Republic of China (Taiwan) (1975)
Main Battle Tank – 1 Prototype Built
The Republic of China (中華民國), exiled in Taiwan, was a key US ally in East Asia during the later stages of the Cold War. Following the defeat in mainland China and Hainan during the Chinese Civil War, the Kuomintang and Republic of China were able to hold out in Taiwan. With the rest of China now part of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国), the preservation of this strategic ally in the region meant that the Republic of China would receive large deliveries of American surplus equipment to build up the ROCA (中華民國陸軍/ Republic of China Army) and prevent a potential invasion attempt by the PLA (中国人民解放军/ People’s Liberation Army). However, the Republic of China was still late in receiving any of the more advanced US tanks, and had to rely on lighter M18s, M24s, and M41s for the first two decades of its exile on Taiwan. It was only in 1973 that the first M48A1 Patton tanks would be received by the ROCA. In 1975, the large Wan Cheng program was launched in order to repurpose and improve US vehicles. By that point, the United States had recently introduced the M48A5 tank for its National Guard units, and Taiwan attempted to replicate a similar upgrade on an M48A1; this would be called the Wan Cheng 4.
The ROCA and the Patton
Following the retreat of the Republic of China to the island of Taiwan, the country had received significant deliveries of US light armor in the 1950s. These included 300 M24s Chaffees, 400 M18 Hellcats, and 550 M41 Walker Bulldogs, reinforced by a further 150 in the late 1960s. In the early years of the ROCA’s exile, the reasonable assumption that these light vehicles could deal with the PLA’s armor could be made. The standard Communist Chinese tank was the T-34-85 (often incorrectly assumed to have been manufactured under license in China as the ‘Type 58’). The 76 mm guns on the M18 and M41 could deal with this tank with reasonable effectiveness. However, from the late 1950s onwards, the PLA introduced the ‘Type 59’, a locally-built T-54A, against which the ROCA lacked an effective response.
Pleas from the Republic of China to acquire more modern tanks would regularly be made to the US, but would only be met in 1973 when a ROCA delegation was able to visit the United States to negotiate the purchase of 60 surplus M48A1 (two of which were equipped with dozer blades). Even then, these were already obsolete armor for American standards, with the standard M48 variant being the M48A3 at that time, the M48A5 was two years away from being introduced, and the M48 family having been relegated to the role of reserves by the M60 anyway. Further sales of M48-family tanks would only happen in 1979, meaning that. for much of the 1970s. the only main battle tanks in ROCA service were 60 old M48A1s, still equipped with the M41 90 mm gun and using the Continental AV1790 V12 650 hp gasoline engine.
American Upgrades to the Patton
The United States Army had already introduced several variants of the M48 since the M48A1 was pressed into service in 1952. By 1973, the standard US model was the M48A3, which mostly differed in having fitted a new AVDS-1790 diesel engine, which, in addition, to diesel fuel, also produced 100 hp more. Priority being given to the M60 line of tanks meant that, despite being introduced in the second half of the 1950s, the M48A3 was still relying on the old M41 90 mm gun in 1973. In 1975, the United States finally introduced the M48A5 upgrade, which was an improvement focused on the firepower of the M48 family that was at this point only to be used by the Army National Guard units following the withdrawal from Vietnam (with the notable exception of the 2nd Infantry Division, operating in Korea, receiving 140 M48A5s in 1978).
The main feature of the M48A5 upgrade was the replacement of the 90 mm M41 by the 105 mm M68, which would be far more capable of dealing with Soviet armor in comparison to the older gun and allowed current US main battle tanks to all share the same 105 mm ammunition. Alongside this gun, the M16 fire-control system was installed. The gun had an M13 ballistic computer, with an infrared night vision light, and a new optical rangefinder. Most M48A5s would also receive a new, much lower cupola based on Israeli experience in the Yom Kippur war, though some early examples did not receive such a feature. In general, M48A5 tanks could differ quite significantly in details depending on which exact type of M48 they were converted from.
The Wan Cheng Program
Though local field conversions had existed in the past, including prior to the Republic of China’s exile to Taiwan, local armored fighting development was kickstarted in 1975 by the Republic of China Joint Logistics Command (聯合後勤司令部). This department was in charge of engineering projects since the military engineering bureau of the ROC Ministry of National Defence (中華民國國防部) had been re-attached to it in 1968. This kickstart in activity was likely caused by the appointment of a new commander of the Joint Logistics Command, general Lu Youlun (羅友倫) on April 4th, 1975. Another general of the ROCA, You Shieshi (游傑士), is known to have been involved in military vehicles projects of the era, such as the Wan Cheng. He appears to have been Major Director of the Army Ordnance Development Center (陸軍兵工整備發展中心). This service includes the Armored Vehicles Development Center (戰甲車發展中心), which is the main organization creating the ROCA’s armored vehicles. As such, You Shieshi was likely more hands-on with the project in comparison to Youlun.
The local development which would be undertaken from 1975 onward would largely start with programs to overhaul or combine elements of American armored fighting vehicles to provide more useful armored fighting vehicles. The most well-known example of a vehicle from this era in the west likely is the Type 64 light tank, combining the turret of an M18 Hellcat, of which the hull was likely very worn out by this point, with the hull of an M42 Duster. Other early forms of indigenous armored fighting vehicle development within Taiwan include the Type 65 light tank, an attempt to locally produce a copy of the M41 Walker Bulldog, and the diverse Wan Cheng program.
Wan Cheng (萬乘) is an old-fashioned literary term that refers to the ‘Army of Ten Thousand Chariots’. This was a reference to the massive army and power of the Chinese Emperor in comparison to neighboring rulers in ancient times, who were said to rather have ‘Armies of a Thousand Chariots’. This type of reference to old Chinese literature is quite common in the Republic of China.
The program consisted of armored fighting vehicles designs which were created on the base of American armored fighting vehicles modified in order to improve their capacities or make them able to fulfill different roles on the battlefield. Wan Cheng 1, 2 and 3 were all M113A1-based (the Wan Cheng 1 was a 120 mm self-propelled mortar, the 2 a fire support vehicle with an M24 Chaffee turret, and the 3 a multiple rocket launcher vehicle with 40 tubes for Kung Feng IV 126 mm rockets).
The Wan Cheng 4 differed from the previous three vehicles and was entirely disconnected from them in terms of features. The ROC had followed the development of the M48 series in the US, and saw the introduction of the M48A5 with great interest, seeing as it was an improved version of the same M48-type vehicles it was using. The 105 mm gun would be much more capable against Chinese Type 59 tanks and their further developments. But, with the acquisition of new tanks from the US being a generally complicated and arduous affair (the USA was, at that point, improving its relationship with the People’s Republic of China following the Sino-Soviet split and likely did not want to threaten these evolutions by selling quantities of modern tanks to the Republic of China), the idea of re-creating a similar upgrade in Taiwan blossomed. This ROC attempt at creating an M48A5 would be the ‘Wan Cheng 4’.
An M48A1 that Wanted to be an A5: The Wan Cheng 4
The Wan Cheng 4 prototype vehicle was taken from one of the 60 M48A1s that the Republic of China had acquired. The vehicle was subsequently modified by the Armored Vehicles Development Center.
The main modification undertaken was replacing the 90 mm M41 gun with the more modern 105 mm M68. Unlike with the whole tank, the Republic of China had managed to acquire at least some of these pieces from the United States. It is unclear whether the M116 gun mount which was fitted in the M48A5 was delivered alongside the M68 guns, or whether the ROCA engineers had to create their own locally. The Wan Cheng 4 reportedly also featured a night vision device that could be stored in a stowage box at the rear of the vehicle. The vehicle also featured a fire control system that included a ballistic computer, infrared vision device, and coincidence rangefinder, but it has been reported as not being as accurate as the one fitted on the American M48A5.
There have been claims that the Wan Cheng 4 was refitted with the same AVDS-1790 750 hp diesel engine as fitted in M48 models after the M48A1. The vehicle has retained the classic engine deck of the M48A1, and has not adopted the large rear plate exhaust grills of the vehicles upgraded to M48A3 standard. However, it is known that it was possible to refit an M48A1 with the diesel engine without undertaking such a modification. Such a conversion was designed in the United States by Teledyne Continental Motors, although it is highly unlikely these were contracted by the ROCA. It is possible a similar conversion may have been performed on the Wan Cheng 4. Alternatively, the engine refit being a mere rumor is also a possibility.
The Surviving Vehicle: Differentiating the Wan Cheng 4 from other M48s
Though a single M48A1 was converted, it has survived to this day and is still on display in front of the offices of the Armored Vehicles Development Center.
A panel describing the vehicle can be found. On it, it is referred to merely as an “M48A5”, which may induce to the uninitiated that the vehicle is one of these. However, looking more closely at the Wan Cheng 4, there are a large number of different ways to identify it as a modified M48A1.
A short video of the Wan Cheng 4 prototype exhibited at the Armored Vehicles Development Center in 2012. Source: youtube
The vehicle indeed features rounded fenders, which are significantly different from the rectangular fenders with two diagonal raised lines featured on later upgrades of the M48, including M48A5. Looking at the turret, one can obviously observe that the Wan Cheng 4 features the earlier, high cupola type. This is not systematically a give-away that the vehicle is not an M48A5, seeing as a few of the first M48A5 conversions retained it, but the vast majority of M48A5s replaced the higher cupola with the much lower Israeli-inspired one. The vehicle also features the headlight type featured on the M48A1 and M48A3, but not on the M48A5.
By far the biggest giveaway of the Wan Cheng 4’s original identity can be observed at the rear of the vehicle though, in the form of the original engine deck. Whether the powerplant it hides is the diesel or gasoline engine is unknown, but it remains that the original M48A1 engine deck was not present on American diesel M48s. A travel lock can also be found on the engine deck, added due to the longer length of the M68 tank gun.
There are no known internal views of the tank. It is likely that the vehicle lacks some of the changes which were brought on with the M48A5 as well, such as the new ammunition racks holding 54 rounds. Though the quantity of 105 mm ammunition stowed in the Wan Cheng 4 is unknown, it would likely be in the region of 40 rounds. In other regards, outside of the gun, the vehicle was likely identical to the M48A1 when it comes to armor, internal equipment, and crew positions.
Conclusion – A tank which the ROCA would Cruelly Lack
While a single M48A1 was converted to the Wan Cheng 4 standard, the reason the upgrade was not applied to the entire M48A1 fleet was likely not due to a fault of its own, but rather the ROC’s struggles at acquiring large quantities of military equipment from the US at this point in time. Although significant efforts to locally-produce components would be undertaken within Taiwan (for example, a local copy of the M41, the Type 65 light tank, would be locally-built in the same timeframe as the Wan Cheng program), there were notable struggles to manufacture more advanced barrels – the local production of the 155 mm XT-69 barrel, a local copy of the South African G-5, was notably a hurdle the ROC’s industry struggled at overcoming, vastly limiting the production and entry in service of the howitzer. It is quite likely similar issues may have prevented the local production of 105 mm M68 anti-tank gun and its fitting into the M48 without the direct US support that would arrive in the second half of the 1980s.
Though less advanced than the M48A5 used by the US, the Wan Cheng 4 would still likely have been an appreciated upgrade for the ROCA’s tankers, which had to wearily watch as the People’s Liberation Army’s Type 59, already on the upper end of what the 90 mm M41 could deal with, were progressively upgraded and supplemented by more modern tanks, such as the Type 69, in the following years. Taiwan would have to wait for the US to supply 400 M60A3 TTS tanks and support Taiwan with the manufacture of 400 CM-11 tanks (M60A3 hulls fitted with locally produced upgraded M48A3 turrets, armed with the 105 mm M68 & fitted with the M1 Abrams’s fire control system) and upgrade of 50 M48s to CM-12 standard (fitting them with the same turret) to equip the ROCA with 105 mm-armed tanks. Though the experience gained in the Wan Cheng 4 did help launch the local production effort which would later prove very useful for the local production and upgrade of vehicles, one can certainly lament the potential of having 105 mm-armed tanks by the late 1970s had international politics aligned more in favor of the ROC at the time.
Wan Cheng 4 Specifications
|Dimensions ( L x w x h)||9.3 x 3.65 x 3.10 m|
|Weight||Around ~45 tonnes|
|Engine||Continental AV1790 V12 650 hp gasoline engine OR Continental AVDS-1790 V12 750 hp diesel engine|
|Maximum speed (road)||Around 48 km/h|
|Crew||4 (Driver, commander, gunner, loader)|
|Main gun||105 mm M68|
|Fire constrol system||Ballistic computer, infrared vision device, coincidence rangefinder|
|Secondary armament||M37 .30 cal coaxial machine gun
M2HB .50 cal cupola machine gun
|Hull armor||110 mm maximum (frontal glacis, at 60°)|
|Turret armor||178 mm maximum|
SIPRI Arms Transfer Database
Patton – A History of the American Main Battle Tank, R.P Hunnicutt, Presidio Editions