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China Is Building Its Own Marine Corps

March 20, 2017

Last week the South China Morning Post broke news of the PLA’s vast expansion of its marines. The report by Minnie Chan cited a gradual 400% jump in manpower for the newly minted branch.

China doesn’t maintain an equivalent to the US Marine Corps. But a 12,000-strong infantry force is attached to the PLAN. There’s a universal consensus the PLAN is deploying abroad soon in full-blown expeditions outside Asia.

The massive complex in Gwadar, Pakistan, and a base in Djibouti for guarding the Red Sea are deemed the likeliest destinations of the marines. These outposts and China’s notorious artificial islands form a maritime highway that’s essential to Beijing’s hegemonic goals.

It must be understood the PLA or PLAN “marines” aren’t a separate branch of the Chinese military. The organization didn’t exist until 1980, several years after China welcomed foreign investment. Since 1949 the PLA was a ground force with a brown water naval component widely considered inadequate–even for launching an assault on Taiwan.

In 1980 a single marine brigade was created for the South Sea Fleet equipped with Type 63 amphibious light tanks. Another was added in 1997, the same year a long-term modernization drive began for the PLA. This marine force hasn’t grown much except for adopting specialized gear and vehicles. Their missions weren’t too surprising either. The 1st and 164th Brigades are headquartered in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province, and train for deployments in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The modernized Type 63A light tank.

The South China Morning Post didn’t reveal the composition of China’s newer marine units. It did mention two brigades were added to the current force, now totaling 20,000 troops, but the names of these units were withheld. The available literature and research on modern Chinese amphibious warfare is almost non-existent compared to what can be collected about the PLAN.

One of the few helpful resources about the PLA Marines comes from the International Assessment and Strategy Center. A report prepared by Richard D. Fisher Jr. in 2012 titled China’s Gathering Amphibious and Airborne Expeditionary Capabilities offers useful trivia on the elusive subject.

The two original PLA marine brigades were estimated to have 6,000 men each. They were composed of 11-12 battalions and a reconnaissance unit:

  • 4-5 infantry battalions        IFVs
  • 1 anti-armor battalion        ATGMs
  • 1-2 armor battalion             light tanks
  • 1 artillery battalion             122mm howitzers
  • 1 engineer battalion
  • 1 HQ battalion
  • 1 recon unit / commandos

The timetable for the creation of the PLA’s de facto Marine Corps from 2017 onward is hazy. Their resources are a question mark as well. Though the PLAN spent the previous decade equipping itself for ocean-going deployments, the size of its amphibious assets total 235 transports of varying classes.

The Type 71 LPD.

To date the PLAN’s Type 71 landing platform dock (LPD) is its only ship type suited for carrying troops, vehicles, and helicopters over great distances. There’s serious speculation the PLAN intends to commission vessels of the same tonnage and capacity as the South Korean Dokdo-class amphibious assault ships in the next few years. But the lack of details means this isn’t worth anticipating soon.

The PLA does possess a range of combat vehicles suited for water crossings. If the PLA marines are going to be like the US Marine Corps, their ZBD-series of tracked APCs and the ZBL-type wheeled fighting vehicle gives them a huge advantage over regional opponents.

It isn’t a stretch imagining a squadron of Z-10 gunships and new medium-lift helicopters attached to each marine brigade. But the PLA’s fascination with UAVs, network-centric warfare, and fifth-generation aircraft could delay the new marine force’s activation for a decade. Is this waiting period the crucial impasse before China’s first military intervention somewhere?