Engineering and ST Kinetics starting 2010. They are currently considered the most capable tank in ASEAN region for now.
|A side-by-side comparative photo between Singapore's Leopard 2SG standard (left) and the Leopard 2A4 (right). Not all of Singapore's Leopard 2 are in SG upgraded standard yet though.|
The Federation of Malaysia procured its first main battle tank, 48 units of PT-91M Twardy from Poland plus associated support vehicles (6 WZT-91M armored recovery vehicles, 5 MID-91M engineering tanks, 5PMC-91M Leguan armored bridge layers, and 1 SJ-09 driver training tank) with the first unit delivered in 2005 as part of a contract worth $370 million. The tank is now locally known as the Pendekar, and are operated by the 11th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps. It is interesting to note that as part of the contract between Malaysia and Poland, the tanks were purchased in exchange for palm oil which is one of Malaysia's main product.
|A Malaysian Army PT-91M Pendekar during one of the parades in Kuala Lumpur.|
Photo and commentaries from World of Malaysia Military Special blog site.
The vast archipelago country is a latecomer in terms of acquisition of main battle tanks to its military, but it entered with a big bang. Under a $280 million deal with Germany, the Indonesians will be receiving ex-German Army Leopard 2 tanks with the following breakdown: 40 Leopard 2A4 tanks, 63 Leopard 2RI (upgraded to "Revolution" standards), 4 Buffel armored recovery vehicles, 3 Leguan armored bridge layers and 3 Kodiak armored engineering vehicles, plus 50 Marder 1A2 infantry fighting vehicles. They initially requested to purchase tanks from the Netherlands but their request was rejected by the Dutch parliament. The Indonesian Army continues to operate smaller tanks as well and these main battle tanks will supplement them.
|An example of the Leopard 2 Revolution was displayed in Jakarta last May to showcase the tank as part of the deal with Germany.|
Photo taken from Minsera.blogspot.com.
Due to it's small size, there are currently no plans for Brunei to obtain main battle tanks and this is projected to remain for many years to come.
So how about the Philippines?
The last time the Philippines had at least medium tanks in its inventory was a long time ago, with ex-US Army M4 Shermans received during the late 1940s. Aside from a handful of M-41 Bulldogs light tanks received in 1965, there were no other tanks that were procured by the Philippine Army (take note that the British FV101 Scorpion is not a tank, but is a fast reconnaissance vehicle). Fast forward to present day, and there appears to be some plans to procure main battle tanks that will form future armored battalions of the already active Mechanized Infantry Division. MaxDefense sources confirmed that the DND was previously looking at used main battle tanks from European countries, but the project was not given priority right now. This plan may only be included in the 2nd (or even 3rd) phase of the revised AFP Modernization program if everything goes according to plan.
Looking at how the Philippine Army's proposed items for purchase in the 1st phase of the Revised AFP Modernization Law, it appears that main battle tanks have taken the backseat due to the limited budget allocation and the numerous needs to upgrade it current forces. For armored assets, priority was given to additional armored personnel carriers (APC) and infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) to fill-in the expanding mechanized units of the Philippine Army. This includes the expected delivery of 114 M113A2 APC from ex-US Army stocks within this year or early next year, plus additional requirements for new tracked APCs and IFVs, possibly based on the ACV-300 purchased earlier by the PA from Turkey.
Contrary to most beliefs that main battle tanks are useless in the Philippine setting, MaxDefense believes that main battle tanks have a place in the Philippine Army's force structure. These assets are still the best defensive and offensive ground asset that any army could have, and are the spearhead of any army formation. Although the terrain in the Philippines is disadvantageous for tank operation due to fragmented land features, a combination of mountainous and river-rich terrain plus poor infrastructure, there are vast areas where tanks could be used, including the plains of Central Luzon and large portions of Mindanao. This was proven by the Japanese and Americans who maximized the use of tanks in Central Luzon and Manila area during World War 2. Recently, main battle tanks have even been included in urban operation doctrines as shown by recent experiences by foreign armies. All these perceived difficulties have already been considered by army planners not only in the Philippine Army but worldwide as well.
|Even as early as World War 2, tanks have demonstrated their usefulness on urban-environment warfare. Photo above shows a US Army M4 Sherman tank entering a devastated Walled City of Intramuros within Manila.|
Photo taken from Wikimedia.
But of course, there will always be some setbacks to having main battle tanks. Not only will they cost much to purchase, these tanks are expected to have high costs with regards to upgrading, operation, maintenance, training and integration to the entire army force structure. It also requires several support vehicles for it to operate in the Philippine vegetation and terrain, like the need for armored bridge layers and recovery vehicles. These assets are expected to be procured all together with the main battle tanks once the PA decided to get some.
The Indonesian purchase of Leopard 2s is actually something the Philippines can look at. They have the same problems as the Philippines in terms of infrastructure development and natural terrain, although they overcame the problem of financial capability which the Philippines has not yet reached. Although other analysts believe that Indonesia's purchase of tanks was because of strong pressure from the army high command and because of pride and prestige as the unofficial leader of ASEAN, MaxDefense believes that the Indonesian Army is at the right time to get such assets for their armored formations.
Although MaxDefense supports the need for the PA to have main battle tanks as part of their assets and capability, MaxDefense believes that the Philippine Army must give priority to upgrade its most basic fighting unit, the infantry squad, before going up the ladder where the main battle tanks sits on top. This is also what the current planners in the Philippine Army believe as well, which could be seen in their modest modernization plans as part of the first 5 years. This dilemma could only be settled immediately if more funds are made available to the PA where they can both take in main battle tanks and support equipment while also upgrading other spectrum of the force structure.
Tank buying spree? Yes there is, but it's more of an improvement of capabilities by respective ASEAN armies rather than a race to outdo each other. As usual, the Philippines is late in the game but everything's not lost yet.
March 5, 2014:
With the internal and external security issues confronting Ukraine, the T-84 Oplot tanks and other land vehicles ordered by Thailand may be affected. Delivery of the 1st batch of the tanks were completed a few weeks ago, but now the proceeding batches may be delayed. If a shooting war starts between Ukraine and Russia, or an ethnic civil war or war for independece of ethnic Russian areas starts, MaxDefense expects that the Thai orders will be cancelled indefinitely.
July 1, 2014:
Indonesia is scheduled to receive the 1st major batch of deliveries of Leopard 2 main battle tanks and Marder infantry fighting vehicles. The Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) will receive 26 of each of the armored vehicles, which they expect to be available before its anniversary on October 5.
Singapore was also reported as the unnamed Asian country that will receive Kodiak armored engineering vehicles (AEV) before the end of 2014. No specific numbers were released in the report. The German Kodiak AEV is based on the Leopard 2 main battle tank.