As Beijing and Washington, DC struggle to dominate the Asia-Pacific one particular body of water is the most likely flashpoint in a genuine shooting war. It isn’t the Taiwan Strait. Chinese state media have always played a crucial role advertising the PLAN’s slow annexation of the South China Sea. A not so subtle tactic is to publicize military exercises in the contested area.
In January, for example, a sizable “landing ship flotilla” spent three days conducting drills for a mock sea battle. It’s unknown if a marine amphibious exercise on a secluded beach also took place. But the message couldn’t be clearer: China’s navy is the master of these waves.
From January 17 to 19 two Type 71–also known as Type 071–landing platform docks or LPDs sailed to an undisclosed location in the greater South China Sea. These were Hull 999 Jinggangshan and Hull 998 Kunlunshan. Each of these ships carry a battalion of marines and at least two hovercraft for delivering them to shore.
The LPDs in the January drills were accompanied by smaller landing ship tank or LST vessels. Based on photos released by the PLA’s main news outlet, the Type 71’s were joined by what looked like four Type 72 or Type 72A LSTs.
Being a live fire exercise the armaments of each ship were tested. The resulting photos offered a unique glimpse of the Type 71’s arsenal, which is actually quite impressive. It appears each Type 71 LPD supports a 76mm PJ-26 gun on its bow. These naval artillery pieces are probably copies of the ubiquitous guns manufactured by Oto Melara.
Defensive weapons aside, the Type 71 is supposed to function as a command center and can perform a variety of missions. This does beg the question: How long before the PLA finally receive their own gargantuan amphibious assault ships–an LHD?
Another weapon system on the Type 71 is a rotary cannon similar to the Soviet AK 630. Take note of the chaff rocket launcher next to it. The Type 71 is supposed to have four close-in weapon systems on its deck. It’s a remarkable amount of firepower. But whether or not these work in tandem with SAMs hasn’t been verified.
Since the Type 71’s are troop transports foremost, whether or not the marines onboard are allowed to train with MANPADs or other large caliber weapons stored in the ship for air defense is an interesting possibility.
Each Type 71 supports a spacious flight deck that can fit two Z-8 transport helicopters. The ship’s hangar offers space for a quartet of these helicopters. The flotilla that took to the seas in January had six ships total. If these did launch an amphibious operation, they would be able to deploy anywhere between 1,500 to 3,000 PLAN marines.
Even if they carried just a little more than a thousand marines, there’s enough space among the ships involved for a battalion of tanks, armored fighting vehicles, and artillery. It’s worth speculating if this kind of deployment offers clues on the composition of a PLAN light brigade for seizing remote islands.
For the PLAN to be flexing its muscles in the South China Sea is far from provocative–it’s routine. As the US Navy and other countries send warships across the same waters, the PLAN have maintained a steady schedule of activities that involve their ships training for actual combat. Judging by how often these are reported by Chinese state media, these happen on a monthly basis at the very least. If not with ships, then with planes.