by: Matt Flegal [ ]
As someone who had a fascination with Soviet tanks in the late 70ís and 80ís there is a real sense of dťjŗ vu with the veil of secrecy over the PLAís armed forces. Conflicting information, confusions, entire histories of a weapon based off a single photo or carefully managed stage-op is the name of the game. Into this atmosphere Panda has released a kit of the most up to date PLA tank that the West is aware of, the ZTZ-99A. This tank was first seen during 2014ís multilateral ďPeace Mission 2014Ē exercises but was officially revealed in the annual Beijing military parade of 2015. As an example of the confusion, in the West this tank has been called the Type 99A2, the ZTZ-99A2, the ZTZ-99A Improved, and so forth. For what it is worth, official Chinese sources are calling it the ZTZ-99A. So there you go!
Development of this tank came about from the mediocre Type 90-II tank project of the 70ís and 80ís that had used the Soviet T-72 tank as inspiration. Utilizing assistance from European and Middle Eastern countries (and possibly the Ukraine) the replacement for the Type 59 wasnít considered a success and designers kept noodling with it into the 90ís, when assistance from Russia and the Ukraine appears to have ramped up. An enhanced export version, the MBT-2000 (later renamed the VT-1A) was developed and got some orders, though problems led to only three being built and currently used by the PLA as training machines. A further development for Pakistan, the Al Khalid, was also developed.
In parallel, the PLA developed a design termed WZ-123 or Project 9910 that was seen in the PRC 50th anniversary in 1999. Apparently called the Type 98 in PLA service it led to limited production of ~40 tanks but was superseded by a significantly improved model, the ZTZ-99. This tank included significant ERA placed to improve protection, improved fire control, and a better engine. Further modifications and installation of a laser blinding system led to the ZTZ-99G. Finally, in ~2009 a new tank was developed, the ZTZ-99A.
China considers this a new tank and this seems fair, considering that so much of it from the turret and hull design on is brand new. The ERA is much better integrated throughout the tank, active countermeasures are installed, and according to its chief designer Mao Ming it has true modern communication capabilities similar to the LeClerc or most recent M1A2 Abrams modifications. Whether this is truly an equal to the Leopard 2A6/7, M1A2 Abrams, Leclerc, T-90, and so forth remains to be seen but the tank is a definite leap forward for the PLA.
Note: Thanks to the new book ďChinese Tanks; Armored Dragons of the Celestial EmpireĒ by AV Chaplyginand published by M. Eksmo for the above information. Any errors are probably due more to my deficient translation of the Russian then the text!
Panda has come out with a state of the art kit of the ZTZ-99A and it looks pretty good. Considering the wealth of detail on the kit in areas that do not have good photographs available (things like the bottom of the hull and within the suspension) my hunch is that Panda either had access to the real tank or at least people who had. It is very well detailed and has parts of real delicacy to most accurately match the real thing. This does lead to some assembly and handling issues for areas like the turret basket. PE is also included and is required for some parts such as the ERA turret basket and rear mud flaps; no plastic alternatives are provided. With that said, the PE fits perfectly right off the fret, so itís not too terrifying to we photo etch phobics. Well, except for the headlight mountings which are a real struggle. The decals are somewhat minimal but are nicely in register.
Steps 1-5 cover the assembly of the suspension and the lower hull. The suspension is highly detailed and quite intricate. Overall, it is fairly straightforward in construction but it does have some I wasn't thrilled with. Pieces D24/D25 and D1/D2 don't fit very well. The D24/D25 ones especially have a nasty gap around the base that fits into the hull that will be a pain to fill, even with Mr Putty and an acetone wipe. I left the gap based on laziness and it basically hidden when everything is put together. Parts D1/D2 are these little boxes that overhang depressed areas where the drive sprockets fit and they want to sit at a slant, which will block other parts if you let them. Finally, the D39 parts are a pain to fit, as they have slightly offset pins and itís not immediately obvious until you test fit them which orientation they are supposed to be in. This is problematic for the rearmost one on both sides as the pins don't quite fit without a lot of force but, since itís difficult to figure out their orientation, I was nervous that I was forcing them into the wrong holes. Finally, these pieces have a trap set into them because they tell you to glue small articulating arms into these pieces before placing them on the model. Don't do this! What you don't find out until the next step is that these small arms fit into three of the road wheel arms per side. Since there are no locating tabs to lock the orientation and you're doing it by eye, chances are they won't meet up properly. Leave those off until you get the suspension arms placed and then you can pop them into place quite easily.
The road wheels are supposed to be glued to the arms in step 1 and then later glued to the hull. I didn't want to do this as I'm not a fan of glued road wheels for painting later on. However, the arms fit with variable degrees of tightness to the wheels as the usual polycaps in the road wheel are hard plastic parts in this kit, so I ended up gluing them on anyways with the tracks installed to hold them level. One other thing worth mentioning is Ďdon'tí glue the dozer blade in place so it can't move. There are two locating male and female connectors that attach the front hull top and bottom together. They are a very snug fit (as are most of these connections on the kit) so you're going to have to push hard on the glacis and forward hull. Pushing that hard on the dozer blade can only end in tears.
The tracks are simple one piece tracks with two plastic inserts for the rubber pads on the real thing which cover up the rather deep ejection marks. Nice if you want to chew up the pads a bit, especially as Panda's plastic will really take to nicks and gouges. The jig is a nice touch that isn't actually shown in the instructions for some reason. It was also kind of pointless as the tracks are really simple and assembling them on a strip of wide Tamiya tape worked fine. My only lament is that these would have been the perfect tracks for pins and depressions to make them slightly workable. As it is, the glue is the only thing holding them together and the attachment point is small.
Steps 6-10 cover the upper hull and completion of the hull. The fender supports on the front are delicate and fit very well, with the mudguard being a thinner separate piece. Ejection marks are heavy but hidden. The rear hull is detailed and the baffles are pretty delicate so Iíd recommend taking more care than I did cutting them out! The plastic is a little soft and will tear if you're closer than a mm or so to the actual part when cutting it off the sprue. The molded on handles atop the hull are very nice but could probably be sanded off and replaced for a better look. I just ran a scriber around them to create an overhang and they do look pretty well.
The fuel barrels are the worst part of the kit, fit wise. That said, separate barrels are almost always the poorest part of any kit so no surprises there. There are gaps and the flat end of the barrel (the one without access ports) for some reason has one sprue attachment that is thick and overlaps slightly, making it a bit of a pain to clean up. Aside from that, the detail is good enough but if you're as lazy as I tend to be, just leave them off or replace with voyager resin fuel barrels. The headlights require two pieces of PE folded and glued together to hold the plastic headlamps. The PE has dotted holes to do some of the folds on, other portions have no indicators at all. This is delicate, fiddly, and a plastic chunkier alternative would have been nice. Honestly, if I hadnít been doing a review I would have just built them out of strip plastic and been done with them.
Steps 11-17 cover the turret. The main gun barrel comes together well, and there are well planned tabs and slots at the muzzle end to help line everything up. The end cap is a separate piece. There are seams to clean up but it does line up well. I have become a huge convert to Paul Budzik's method of medium Zap-A-Gap and dental acrylic powder to fill seams. I do wish that Voyager would finally release their turned aftermarket barrel! The turret shell fits together really well and the only visible seams are at the front, where they are covered with the ERA. For the side ERA and basket, be aware that they mixed up the part numbers for the inserts (E7/E8) on either side. Also, the rear portion of the insert drops a little too far in so just be a little careful that it lines up flat when youíre gluing. I used thick Tamiya cement and placed the part in the hollow and then slowly pushed it in with a knife point until it sat flush. One thing that I really appreciate is that Panda took care to put the seam lines either in areas that you won't see or along existing lines in the real vehicle. I did deviate from the instructions in leaving off the PE piece and the rod connector until after the basket and side ERA is attached to the kit. The ERA basket lines up well but the supports are butt joints and in scale thickness so this assembly onto the turret is fiddly. I glued with Tamiya thick cement and then reinforced with Zap-A-Gap to try and minimize the number of times that I could knock it off. There is some minor flash on the rear basket slats but it is sanded out easily with a flat file. Oh, and the tiny plastic grab handles on the PE part of the turret basket are wonderfully molded and I only dropped them about 5 times and had to hunt on the floor when sanding them. I also managed a personal best for self injury when the handle popped out of the clamp I was holding it in to sand, flew under my Optivisor, over my glasses, and sank right into my open eye. Took me about five minutes of tearing up to finally get it to flow out from under the lid. On the plus side, after 30 years of modelling I found a new way to hurt myself, so that was nice.
The rest of the turret build was unremarkable, just check the diagrams to make sure that youíre orienting the parts properly. There is a thick cable attached to the sensors on the base of the canon that has been extremely simplified and should really be replaced. These sensors also donít have the best fit on the side pieces as well as locating them on the mantlet. Iím also a bit unsure at the use of PE on the MG ammunition box as it seems like PE for PEís sake.
This is a state of the art kit and is as good as any other top tier manufacturer. This is the first Panda kit that I have built but I have read other reviews that suggest Panda has had a tendency to be overly complex in their kit design. If so, I feel that they have corrected this issue with this kit. Many of the parts are delicate and it seems fairly obvious that Panda has erred on the side of accuracy and close to scale thickness overall but the construction itself seems logical and generally straightforward. My main criticisms of the kit are that the suspension is loose in several areas and is really geared towards being fully glued together instead of being removable for painting, that the headlights have unnecessary PE that is a pain in the rear to put together, and that the instructions are less then clear in several areas. However, the parts generally fit together quite well, there are locating tabs in areas like the main gun that make construction easier, and the individual link tracks are about as easy asset to assemble without being workable as youíre going to get. Accuracy wise I havenít found any drawings that I trust but it certainly looks accurate when compared against high-resolution parade photos, with the exception of that cabling going from the turret to the mantlet sensor box.