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The Future of China's Amphibious Assault Fleet
Image Credit: Chinese Internet

The Future of China's Amphibious Assault Fleet

 
 

One of the more long-awaited People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) projects over the last decade is the 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD). Initially this project was erroneously named as the 081 class for a few years (that designation refers to a class of minehunters instead), before the consensus settled on 075.

It has been known for many years that 075s would be constructed at Hudong Zhonghua shipyard, where the PLAN’s 071 landing platform dock (LPD) ships were built. However until the last year or so there was no clear confidence as to when the first 075 could be expected to be observed, or how many may be built. In the last few months a number of very informative new pictures and rumors have emerged, allowing us to create a more detailed timeline for the near term.

This piece will also review overall composition of the PLAN amphibious assault fleet today and in the near future, as well as overall PLA sealift capability. Particular attention will be paid to vessels that may be relevant for a Taiwan invasion contingency, given that news and defense media appear to be particularly fixated on such a scenario.

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075 LHD

Currently it is thought that an initial batch of three 075 LHDs have been ordered, all to be constructed at Hudong Zhonghua. The first ship’s modules began assembly in the main large drydock in early 2019 alongside the eight 071 LPDs in the same drydock. Numerous good quality aerial photos and even a satellite photo were taken around the time of and during the eight 071 LPDs’ launch on June 6, 2019. These photos depicted both the eight 071s and the first 075 residing alongside each other in the same drydock. During the eight 071s’ launch, the full drydock was flooded and the first 075 was watertight despite its hull being incomplete, allowing the eight 071s to be floated out into the Huangpu River. Subsequent photos taken after the launch of the eight 071s showed that additional hull modules have since been assembled to the ship, including the first module for the hangar and overlying flight deck.

The most recent rumors suggest that the second 075 hull has begun assembly alongside the first 075 hull in the same drydock. Considering that the number of modules that could be observed in staging areas around the drydock were too numerous for merely a single 075, and considering the size of the drydock can enable two 075-sized ships to be assembled simultaneously, it is likely to be a matter of time until we receive photographic evidence of the second 075 hull being worked on alongside the first hull in the same drydock. In terms of timeline, the most conservative estimate for the launch of the first 075 would be early to mid-2020 – however, some more spectacular rumors have suggested it may be launched around October 2019.

Given the pace of work Hudong Zhonghua has demonstrated with the first 075 as well as their past work with 071s, it is very plausible that all three 075s ordered as part of the rumored first batch could be launched by 2021. A speculative timeline from this author suggests that the first 075 could be launched in late 2019/early 2020 (with the 2nd 075 partway complete by this time), after which assembly of the third 075 will occur at the position within the drydock formerly occupied by the first 075. The second 075 could be launched by late 2020 (similarly with the third 075 partway complete by this time), and finally the third 075 would be launched in mid to late 2021.

In terms of size, the 075 LHD is currently estimated to have a full displacement of about 31,000 tons, with the capacity to carry up to 30 helicopters. It is likely to have a well deck capable of accommodating two Type 726A landing craft air cushion (LCAC) as well, and a vehicle/cargo bay.

There are significant indications that the first batch of three 075s will be followed by additional LHDs. Part of these plans include a larger “075A” LHD that may displace around 40,000 tons or more. However, it is not known if an order of 075As will occur immediately after the current first batch of 075s, or if the PLAN will order for another batch of 075s first. This allows a tentative set of predictions to be made; by 2025 it is likely that at least three LHDs of the 075 class will be in service, and by 2030 it is almost certain that significantly more than three LHDs will be in service but it is not known if this will be six, eight, nine, or perhaps even more LHDs (likely made up of a combination of 075s and 075As).

There are no indications of any active development for a short take-off vertical landing fighter aircraft that could be used for the PLAN’s LHD fleet.

071 LPD

The 071 LPD is a well-known ship class at this point. Six ships are currently in service, with another two ships in sea trials and fitting out respectively. The seventh and eighth ships are likely to be commissioned by late 2019 and late 2020 respectively. It is not currently known if any additional 071 LPDs will be ordered in the next few years, considering Hudong Zhonghua will likely be quite busy constructing 075s in this time.

There is not much to write about the 071 class apart from its physical characteristics, some of which have been reported in an inaccurate manner. The ship has a full displacement of up to 25,000 tons, with a large hangar capable of accommodating four Z-8 sized 13-ton helicopters. A single 071 can carry up to 20 armored vehicles in its dedicated vehicle bay, and four Type 726A LCACs can be carried in its large well deck. However, multiple pictures have also shown that 071s can carry a large number of amphibious armored vehicles of the ZBD05/ZTD05 family in its well deck to deploy directly from the ship to beach, in rows made up of four vehicles each.

The full length of the 071’s well deck is likely over 130 meters (considering it can accommodate four 33 meter-long Type 726A LCACs), and the full length of a ZBD05 pattern vehicle is 9.5 meters. Assuming each vehicle needs a clearance of 1.5 meters immediately before and after it, the theoretical longitudinal footprint of a ZBD05 vehicle would be 12.5 meters. Therefore, the well deck of a 071 can likely accommodate around 10 rows of ZBD05 family vehicles, for a well deck capacity of 40 ZBD05 vehicles. In addition to around 20 vehicles in the dedicated vehicle bay, the total capacity for carrying ZBD05 family vehicles of a single 071 should be considered 60 rather than only 20.

For a Taiwan contingency, the total (well deck plus vehicle bay) vehicle capacity is likely of greater interest than the “vehicle bay only” capacity, as the latter count would assume the well deck was used for other roles such as to operate LCACs. However, the initial waves of an amphibious assault would likely rely on deploying large numbers of amphibious armored fighting vehicles like ZBD05/ZTD05 to contest a beach, rather than relying on much smaller numbers of soft skinned and otherwise defenseless LCACs transporting handfuls of armored vehicles onto a beach where enemies may reside.

LCACs

The PLAN operates a number of LCAC types. The most well known is probably the Zubr imported from Ukraine and Russia, boasting a full displacement of about 550 tons and capable of accommodating up to 140 tons in an internal bay. However, the size of the vessel does not allow it to be carried in LPDs or LHDs, and for the PLAN it would only be appropriate for operations within a few hundred nautical miles of China’s coast (including Taiwan). At present five vessels have been identified, but the pace of delivery and subsequent construction has been relatively slow, and it’s unknown how high the demand for Zubr LCACs will be.

The Type 726/A LCAC is the Chinese equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s LCAC, designed to be deployed from 071 LPDs and 075 LHDs. Ten such vessels are currently thought to be in service, with more under construction. These vessels are larger than USN LCACs but are less space efficient, with slightly lower payload capacities and lower available deck space. Additional Type 726As are in construction at Jiangnan shipyard, with production rumored to begin at an additional shipyard in future. It is possible that the production run of Type 726As will correspond with the total well deck capacity for the PLAN’s fleet of 071s and 075s.

Other types of smaller LCACs capable of embarking squads of infantry also exist, but are only appropriate for small-scale insertion.

Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs)

The PLAN operates up to 32 LSTs. These are divided between the Type 072, 072II, 072III, and 072A, respectively three, four, 10, and 15 strong per class. The 072 and 07II displace slightly over 4,000 tons while the 072III and 072A displace close to 5,000 tons. For the purposes of summary, each ship can carry up to 10 tanks each in terms of displacement. All LSTs have a bow door and a rear well deck-style ramp for deployment of vehicles in the bow and aft directions via the cargo hold running through the full length of the ship.

About 10 smaller Type 073A 2,000 ton LST style ships are also in service, and about a half dozen similarly sized, older 073 ships of a similar configuration. Their cargo capacity is correspondingly smaller compared to the 072 family of LSTs.

An 800 ton class landing ship — the 074 and 074A class — also exists, numbering about 12 and 10 respectively.

PLAA landing craft and STUFT

One major sealift capability often overlooked in assessments of PLA amphibious assault sealift strength is the fleet of landing craft operated by the PLA Army/Ground Force (PLAA/PLAGF). These craft are not small, and can displace between 500 and 800 tons, featuring enclosed deckhouses, with enclosed or semi-enclosed cargo holds, and are operated by the PLAA to support their amphibious units. They regularly participate in exercises, carrying armored fighting vehicles, logistics vehicles, and troops.

For example, the Type 271 displaces 500 tons, while the bigger Type 271 III displaces 800 tons, with the latter capable of carrying three medium main battle tanks with a range of 1,000 nautical miles. Clear estimates of fleet size are difficult to ascertain, but as many as 80 ships of the Type 271/III LCT family may be in service today. A new design of ship similar to this configuration with higher speed was observed in 2015, suggesting the PLAA will continue maintaining a fleet of these ships for their own naval transport purposes

These 500 ton and 800 ton landing craft are entirely inappropriate for blue water operations or even long range regional missions. However, these vessels should have more than sufficient seakeeping to cross the Taiwan Strait to support an amphibious assault. In terms of seakeeping, cargo capacity, and enclosure, ships of the Type 271/III family obviously greatly exceed the 10 ton full displacement Higgins boat landing craft made legendary during D-day carrying a platoon of men, or even the USN’s contemporary landing craft utility ships displacing under 400 tons when full. Efforts in future to assess PLA amphibious assault sealift capabilities should at least consider the variety of PLAA landing craft capable of a strait crossing.

Finally, another understudied element of potential PLA sealift resides in the fleet of Chinese roll on-roll-off (ro-ro) trade ships that can be requisitioned for military use. Such ships will require a port or a secured beachhead with a mobile Mulberry style harbor to enable delivery of their cargo, but the international use of ships taken up from trade (STUFT) for amphibious augmentation is long and well documented, and the PLA has often exercised with STUFT. One 2017 estimate from China Defense Blog suggested up to 150,000 troops with associated vehicles and supplies could be lifted by the Chinese state owned ro-ro fleet at once, if needed. Assessment of Chinese ro-ro STUFT ships should be considered in any sealift assessment, including for a Taiwan contingency.

Summary

The PLAN amphibious assault fleet is likely to enjoy further expansion between now and the mid 2020s. Key projects to watch include the 075 LHD family, whether the 071 LPD family will be further expanded or not, and whether the PLAA landing ship fleet will be further sustained and recapitalized.

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