China’s Gator Navy Makes Marginal Strides; Amphibious Exercises Tested New Capabilities
By Wendell Minnick
TAIPEI — During 10 years of naval modernization, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has largely ignored its amphibious capabilities in favor of adding frigates, destroyers and submarines.
The lack of interest in amphibious operations is suspect, since China has a stated policy of invading Taiwan if the island declares independence, but the evidence is clear. China has modernized its gator Navy and built more vessels, but it has largely maintained the same capability over the past decade.
In 1997, China was capable of landing one division on Taiwan’s beaches, said Dennis Blasko, a former U.S. Army attaché based in Beijing. By 2008, PLAN had not expanded that capability.
“Despite the recent construction of amphibious craft, the actual lift capability has not improved in over a decade,” said Blasko, author of “The Chinese Army Today.”
“The implications are the construction that has gone on is best described as a ‘modernization’ of the amphibious fleet, not necessarily a ‘buildup.’”
New amphibious lift vessels have been commissioned, older ships have been retired, and yet the PLAN still lacks sufficient lift for anything but a relatively small amphibious operation, Blasko said.
“From my perspective, I don’t see any startling new developments in amphibious warfare or amphibious capabilities,” said Larry Wortzel, a former U.S. Army attaché in Beijing.
“The ability to support amphibious operations with ‘over the beach’ craft [hovercraft] has improved, but it is an evolutionary improvement and not revolutionary.”
China has recently begun building an air-cushioned hovercraft with a design based on the U.S. Navy’s Landing Craft, Air Cushioned (LCAC) and the Russian Zubr-class LCAC, with a capability of transporting 60 tons of equipment, said Andrei Chang, a China military specialist with the Kanwa Information Center.
The hovercraft will be deployed on the new Type 071 landing platform dock (LPD), which can carry up to four hovercraft. The first Type 071 (998 Kunlun Shan), commissioned in November 2007, is based at Zhanjiang Naval Base in Guangdong Province in southern China.
China procured four engines from Ukrainian-based ZoryaMashproekt; established in 2001, the company makes gas turbine engines, Chang said.
China has improved and expanded its amphibious landing exercises, but PLAN still faces huge logistics and operational problems. Blasko estimates that roughly “one-third of PLA ground force infantry and armored divisions and brigades have conducted amphibious training to some extent, but not all units have equal capabilities.”
Most of China’s amphibious training takes place in the Nanjing and Guangzhou Military Regions (MRs), which contain the first echelon of assault troops in a Taiwan scenario, followed now by an increase in amphibious training in the Jinan MR.
“There is no doubt the level of proficiency for amphibious operations has increased over the past decade, but all units that have practiced amphibious operations are not at the same level of training proficiency,” Blasko said.
In 2008, two amphibious landing exercises were closely watched by outsider observers, the Lianhe2008 (Joint 2008) and the Libing2008 (Sharpening 2008).
These two exercises were unusual in that they were both “transregional” and conducted at the same time.
Lianhe-2008 was conducted by the 138th Motorized Infantry Brigade, 26th Group Army, Jinan MR in September.
“The brigade started in Jinan MR and moved by sea to Shenyang MR for the ground phase in a joint operation with the Navy and Air Force support,” Blasko said.
Then another transregional exercise, Libing-2008, started out of the Jinan MR with the 58th Light Mechanized Brigade/20th Group Army moving to the Beijing MR combined arms training center.
“Thus, the Military Region headquarters planned for and executed the deployment of two brigades from different group armies outside of the MR borders simultaneously. It is a relatively rare event for a single unit to deploy outside its MR boundaries,” Blasko said.
This also tested the MR headquarters C3 skills and “replicated the type of real-world events that Jinan MR might have to conduct in its role as strategic reserve for the PLA,” he said.
The exercises exposed overall shortfalls in the PLA training system and served as a “steppingstone in gradually improving PLA capabilities.”
As China-Taiwan relations improve, the likelihood of armed conflict between the two diminishes. However, as China begins to take on the challenges of becoming a global military power, it will no doubt have to improve its amphibious capabilities.
“For the future, the things to watch will be naval presence operations, such as the one initiated by the deployment to the Gulf of Aden,” Wortzel said. “If the PLA is serious about wanting to be able to respond to kidnappings and piracy, then some limited forced-entry capability will need to be added to its repertoire.”