Tuesday, September 15, 2009

China To Buy Armed Hovercraft


Defense News

China To Buy Armed Hovercraft


China will sign a contract in 2007 with St. Petersburg-based Almaz Shipbuilding for six Russian-built Zubr-class (Pomornik) air-cushion landing craft (LCAC) designed to disembark amphibious forces, including medium battle tanks.

Almaz Chief Executive Leonid Grabovets, who made the announcement at a Sept. 1 press conference, gave no price for the contract. Grabovets bought Almaz in August 2005 for an 83.03 percent share of the company from the MNP Group.

The 540-ton Zubr LCAC, the world’s largest amphibious assault hovercraft, can reach speeds in excess of 60 knots, can travel 300 nautical miles and can shoulder various large loads: 130 tons of cargo, 500 troops, three 50-ton medium battle tanks, 10 BTR-70 armored personnel vehicles or eight BMP-2 infantry fighting vehicles.

The Zubr is armed with two MS-227 missile launchers and two AK-630 six-barrel 30mm close-in air defense weapons. It features a bow and stern ramp for rapid deployment of troops and vehicles.

The Zubr crafts will join 10 aging 70-ton Jingsah II-class utility craft air cushion hovercraft with a cargo capability of 15 tons. Grabovets did not say which of the five types of Almaz LCACs China will buy.

Sources said it likely would be the Project 12322 type, which is designed to transport heavy vehicles and troops. The others include a passenger transport, two Coast Guard and search-and-rescue versions, and an armed cargo and troop transport vehicle designated Project 12061E.

Almaz supplied three Project 12322 hovercraft to the Greek Navy in 2001.

One U.S. analyst said China likely envisioned a special-forces role for the LCACs.

“The U.S. Navy uses hovercraft to transport amphibious assault troops from amphibious ships to the assault beach. The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] could do the same, but given the lack of large amphibious ships, the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] in a Taiwan scenario would likely use hovercraft to transport special forces [SOF] across the Taiwan Strait as part of initial amphibious operations or to land SOF covertly on a beach or in a harbor,” said Bernard “Bud” Cole, a China naval specialist at the National War College in Washington.

Since 1984, the U.S. Navy has operated about 90 smaller LCACs that can accommodate one main battle tank, three armored personnel carriers or 24 Marines. They have a range of 200 nautical miles, a top speed of 40 knots and a cargo capacity of 60 tons.

China-Built Zubrs?

There are signs that China plans to build its own version of the Zubr-class craft.

“The amount ordered here, six, won’t be enough to mount an invasion. But it’s a start. It could be that the Chinese want to test the vehicles or purchase a few and then begin bargaining over licensing rights to produce them in the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” said June Teufel Dreyer, an Asia defense specialist at the University of Miami, Fla.

One Hong Kong journalist said negotiations had already begun.

“The PLA has been negotiating with Russia Almaz Design Bureau over the past five years regarding buying Zubr or the technology,” said Andrei Chang, founder and editor of Kanwa Defense Review.

“The reason of hesitation is because of the high cost and large quantities. So my conclusion is: The PLA is trying to purchase the power system and other sub-system from Ukraine and build additional Zubr by themselves. In 2004, Ukraine delivered to China one UGT 6000 gas turbine. I believe that after acquiring the UGT 6000 gas turbine, China will start building its own Zubr air cushion landing craft within the coming three to five years or even sooner.”

Cole said China has been working for at least a decade on building fast amphibious craft that would allow it to project force.

“These include wave-piercing catamarans — a joint venture in Guangzhou with an Australian firm; wing-in-ground effect aircraft — Russian technology; and hovercraft of various sizes. All or any of these craft would likely be used as fast patrol boats or for fast troop lift,” Cole said.

Strategic Consequences

If China finally acquires these kinds of craft, it could shift strategic thinking in Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.

“A few years ago, the ‘don’t worry, be happy’ school of analysis of the PLA said that we should all be reassured that the PLA couldn’t attack Taiwan because it didn’t have enough hovercraft. Clearly, this is changing,” Dreyer said.

Taiwan has been re-evaluating Chinese invasion scenarios that include a decapitation strike on Taipei’s leadership or the seizure of a key airport by special forces.

“Six may not seem like a big deal, but what if the PLA 15th Airborne landing at CKS International Airport [near Taipei] could count on 18 T-99 main battle tanks or even 60 PTL-05 105mm gun wheeled tanks to help secure follow-on forces?” said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center.

The LCACs would allow China to threaten several small groups of islands off its coast, including the Spratlys and the small, uninhabited yet possibly oil-rich islands dubbed the Diaoyutai by the Chinese and Senkaku by the Japanese.

“The vessels would be useful in the Spratly Islands, and also in a Diaoyutai/Senkaku scenario. So the Zubr announcement isn’t a good sign from any of China’s neighbors’ point of view,” Dreyer said.

Chinese amphibious capability could force Japan to reconsider its defensive stance on the Senkaku island.

“The objective of Japan, which currently controls the Senkaku islands, is to prevent China from establishing any form of control — like it did over several atolls of the Spratlys — without having to build a fortress of its own on the islands. This strategy minimizes the economic and political costs of the military deployment, while providing sufficient defense against Chinese offensives via international legal venues,” said Yoichiro Sato, a professor at the Honolulu-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

Sato said Japan has shifted its deployment focus away from the northern island of Hokkaido to the western parts of the country and has conducted one exercise to respond to small-scale foreign invasions of Japan’s remote territories.

Retired Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force Rear Adm. Sumihiko Kawamura said the Zubr would be an “ideal weapon system for patrol and combat operations in the waters around the Spratlys and the East China Sea.”

But Kawamura said the Zubr is too big to operate from China’s amphibious ships.

“Therefore, the hovercraft is not likely to confront the enemy directly with an Iwo Jima-type amphibious landing. China’s procurement for the Zubr from Russia is not likely to make an immediate threat to a Senkaku scenario, but it could be a new menace for U.S. and Japanese naval planners responsible for the maintenance of power balance in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Kawamura, who founded the Kawamura Institute, a think tank in Tokyo. •