The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is set to increase the size of its Marine Corps from about 20,000 to 100,000, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported on March 13. According to unnamed PLA insiders and experts interviewed by SCMP, elements of the expanded Marine Corps would be stationed abroad, including Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar in southwest Pakistan.
The PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC), part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has gradually been expanding its size over the last couple of years as its mission is slowly expanding from conducting operations in China’s coastal areas — including defending Chinese holdings in the East and South China Seas, next to preparing for a possible amphibious assault on Taiwan — to more global roles.
“The PLA marines will be increased to 100,000, consisting of six brigades in the coming future to fulfill new missions of our country,” a source told SCMP. The source also noted that two combat brigades were already transferred to the PLAMC, increasing the size from roughly 12,000 (two understrength brigades) to around 20,000.
Each PLAMC brigade is divided up into one armored regiment and two marine battalions. The brigades are equipped with ZBD05 tracked amphibious infantry fighting vehicles, ZLT05 tracked amphibious assault guns, and ZTZ-96A main battle tanks. The ZBD05 is reportedly one of the fasted amphibious assault vehicles, capable of top speeds of 45 km/h in the water.
According to IHS Jane’s, China’s Ministry of Defense may is also considering equipping its PLAMC brigades with the Norinco ZTL-11 8×8 amphibious anti-tank vehicle.
As I reported in January 2015, China purportedly is expanding its amphibious mechanized infantry divisions (AMID) from two to four or from about 30,000 to 60,000 men. Each division is equipped with up to 300 armored and amphibious transport vehicles, including ZBD05s and ZLT05s, but also heavier main battle tanks and associated equipment.
Interestingly, the PLAMC and the AMIDs still lack a joint command system.
While China may be building up the size of the PLAMC and AMID, the PLA’s major weak spot remains amphibious transport capacity. According to an estimate by the RAND Corporation, the PLA may be able to field 89 amphibious landing ships in 2017, including five Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious warfare ships and up to two bigger Type 081 (some reports use the designation Type 075) Xisha-class landing helicopter docks (LHD), large multipurpose amphibious assault ships.
Whereas Type 071 ships can carry up to 600 troops and 15-20 armored vehicles, the larger Type 081s (Type 075) allegedly are capable of accommodating up to 900-1,100 marines and 30-40 armored vehicles (along with eight helicopters). RAND estimates that the PLAN’s one-way total transport capacity will be 2.7 divisions or around 40,000 men by the end of 2017.
However, this estimate is based on a Taiwan invasion scenario and does not apply to the PLAN’s capacity to deploy larger PLAMC units globally. Nevertheless, China at this stage certainly has the capacity to conduct successful amphibious assault operations against medium-sized islands in the South China Sea or beyond.