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Written and produced by SF Team: Brian Kalman, Edwin Watson, Daniel Deiss
The Chinese government has achieved a great deal in terms of modernizing and increasing the capabilities of its armed forces in the past two decades and they are quickly obtaining parity with their counterparts in the West. China has made great strides along the long road to rebuild its military, so that it can compete and excel in the modern battlespace. Much has been written about the fledgling PLAN aircraft carrier program. With one conventional aircraft carrier in service, the Liaoning, and a second carrier being built, China has obviously made the commitment to acquire at least a small aircraft carrier strike capability.
Another important development, perhaps less sensational and headline catching than aircraft carriers, is the growth and modernization of the amphibious capabilities of both the PLA and PLAN. Chinese military strategists realize that naval power, including naval aviation, can project power and can also provide China with the more subtle, yet very effective means of naval power presence in the region. The presence of Chinese naval power in the region can be leveraged to influence advantage in political struggles with its neighbors. Neither naval presence, nor naval power and naval air power can take (or retake) and hold ground, and thus China has decided that a modern and capable amphibious force of sufficient size is a necessary component of its overall maritime strategy. It is significant that this force has doubled in size over the past five years and has been equipped with new, high-tech weaponry and the beginnings of a viable sealift component that can carry it to battle.
The beginnings of the Chinese interest in amphibious warfare dates back to the Korean War and the Peoples Republic of China’s efforts to defeat the Kuomintang in the 1950s. In 1953, the PLA established the PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC). Although comprising of two brigades of approximately 6,000 officers and men, the PLAMC have undergone a continuous transformation since the Taiwan Strait Crises of the 1990s. The force has been equipped with China’s most modern and capable small arms and equipment, and utilizes the new generation of ZBD05/ZBD2000 amphibious assault vehicles. In some ways modeled on the USMC, the PLAMC marines are highly trained in all forms of modern warfighting. They are considered a vital component of China’s rapid reaction forces, and are thus highly mobile and kept on a heightened state of readiness.
The current force structure of the PLAMC is of two brigades, the 1st Marine Brigade and 164th Marine Brigade. Each brigade consists of one armored regiment and two marine battalions and various support elements. The PLAMC relies on the high speed of its ZBD05/2000 series vehicles to carry them from offshore amphibious platforms such as the Type 071 LPD. The ZBD05 is the world’s fastest armored amphibious assault vehicle, capable of a top speed of 45kph (27mph) in the water. In addition, PLA marines are skilled in air assault operations, small boat assaults and underwater diving operations.
Although the PLAMC represents a very potent amphibious assault and rapid reaction force, the Chinese political and military leadership realized years ago, that the force is too small to respond to multiple threats across the full scope of China’s maritime boundaries, nor large enough to mount a successful invasion of Taiwan. A viable power projection capability in the form of amphibious assault and air assault forces is seen as essential in protecting the nation’s interests in Africa, the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and East China Sea, especially as it is confronted by U.S. attempts to contain it.
Starting in 2014, the Chinese high command decided to expand the two established Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions (AMID) to four. The 1st and 86th AMIDs are based in the Nanjing Military Region (Eastern Command), and the 123rd and 124th AMIDs are based in the Guangzhou Military Region (Southern Command). Each division is comparable to a mechanized infantry division in size and establishment. The expansion of the AMIDs gives the PLA a greater amphibious capability that might be required in the near future in deterring regional challenges to Chinese territorial claims in both the South and East China Seas, and providing a viable response to violations of its territorial integrity.
None of China’s potential adversaries in the region, other than the United States Navy, have a comparable amphibious warfare force. When combined with the PLAMC, the AMIDS give Chinese diplomacy a very robust practical demonstration of force. Regularly held amphibious exercises showcasing the growing aptitude of these forces only reinforce this reality. Perhaps the most obvious challenges facing the marines and AMIDs, and a major shortcoming that is in the process of remedy, is the lack of heavy sealift capability to transport these units over long sea voyages and within striking range of their theoretical targets.
Beginning in 2006 with the launch of the vessel Kunlun Shan, China started along the road to modernizing its amphibious assault capabilities. The first vessel of the Type 071 class Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD), the Kunlun Shan, is the first of six vessels planned. Four vessels have been launched and commissioned since December 0f 2006. These LPDs are equipped with an aft flight deck and hangar to support helicopter operations, and a well deck to allow amphibious assaults via AAVs, landing craft or LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushioned) hovercraft. The LPD has the inherent flexibility to provide over the horizon air assault and amphibious assault capability. The LPD is the perfect platform to respond to both military incursions into disputed island territories such as the Spratly and Paracel Islands, as well as a support platform for Chinese island bases in these areas.
The PLAN has 15 Type 072A Class LSTs in service. It is unclear how many total vessels are planned, but it is surmised that the Type 072A is meant to replace older Type 072 Class LSTs. The vessel has a small flight deck that can accommodate one helicopter, and enough underdeck space to stow a maximum of 10 MBTs, or 500 tons worth of light vehicles and cargo. Approximately 250 to 300 troops can be accommodated. There are a total of 32 Type 072 LSTs of all classes in service with the PLAN. These LSTs are traditional amphibious assault vessels that are loaded via a stern ramp and are beached bow-first during an assault.
China has made a significant effort to acquire large air cushioned landing craft, both indigenously and from abroad. In 2009 the Chinese government signed a deal with a Ukrainian firm to purchase two Zubr Class heavy assault hovercraft and the license to manufacture two more in China. These four craft have been supplemented by an additional four purchased from the Greek Navy. The largest combat hovercraft in the world, the Zubr can carry a 150 ton payload at a range of 300 miles at a speed of 40 knots. The advantage of air cushioned vessels is that they can carry their payload of troops and vehicles inland from the sea, traveling beyond the beach and deeper inland. Given the significant payload of the Zubr, a maximum of three Type 96 MBTs can be transported quickly to the battlefield, and deployed behind enemy lines.
China has produced an LCAC similar in design as the U.S. Navy LCAC, but it is smaller and carries a smaller payload. The Type 726 Yuyi was designed to be carried in the well deck of the Type 071 LPD, which can accommodate four of these hovercraft. The Yuyi can carry a payload of 60 tons at a speed of 60 knots.
A number of different concepts and models have been shown to the public that clearly showcase the PLAN desire to field an LHD in the immediate future. The planned dimensions and specifications of the various designs envision an LHD of very large displacement. At between 36,000 and 40,000 tons displacement, the vessel is much larger that the Royal Australian Navy Canberra Class LHD, as well as the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force Izumo Class DDH, each weighing in at approximately 27,000 tons. It is closer in displacement to the U.S. Navy Wasp Class LHD, which displaces 41,000 tons. Unless the PLAN is determined to operate fixed-wing VSTOL aircraft from the new vessel, as the Wasp Class LHD currently does, such a large size denotes an increased helicopter air assault capability above and beyond contemporary LHD design, or a significant cargo and amphibious assault capacity
China has a growing list of reasons to pursue an expansion of its amphibious warfare capability. Not only does China confront challenges to its perceived territorial integrity from a host of regional neighbors, it is more actively being challenged in the greater geopolitical sense by the United States. The United States is trying to contain an increasingly empowered China, at a time when China’s growing global interests and influence are in the ascension. Such a combination will undoubtedly lead to political and diplomatic conflict, if not military conflict at some time in the not too distant future. As it backs up its territorial claims in real terms, by developing settlements, military bases and early warning stations on a host of islands in disputed waters, it must have a viable amphibious warfare deterrent and the means by which to wrest control of any of these assets back from hostile invaders. It is most likely that the United States will continue in its belligerent attempts to contain a perceived adversary, as opposed to realizing the inevitability of the return to a unipolar balance of power in the world. This means continued military brinkmanship in the Asia Pacific region, and a likely confrontation with China.