The Republic of Mali has been a traditional customer of Soviet hardware ever since its independence in 1960. Over its history, in total, the country has purchased four different types of tanks. Of these, one stands out as somewhat of an anomaly compared to the three others. It is the only non-Soviet tank Mali has ever purchased, as well as the only one where evidence of active use has never been seen. This is the Type 62, from the People’s Republic of China.
China’s First Lightweight Tank, the Type 62
Though very similar to a downscaled Type 59 (a locally-produced Soviet T-54A tank), the Type 62 was actually the result of a complicated development process which includes a number of largely different and sometimes very obscure series of prototypes, such as the 59-16 light tank, the WZ-131, and the WZ-132. The tank which the PLA finally adopted and pressed into service in the 1960s, the Type 62, was a 21-tonne light tank armed with an 85 mm Type 62-85TC main gun, directly based on and firing the same ammunition as the T-34-85’s ZiS-S-53 gun. Smaller and lighter than a medium tank, the Type 62 was mostly meant for use in southern China, which includes numerous regions with mountains as well as poor roads, bridges and infrastructure in general, making heavier tanks hard to operate properly.
China soon found itself exporting armored fighting vehicles as an additional means of both revenue and diplomacy, and the Type 62 was fairly well-suited for the role. China had somewhat of a “third-worldist” policy, attempting to develop ties with nations that were often decolonized by the West, but not clearly aligned to the Soviet Union. Many of these were located in either Africa or South and South East Asia, areas which at the time had not necessarily been left with high-end infrastructure after decolonization, and therefore lighter vehicles better suited for these country’s roads and bridges were attractive.
Mali Buys the Type 62
The Republic of Mali was a country that maintained good relations with the Soviet Union, its army largely operating on Soviet gear, but it was neither involved enough in the Socialist ideology nor the Eastern Bloc to truly be impacted by the Sino-Soviet Split of the 1960s. Therefore, Mali also had no qualms purchasing armament from China. In 1980, the country placed an order for 18 Type 62s.
These vehicles were, for a very long time, the only Chinese AFVs bought by Mali, with the next purchase, three Tiger armored patrol vehicles, only following in 2017, and another one, for six VN-2C armored personnel carriers, in 2020. This is not to say, however, that Mali did not purchase Chinese equipment during the Cold War. Likely in a similar timeframe to the Type 62, Mali purchased quantities of both Chinese rifles known as the Type 56, one being a copy of the AKM and another of the SKS. With the two original Soviet rifles already in Malian service, operating them was easy, and the price of Chinese-made guns was generally unbeatable outside of armament supplied from the Soviet Union as aid.
Mali’s Most Elusive Tanks
Ever since their delivery, Mali’s Type 62 have barely ever been seen. This is not particularly surprising pre-1991, but even in post-Cold War Mali, while footage of PT-76s and T-54Bs emerged, this was not the case for the Chinese-made tank.
In 2012, in an attempt at establishing the inventory of the Malian Army, French Military historian and terrorism expert Laurent Touchard qualified the Type 62s, alongside T-34-85s, BTR-40s, and BTR-152s, as “swallowed up by the sands or quietly rotting in Malian army barracks”.
The only known photos of Malian Type 62s are more recent. On March 19th 2019, Malian politician Karim Keïta, a parliamentary deputy of Bamako’s 2nd district, posted photos of a visit to Camp Tieba in Sikasso, one of Mali’s largest military bases that has also become the main storage location for Malian tanks. During the visit, the deputy was shown at least three Type 62 light tanks, which appear on two photographs.
These photos are, as of now, the only known view of Type 62s in Mali, and are quite interesting. The vehicles are not in a particularly bad state. Their camouflage has the same four colors, dark green, brown, beige, and black, as seen on other Malian AFVs in recent years. However, their application is slightly different. The vehicles do not feature the somewhat odd lines of one color inside of another. Instead, one color, black, appears to be consistently used to create lines, sometimes used as the edge between two different colors, and sometimes within a large swathe of one color to separate it in smaller sections. Green appears to be the color used the most, with beige also being quite common on the vehicles, and brown being limited to a few smaller swathes, often somewhat fading into the black edges. If anything, this camouflage pattern appears more professional than the one found on Mali’s PT-76 and T-54, where all four colors appear to be used in a fairly similar way.
Other aspects to notice include the turret hatches seemingly being open on the vehicles. This may have been done for the presentation, but if not, it is a very questionable way of storing a vehicle in the open air, as sand may get inside. The photos show a heavy machine gun mount, though no machine gun is mounted, as well as a Malian armed forces registration number, something which even in recent years PT-76s and T-54B seem not to have had. There is comparatively quite little damage to elements such fenders in comparison to what has sometimes been seen on other Malian tanks, which does suggest the vehicles are, as expected, barely or not at all used. However, it does appear that at least a minimal amount of maintenance is carried out on them.
Conclusion – An Exercise in Vanity?
Out of all types of armored fighting vehicles used by Mali, the Type 62s are some of the least known, though they do have some competition in the form of vehicles of whom the service in Mali is also very obscure, such as the Fahd or the BMP-1.
In a way, the recent views of the vehicles raise almost as many questions as they answer. Many would have previously assumed the Type 62 to have been de facto abandoned, not so different from some completely obsolete types that are no longer in service in Mali, such as the T-34-85. Yet the recent photos seem to show the vehicles in a very recent camouflage scheme, and even featuring registration numbers, something not often seen on Malian tanks, but much more often found on Malian wheeled vehicles, and especially technicals, which have seen widespread use in the conflict in Northern Mali.
Despite this, the tanks seem to have never been seen outside of their storage space in Sikasso, and certainly not in use in the Northern Mali conflict, nor even in parades of exercises. It is not surprising not to see the vehicles in use in the war. Although perhaps more suited for Saharan warfare than T-54Bs, which Mali also operates, being about 15 tonnes lighter, they still are likely nowhere near as practical as a technical, and Mali may very well not have any spare parts to keep them running. However, not having seen them in any form of ceremonial or training use is curious. It is possible that the vehicles are not in running order. The fact that they are still being painted in a modern camouflage would be little more than play pretend. It is also possible that the Malian Army, already stretched thin with the conflict in Northern Mali, does not have the resources to crew them, yet still want a modicum of maintenance carried out on them, as if being saved for a rainy day when they may somehow be of use, as unlikely as that sounds.
SIPRI Arms Transfer Database