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China is fast-tracking a new generation of amphibious assault ships intended to introduce new dimensions to air-surface connectivity and amphibious assault tactics, activities often demonstrated by the large People’s Liberation Army Navy in drills and exercises near the Taiwan coastline.
Chinese Type 075 Amphibs
The first of a new Chinese class of amphibs, called Type 075s, has now achieved initial operating capability, the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper reports.
The now operational ship, called the Hainan, will “visit harbors and ports all over the world and provide an outstanding image for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy,” the paper writes.
China's first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, the Hainan, has reached initial operating capability, and the vessel will visit harbors and ports all over the world and provide an outstanding image for the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, the warship's captain told the state broadcaster.
The Hainan will enter operational service after completing an upcoming year of training, and the Chinese paper quotes military analysts describing the ship’s new integrated warfare abilities.
“Often dubbed a helicopter carrier, the vessel can carry a large number of helicopters in addition to amphibious armored vehicles and tanks, and launch both horizontal and vertical landing missions on islands and reefs, and even land from the sea,” the paper says.
This conceptual approach to concepts of operations clearly aligns with US thinking regarding the US Navy’s strategic approach with its emerging America-class amphibious assault ships. However there are a couple of extremely critical variables to consider when it comes to any Chinese ability to truly match or rival that maritime warfare tactics made possible by the US America class.
While the Chinese paper may suggest that the new Type 075 amphibs introduce new or unparalleled dimensions of air-surface-and-ground warfare, the US Navy’s America-class amphibious assault ships operate with Osprey Tiltrotor aircraft, vertical-take-off-and-landing F-35B 5th-generation stealth technology and a new generation of US Abrams tank-carrying Ship to Shore Connector landing craft.
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China is known to be fast-tracking a new carrier-launched 5th-generation fighter jet, yet the emerging J-31 does not appear to have an F-35B-like vertical take-off capability comparable to the America class. Therefore, the new class of Chinese Type 075 amphibs, it would seem, might be quite challenged to project a 5th-generation air support capability for amphibious operations. Clearly the introduction of 5th-generation stealth attack is reshaping the tactical sphere of amphibious warfare by bringing new possibilities to multi-domain amphibious attack.
Secondly, it does not appear as though the Chinese Type 075 ships operate anything comparable to the US Marine Corps Osprey helicopter, a much demanded platform which not only enables new ranges and payloads available for transport and resupply but also supports Mounted Vertical Maneuver operations wherein amphibious forces can drop in behind enemy lines for surprise attack, mission reinforcement or clandestine hit-and-run ambushes in enemy territory. While much is likely unknown about the new Chinese amphibs, the PLA Navy ships simply may not operate with any kind of similar ability.
The Chinese Navy is also further accelerating its Naval modernization with the addition of a new type of “utility landing craft” able to transport armed vehicles, troops and supplies from ship-to-shore as part of an effort to support amphibious attacks.
Such a development is likely to be of concern to many at the Pentagon tracking Chinese modernization, given that the new vessels recently completed landing drills in the East China Sea. This concern is likely heightened by ongoing People's Liberation Army - Navy drills and amphibious warfare preparation training exercises off the shores of Taiwan. These kinds of amphibious craft, similar in concept to the US Navy’s LCUs or Landing Craft Utility vehicles, can bring large amounts of combat assets ashore to reinforce beach landings and penetrate further into enemy held territory.
The drills with the new craft, as described by the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper, “put the small landing craft's realistic scenario combat capabilities to test by practicing multiple courses over a long distance and time, the command said, noting that this enhanced the force's ability to win battles.”
Unlike air-cushioned landing craft such as the Navy’s new Ship-to-Shore connector, these kinds of utility Landing craft are often used to reinforce forces which have already established a beachhead. Air-cushioned landing craft are better equipped to traverse rough terrain and help penetrate an initial perimeter of enemy defenses.
Regarding the Taiwan question, sure enough the Chinese paper quotes PLA Navy officials referring to warfare preparation drills near the island of Taiwan saying that recent drills near Taiwan “featured multiple military service branches and multiple waves of vessels and aircraft.”
It may be tough to say exactly how realistic a Chinese amphibious assault takeover of Taiwan may be, yet the number of warfare preparation drills, warship transits and fighter jet flybys in the area, coupled with China’s intensified rhetoric about Taiwan unification, are certainly taken seriously by the US and its allies. This is why the US Navy continues to ensure a forward presence in the Pacific and coordinate closely with its regional allies to ensure a rapid response capability in the event of an invasion.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University