As the Chinese Navy develops itself more and more into a blue water navy there are still several naval challenges closer at home that require the focus of the Chinese Navy. The most important challenge is Taiwan. Taiwan forms a major obstacle for the Chinese Navy as the island blocks Chinese access to the Pacific Ocean. Taiwan forces the Chinese Navy to make use of two bottlenecks in order to venture in the Pacific Ocean. The Luzon Strait to the south of Taiwan and the East China Sea in the north create these two bottlenecks in which the Chinese Navy can easily be detected and tracked as it progresses into the Pacific Ocean.
The reunification of Taiwan with mainland China has been a long standing objective of the Chinese Communist Party but US backing of Taiwan prevents any military actions on the Chinese side. Should China be able to control Taiwan it can then provide more protection for its fleets as they venture out in the Pacific, reducing the chance of being detected. Taiwan thus plays a key role in Chinese naval thinking and it thus shouldn’t be a surprise that China has a powerful amphibious fleet that could be used to invade the island .
As the Chinese Navy modernizes it also builds new and modern amphibious warships. This article will focus on the modern amphibious warships and describe their capabilities.
The Type 071 amphibious transport docks or Yuzhou-class ships has been in service since 2007. Of the original total number of six ships, four have already been constructed and in service. A fifth one is currently under construction.
These ships have a displacement of 25.000 metric tons with a length of 210m, a beam of 28m and a draft of 7m. These ships have a range of 10.000 nautical miles when cruising at 18 knots and have a max speed of 25 knots.
More important is the fact that each ship can carry a marine battalion of 500 to 800 troops as well as 15 to 20 armored vehicles. Their hangar and flight deck allow these ships to operate up to four Z-8 helicopters.
It has been rumored for several years that China is working on a new class of amphibious landing ships called the Type 081. Details about this ship remain unknown and even now it seems unlikely that any construction work has begun.
The Type 081 LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) will have a western design like the French Mistral Class, have a displacement of around 25.000 tons. Its dimensions are estimated to be around 210m long, 32m beam and 26m high. It will operate about 12 helicopters, eight on deck and four stored in a hanger.
The ship will be able to accommodate around 1.000 marines, with the endurance of 30 days at sea. The operational range is expected to be around 7.000 nautical miles.
A total of three ships will be expected to build once the construction of the Type 071 has ended.
A change in tactics and doctrine
These new warships differ radically of the current Chinese amphibious warships. The older ships are only suited for an invasion for Taiwan. Their purpose is to execute a massive landing on a shoreline and land as much men and equipment on the beach as possible.
These new warships are still capable of doing the same mission but the limited amount of landing craft means that they land troops at a much slower rate than their predecessors. Though each ship can accommodate a marine battalion it is impossible to land them all at once. These ships however provide some additional flexibility.
The use of hovercraft landing crafts mean that these landing crafts can even traverse a beach, landing troops further away from the shoreline while helicopters allow small teams to be inserted further inland. In the case of an invasion in Taiwan these modern ships will most likely execute small scale attacks while the main invasion will be done by the older ships that can land more troops in the first wave.
The new modern amphibious warships are clearly designed for operations outside a Taiwan invasion scenario. Their small complement of marine battalions as well as the use of helicopters means that they will be used to execute small scale attacks and raids. These new warships are more suited for operations in the South China Sea with its many small island garrisons. Thus China will possess the right type of ships for military operations in any future conflict in the South China Sea.
At the same time China is becoming a more global maritime power, reaching as far as the Mediterranean. It needs the means to project power over long distances and be able to deliver troops overseas if needed. The civil war in Libya showed us that China is already capable of evacuating its citizens out of a warzone by sea. This kind of operation is best to be done by amphibious warships as their landing craft and helicopters allow for a rapid extraction and their marines could deliver the necessary protection.
These new amphibious warships are also well suited for the execution of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Once again, their landing craft and helicopters as well as the large medical facilities on board of the ships allow these vessels to deliver aid in places that are cut off from the outside world. China thus has more potent means of projecting soft power around its near waters and in the Indian Ocean.
Evolution in ship designs
One last note should be placed about how these ships have a lot of similarities with western ships designs. The Type 071 amphibious ship is a clear copy of the US Navy San Antonio class while the Type 081 is more based on LHD warships like the French Mistral class and the US Navy America class.
One could say that China took an easy way in developing new ships, and especially larger warships, by simply copying them from their western analogs. Still, once a warship has a successful design it is hard to make big changes in its design without changing its effectiveness. China also has limited experience in building anything larger than a destroyer. By copying a western design it therefor gains some knowledge on how to design and build larger warships without having to go to an initial learning curve that results in ill or wrong designed warships.
China’s new amphibious warships are a radical break from its older ships. They are no longer aimed in delivering as much troops as possible on a hostile shore in the shortest time as possible. Instead these ships are more suited for small amphibious invasions or amphibious raids. This makes these ships less suited for an invasion scenario like Taiwan but more for small scale attacks against smaller targets. The small island garrisons in the South China Sea are thus a more likely target.
Aside from their pure military power these new ships also allow China to evacuate its citizens in conflict zones easier. At the same time it also give China the means to project soft power as these warships are also well suited to deliver humanitarian aid and disaster relief to isolated place.
By copying a western design China also skips an initial development phase and gains immediate experience in building a successful warship design. It hereby closes the technological gap with its adversaries faster than was anticipated several years ago.