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China Is Rolling Out Huge Amphibious Assault Ships

May 12, 2020

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The 2020s are shaping up to become the decade when China’s version of a Marine Corps goes live. Just seven months after the launch of a new amphibious assault ship its sibling underwent the same fanfare on April 22, a Wednesday, and there’s reason to believe a couple more are on the way. These Type 075 amphibious assault ships shouldn’t be confused with aircraft carriers; they do have a large decks and hangars for supporting helicopters. Their role, however, is delivering a marine contingent to their objective. The appearance of the Type 075’s might inspire comparisons with the US Marine Corps’ own America-class LHDs but these Chinese vessels scale a little less.

China maintained specialized sub-units for amphibious operations within the PLAN for decades but this changed in 2017 when a sudden expansion started by moving veteran PLA air assault brigades to the navy. Progress has been slow, however, since the goal of this shift is very ambitious; the PLAN is expected to field a corps-sized marine formation at some point in the near future. But the extent of its basing, capabilities, and logistical capacity is unknown. The existence of the Type 075 sheds light on why these marines are needed. The PLAN must be able to project its forces abroad and secure strategic waterways.

Chinese media coverage of the Type 075 remains superficial although the two ships that were launched are the largest LHDs built in Asia. The displacement of a single Type 075 is speculated to be near the 40,000 ton range or almost the same as their American rivals. These proportions eclipse close peers like the Canberra-class LHDs of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Hyuga-class “helicopter destroyers” of Japan’s naval branch. The PLAN’s LHDs are expected to undergo months of trials before they’re commissioned and assigned names. A crucial difference between the Type 075’s and their larger US Marine Corps counterparts is the latter are designed to support VTOL strike aircraft like the F-35B. The Type 075, on the other hand, has a flight deck meant for helicopters such as the Z-8, which is the largest operated model by the Chinese military.

If Type 075’s are intended to perform missions like the USMC its defensive subsystems will be formidable and combine short to medium-range SAMs and anti-aircraft artillery. Its complement of rotorcraft seems less impressive. The PLA faces a shortage of helicopters and if its newly minted marines must fight their only available transports on a Type 075 are Z-8 helicopters, which are Chinese copies of the French Aerospatiale Super Frelon, with possible support from Z-9 multirole helicopters for medevac, search and rescue, and anti-submarine warfare. There’s no indication the Type 075, like the Wasp-class or America-class LHDs, can manage to have its own attack aircraft since the Z-10 gunship hasn’t been modified for naval operations. By comparison the USMC have a fleet of V-22 Ospreys with their superb range and cargo capacity and combat proven AH-1Z Vipers to provide close air support during marine amphibious operations.

A serious hurdle for the PLAN’s goals of building a marine formation is having specialized equipment developed for their use. Ground vehicles are no longer a problem since Chinese amphibious troop carriers are superior to their US counterparts. PLAN marines have the added advantage of light tanks, wheeled assault guns, and various mobile artillery systems at their disposal. The speed of the Type 075’s production is a cause for worry though. If the schedule for Type 075 launches are two each year by 2022 the PLAN surpasses any of its neighbors with six band new LHDs. This is enough for dispersing several thousand marines to strategic locations and waterways in other continents. As the PLAN prepares to adopt its first CATOBAR carrier displacing 90,000 tons and then a nuclear-powered supercarrier beyond 2025 the pressure is on the US Navy to try and contain and discourage this rapid naval expansion.

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