The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s Type-71 Yuzhao-class is an underestimated piece of kit. In service since 2007, the PLAN commissioned its fourth Yuzhao, the Yimengshan, earlier this year. The ship is supposed to complete sea trials by this December. Although the displacement of these ships vary slightly, they are each capable of transporting a fully complemented battalion of PLAN marines, 15-20 armored vehicles, and four Z-8 or Z-18 helicopters (the former being a copy of the French Aerospatiale SA 321 Super Frelon.) Each Yuzhao can hold up to four Yuyi landing craft (hovercraft), which in turn can carry a platoon of marines or armored vehicles. Each hovercraft can carry up to 60 tons, which would allow it to embark a Type 96 main battle tank.
Comparable to the USS San Antonio-class, the Yuzhao displaces around 20,400 short tons and, according to China State Shipbuilding Corporation, has a maximum range of 10,000 nautical miles (19,000 km). This basically gives the ships the necessary range to operate anywhere in the Eastern Pacific or Indian Ocean. They are not heavily armed, however, which explains why they are not as frequently exposed in the foreign media as China’s other “sexier” recent naval additions. Each ship carries only a single 76 mm AK-176 gun. However, they are reasonably well protected by four AK-630 Close-in Weapons Systems (CIWS), as well as chaff and decoy launchers. By comparison, another modern vessel in service with the PLAN, the Type 54A Jiangkai II-class frigate, carries only 2 CIWS.
The Yuzhao has already proven its operational utility. Since 2008, all three operational Yuzhaos have deployed in the ongoing anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden (see here and here). These have primarily provided logistical support to the other warships and the embarked special operations forces safeguarding civilian ships in the region. Furthermore, two ships in the Yuzhao series, the Kunlunshan and Jinggangshan, participated in the search for Malaysia Airlines MH 370 in the Indian Ocean in 2014.
A military’s equipment often indicates what kind of wars they are planning to fight. Acquiring anti-ship missiles and attack submarines, for example, is often a clue that a state is preparing to fight a large opponent by employing an anti-access/area denial strategy. A state which acquires advanced air-lift and amphibious capabilities is probably preparing to conduct power-projection missions away from its own shores.
The Yuzhao is almost certainly designed at least partially with a possible invasion of Taiwan in mind. However, as their operations to date show, the Yuzhao-class can also be used for a wide range of other missions, such as so-called humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR), or for the evacuation of Chinese citizens abroad. As China’s use of military assets in Libya and Yemen shows, this is a realistic possibility. If a large number of Chinese citizens were stranded in a coastal war-zone and evacuation by civilian airliners or smaller-scale ships was impractical, the Yuzhao could be a useful tool. Having one of these ships permanently stationed close to potential hot spots could ensure quick dispatch and would be doubly useful (Xuzhou in Libya, and the Weifang and Linyi in Yemen, anyone?). Another potential area of use could be in the disputed South China Sea.
The PLAN has another useful ship in its rapidly expanding fleet. According to IHS Jane’s, the PLAN is planning to commission another two Yuzhao-class ships in the coming years. Whatever their intended use is, the name of the class of ships is apt: Yuzhao roughly translates to “Omen” or “Prognosis” in Chinese.