Clouded Leopard Armored Vehicle Series Shows Capabilities and Limitations of Taiwan’s Defense Industry

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin completed his undergraduate and graduate education at a Texas university and has studied extensively in China. As a former Marine Corps intelligence analyst, he worked in the Indo-Pacific region. His areas of expertise include PLA modernization, particularly PLAN/PLANMC and its expeditionary capabilities, as well as CCP and Chinese domestic politics. He also runs the Sino Talk brand on Instagram and Twitter and is the IndoPacific Desk Chief for Atlas.

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Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (T-MND) announced that the delivery of the final units of the 683 Clouded Leopard Armored Vehicles, also called the Taiwan Infantry Fighting Vehicle, will occur by the end of December 2023. The last lot of CM-34 M1 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) will join a mechanized infantry brigade based in the Huadong region. The Taiwanese military will have 683 total units of the Clouded Leopard series by 2024, with 305 CM-34 M1 IFV and 378 CM-32/CM-33 M1 variants. Taiwan then began the development of several specialized versions based on the Clouded Leopard chassis, such as a mortar carrier, a 105mm Mobile Support Gun (MSG), and an armored ambulance.

The MSG is the most significant variant because some officers view it as critical to the island’s defense, especially in urban environments. The officers came to this conclusion because of the CM-11 and M60A3’s performance compared to the CM-32/33/34 IFVs during the 2015 Han Kuang exercise. While the ministry restarted the project due to the need for the platform, the MSG has several issues related to the development of its 105mm cannon and height. Furthermore, several Taiwanese Army officers lacked interest in the platform because they held the view that the army did not require it or had begun more favorable armor projects. The CM 105mm MSG’s development illustrates the discourse within the Taiwanese military over what equipment the island needs to defend itself from a potential Chinese invasion.

Taiwanese Army soldiers take positions around CM-33 APC during undated exercise (Photo: Taiwan Military Headquarters)

Regarding the MSG’s 105mm cannon, NCSIST decided to use the M68A2’s cannons and brought two from U.S.-based Watervliet Arsenal in 2020. Tests using M426 stabilized discarding sabot armor-piercing rounds showed that the M60A2 cannons are capable of penetrating 500mm of homogeneous armor at 1.25 miles (2 kilometers). The cannon’s recoil is also approximately 70 percent lower than the M86A1 cannon used on the first prototype. However, NCSIST cancelled the contract because it was unable to obtain the rights to produce the cannon or buy the export license in 2021. The bureau then began developing an indigenous version of the M68A1 105mm cannon called the XT112 for use in the second and third prototypes.

In 2022, the military announced plans to raise funds to buy 282 CM 105mm armored vehicles, with the TA receiving 222 and the Taiwanese Marine Corps (TMC) receiving 60 vehicles. The development stalled due to the platform’s large size and the distance between the ground and the gun rail not meeting the TA’s height requirements. The ministry stopped investment in the CM MSG by 2023 due to the beginning of both the M1A2T and M60A3 life extension programs. The bureau also began to modify the third prototype with propellers and increased floating capability to make the vehicle like the ZTL-11 to replace the Taiwanese Marine Corps M60A3 fleet.

2007 prototype of CM 105mm Mobile Support Gun during public display (Photo: Liberty Times News)

Clouded Leopard Armored Vehicle Series

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense began the Clouded Leopard Armored Vehicle program under the Centrino Project in 2002. The project’s goal is to create an IFV to replace both the M113 and the CM-21 Armored Personnel Carriers (APC) in service with the Taiwanese military. The Army Ordnance Industry Development Center (AOIDC) and Ireland’s Taimoni Technology Company (TTC) began joint development of the vehicle in the early 2000s. Both companies built a prototype based on the AV-81 APC/IFV developed in 2000 by TTC and Singapore’s ST Engineering Land Systems (STELS) for the Singaporean Army. TTC agreed to provide AOIDC with materials and technical support to build the first prototype and produce vehicles for royalties. However, another company that lost the bid to manufacture the IFVs acquired the technologies without paying the royalties by bribing two engineers that were working on the project. TTC then sued AOIDC and other companies for copyright infringement in the mid-2000s and subsequently won the court case. Taiwan produced the CM-32/33/34 Mk1 in a shortened timeframe and developed the follow-on Mk2 to avoid any further legal trouble from TTC/STELS.

CM-33 Armored Personnel Carriers during parade (Photo: Liberty Times News/Luo Tianbin)

The ministry unveiled the three CM prototypes in a January 2005 military preview in the city of Jili that was attended by former President Chen Shui-bian. AOIDC began production of the CM-32 and CM-33 IFVs in 2007, continuing until 2017. However, the AOIDC delayed production of the CM-34 for approximately 14 years due to issues related to the IFV’s turret and the autocannon. In 2005, the ministry announced that the CM-34 would use a Delco LAV-25 turret armed with a 25mm autocannon and a T74/M240 machine gun. However, the government did not adopt the turret because it would cost half the price of the IFV’s chassis. The AOIDC then developed and conducted trials with a two-man turret armed with a 20mm T75/M39A2 autocannon in 2007. Taiwan planned to use the same APDS ammunition as the Phalanx Block 1B weapon systems to overcome the issues with low penetrating power. However, the center abandoned the adoption of the 20mm autocannon armed turret by 2010 because of its inability to overcome the 20mm’s limited penetrating power and barrel’s short life span.

The bureau then developed a turret armed with a 30mm Mk44 Bushmaster II autocannon system by early 2015, with the prototype unveiled during the annual Han Kuang Exercise in 2017. The National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST) developed a weapon system that modified the cannons to fit with the CM platform. This prototype passed all required evaluations and tests, and AOIDC began mass production of the CM-34 by the end of 2019.

Three CM-34 IFVs take positions along beach wall during undated exercise (Photo: Facebook/Taiwan Army’s Official Facebook Page)

The program created three variants of the Clouded Leopard IFV by its end:

CM-32 Command and Control Vehicle: Tactical Command and Control Vehicle (CCV) with a Remote Weapons System (RWS) containing a T91/Mk-19 40mm grenade launcher and T74/M240 machine gun.

CM-33 IFV: An IFV armed with the same RWS as the CM-32 CCV.

CM-34 IFV: An IFV equipped with the 30mm Bushmaster II autocannon, a coaxial T74V machine gun, and a T74/M240 at the commander’s station.

The CM is divided into two upgrades, M1 and M2, that were the result of improvements made to various aspects of the IFV and to prevent any legal action from occurring.

CM-33 APC driving down beach during Han Kuang exercise (Photo: EFE)

CM-32/33/34 M1

The CM-32/33/34 M1’s standard armor meets NATO STANAG 4569 Level Three standards and can absorb direct hits from 7.62×51 NATO and equivalent rounds. However, the IFV’s front is comparable to Level Four standards due to the engine and can survive direct hits from .50 cal and similar rounds and shell fragments. An armor kit consisting of sandwich-style ceramic plates is available to increase IFV’s overall protection level to Level 4 standards. The plates increase the IFV’s front protection to Level Five standards or are capable of withstanding direct hits from 25mm rounds.

The vehicle’s important parts are also covered and lined with Kevlar to protect the crew and equipment from fragments. The IFV’s transmission and steering system are also stored in its V-shaped chassis, which protects the systems from various landmines. Furthermore, the CM can withstand explosions of 26 lbs (12 kilograms) of plastic explosives under any of its wheels. The IFV’s rear hatch can be opened and closed by a hydraulically controlled hopper door, and its roof contains two outward-opening hatches on either side of the crew cabin.

Taiwanese Army soldiers disembark from CM-34 IFV during undated exercise (Photo: The Liberty Times News/Tu Jumin)

The Clouded Leopard uses an 8×8 transmission to provide the IFV with improved off-road performance and increase the life span of the tires. The IFV contains an eight-wheel braking system that uses eight independent sets of disc brake calipers to increase reliability and provide adequate braking power. The CM is the first vehicle in the Taiwanese military to have a digital control system that integrates all the subsystems into one network. The IFV contains two independent and redundant power supply plants that can supply power to weapons and other systems when the engine is off. The plants are located on the vehicle’s right rear, inside an anti-electromagnetic interference distribution box that reduces their maintenance time. The IFV is also the first Taiwanese military vehicle to have an integrated Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical protection/air conditioning system. The system also integrated an automatic fire detection and extinguishing system to prevent fires from causing ammunition to explode (or cook off) in the IFV.

CM M2 Series

The AOIDC developed the M2 series in the mid-2010s to improve on the Mk1 and increase the differences in the vehicle to avoid legal issues related to patent violations. In 2017, the center unveiled the M2 prototype for the first time at the Taipei Aerospace Exhibition. While the Mk2 is based on the Mk1, the Mk2’s armor uses a hollow wedge-shaped armor designed to also withstand Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs). The M2’s design separated the chassis and shell into two separate pieces to produce a standardized chassis on the same line and to manufacture different shells based on demand.

The design also allows for mechanics to conduct simplified battlefield repair and maintenance on the M2 by quickly swapping out damaged parts on the shells or chassis. Another major difference is that the IFV’s redesigned headlights, cameras, and speakers are integrated into the vehicle’s armor instead of attached to it to prevent damage from occurring due to collisions. The designers also changed the roof hatch to a two-sided sliding hatch that will avoid exposing personnel to the outside environment when opening and closing the door. The M2 will share 70 percent of its parts with the M1 to simplify the vehicle’s maintenance and logistical supply chains when the IFV enters service.

An undated picture of the CM-34 M2 production line (Photo: Liberty Times News/Liu Yujie)

The M2 also used hydraulic shock absorbers with a height control system to improve the IFV’s performance and control the vehicle’s weapon recoil. The AOIDC also designed the M2 for a potential amphibious IFV variant by re-trimming the vehicle to allow it to float with a high degree of stability. The designers also added two banks of six smoke grenade launchers to either side of the M2’s rear to increase the IFV’s survivability. The designers changed the steering system from a four-wheel to a six-wheel system.

The redesigned system allows for the IFV to reduce its turning radius from 36 feet (11 meters) to less than 26 feet (8 meters), which allows the IFV to maneuver more effectively in Taiwanese cities. The steering system will also allow the IFVs to move into more advantageous tactical positions when operating in urban environments. The AOIDC designed the M2 to be used as a basis for future variants such as armored ambulances, 81mm and 120mm mortar carriers, communications vehicles, and engineering/recovery vehicles.

CM M2 81mm semiautomatic mortar carrier and CM-34 M2 IFV at exhibit during 2019 Taiwan Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition (Photo: CNA)

CM 105mm Mobile Support Gun

The development of the MSG armed with a modified M60A1’s 105mm cannon began with the CM-32, 33, and 34 in the early 2000s under Project Cheetah. Designers based the MSG on the prototype of the CM M1 and used an indigenously developed turret and 105mm cannon. In 2007, the public unveiling of the MSG prototype occurred at the Taipei Aerospace Exhibit, and military observers and analysts named the vehicle the Black Bear. However, the Armored Forces Training Command did not approve the vehicle because the military did not have a need for the MSG in 2007. The command’s officers also rejected the vehicle based on their belief that tanks must have tracks, a heavy turret, and a significant degree of protection, not thin armor or wheels. The generals were also worried that the introduction of the Black Bear MSG would negatively affect the planned acquisition of the M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks (MBT).

CM 105mm Mobile Support Gun prototype at 2007 Taipei Aerospace Exhibition (Photo: Liberty Times News)

Furthermore, several Taiwanese military officers determined that the military needs a platform that can provide the firepower of MBTs while also having the ability to keep up with the CM-32/33/34s. The officers saw the various limitations the CM-11 and M60A3 MBTs had when operating alongside the CMs during the 2015 Han Kuang Exercise. For example, the MBTs were not as flexible and maneuverable as the IFVs during operations in urban areas and faced restrictions on their ability to operate along the CM IFVs due to severe terrain limitations. Without the MBT’s main cannon, mechanized infantry was limited to the CM-32, 33, and 34’s weapon systems to provide direct fire support in urban areas.

However, some of the officers remembered the Black Bear prototype and decided to rename it from a wheeled tank to a 105mm wheeled combat artillery armored vehicle. The officers renamed the prototype to avoid labeling the MSG a tank and to prevent continued criticism from armor officers. The MSG’s new name allowed officers to show it will act as a direct support vehicle for mechanized infantry instead of a replacement for the mechanized infantry brigade’s MBTs. The redesignation also served to compare the prototype to similar vehicles such as Italy’s 1B Centauro, Japan’s Type 16 Maneuver Combat Vehicle, or China’s ZTL-11.

Image of second prototype of CM 105mm Mobile Support Gun with different turret during 2011 Taiwan Aerospace and Defense Technology Exhibition

Defense Ministry officials changed the MSG’s name from armored artillery vehicle back to wheeled tank because they had a different view on the name for the armored artillery vehicle. The TMND then ordered the prototype’s transfer to the Equipment and Training Department to conduct tests and evaluations. The 2005 prototype’s turret and fire control system performed very well, with all the 105mm cannon passing every test. The AOIDC also built a second prototype with a different turret armed with a 105mm. However, the department determined that the first two prototypes were higher than any of the combat vehicles in the Taiwanese Army and did not meet the service’s operational environment. The bureau then developed a third model based on the M2 chassis and body with the aim of reducing the vehicle’s height to the correct requirements.

Regarding the MSG’s 105mm cannon, NCSIST decided to use the M68A2 cannons and brought two from U.S.-based Watervliet Arsenal in 2020. Tests using M426 stabilized discarding sabot armor piercing rounds fire from the cannon showed that the M60A2 cannons are capable of penetrating 500mm of homogeneous armor at 1.25 miles (2 kilometers). The cannon’s recoil force is also approximately 70 percent lower than the M86A1 cannon used on the first prototype. However, NCSIST terminated the contract in 2021 because it could not obtain rights to use the cannon or the export license. The bureau began development of an indigenous version of the M68A1 105mm cannon called the XT112 for use in the second and third prototypes.

CM 105mm Mobile Gun System and CM-34 IFVs conducting road tests in 2019 (Photo: Liberty Times News)

In 2022, the military announced plans to raise funds to buy 282 CM 105mm armored vehicles, with the TA planned to receive 222 and the Taiwanese Marine Corps (TMC) 60 vehicles. However, development stalled due to the platform’s large size and distance between ground and the gun rail not meeting the TA’s height requirements. The ministry stopped investment in the CM MSG by 2023 due to the beginning of both the M1A2T and M60A3 life extension programs. The bureau also began to modify the third prototype with propellers and increased floating capability to make the vehicle like the ZTL-11 to replace the Taiwanese Marine Corps M60A3 fleet.

Clouded Leopard Series Shows Taiwan’s Advantages and Limitations

The CM Clouded Leopard series shows that Taiwan’s defense industry can produce IFVs in significant quantities to equip its military. For example, the AOIDC produced and delivered the 683 IFVs to all the TA mechanized infantry brigades as outlined in the contract. Furthermore, the CM also incorporated new technologies developed by the AOIDC, such as an integrated NBC system and a fire extinguishing system. The CM-32/33’s RWS is also significant since it is the first one of its kind that Taiwan indigenously developed for its military. However, the IFV’s development also showed the industry still has deficiencies it would need to overcome. The CM-34’s use of imported Bushmaster Mk44 barrels and feeding mechanisms illustrates how the industry is still unable to indigenously produce high-quality autocannons similar to those in the United States. Another example is the early versions of the RWS crashing due to overheating caused by the station’s slow heat dissipation.

The development of the CM 105mm MSG over the last 15 years illustrates the divide that exists between senior Taiwanese officers over how to best defend Taiwan. The AOIDC originally developed the Black Bear MSG because the Taiwanese military would potentially require the vehicle. However, senior military officers rejected the MSG in 2007 because they saw no operational need or requirement for the vehicle. Furthermore, the officers also feared that the MSG would supplement and take over the M60A3’s and M1A2T’s traditional anti-armor role at the mechanized infantry brigades.

This thinking is reflected in the armor officers’ belief that any vehicle using the word ‘tank’ should fit its exact definition, such as using tracks, a massive turret, and heavy armor. Some officers only realized they needed a platform capable of providing direct fire support to mechanized infantry while operating with the CM-32, 33, and 34s in cities and restricted terrain. The realization occurred due to observing how the CM-11 and M60A3’s were unable to provide support and accompany the CM-32, 33, and 34s in cities during the 2015 Han Kuang exercise. The renewed requirement for a direct fire support vehicle revived interest in the CM MSG.

However, the renewed CM 105mm project faced the same obstacles, such as some senior officers still do not see the need for a MSG because MBTs could fulfill the same role. This belief is reinforced by the introduction of the M1A2Ts and the extension of the M60A3s within the next couple of years. The officers believe there is no need for the MSG because they will have two MBTs to provide support to infantry in urban terrain. The M1A2Ts would likely be unable to fulfill the role since they would be defending key areas on the island, such as the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung. The M60A3s also proved to have difficulty supporting the CM-32/33/34s and mechanized infantry in cities due to the lack of mobility and inability to travel with the IFVs. The M1A2Ts would also face significantly worse mobility issues than the M60s due to the M1A2T’s increased weight and length.

The CM MSG also shows how senior Taiwanese officers still hold the belief that the military needs ‘big ticket items’ such as the M1A2Ts or the Hai Kun-class submarines to defend the island. These officers do not want to come to terms that they will be fighting a defensive war when China invades and need equipment that is survivable from air or missile strikes. Furthermore, the equipment will place severe restrictions on the Taiwanese Army’s ability to fully utilize it. For example, the M1A2Ts would be limited to only a few areas along the island’s western coast and would face severe mobility issues when moving to areas or locations where they are needed. The MBTs would also face logistical constraints, such as limited fuel or spare parts due to airstrikes destroying or disrupting logistical lines. However, the mindset would likely be tempered with the realization that the Taiwanese military requires equipment that fits more of its current defense outlook than its wishlist.