As the Chinese national day golden week passed, a lot of really high quality photos from PLAN bases were posted online. As newer ships get commissioned and the oldest ships get retired, many other ships get moved between different flotillas. In the past year, the main mass produced ships have been the type 052C/D series destroyers and the type 056 light frigate. It has certainly been a busy year when we factor in the other new ships. This past month, we are seeing what appears to be the modules of the 4th Type 071 LPD really taking shape at Hudong shipyard. On top of that, production for the smaller Type 072A landing ships have restarted and the first one has launched at WuChong Shipyard as No. 981.
Type 071 can be effectively used for South China Sea and Taiwan scenarios, but provide the additional blue water capabilities that Chinese navy never had. The restart of Type 072 series is aimed at either replacing older landing ships or responding to the increased tension in South China sea. Either way, it shows that Chinese navy will continue to have landing ships of this class for green water missions. PLAN has taken the approach of continuing to build modern littoral ships like Type 056 and Type 022 series while it is building up its blue water navy. The restart of Type 072A seems to be a continuation of this approach of building cheaper and less capable surface combatants for traditional missions. PLAN's identity certainly has not transformed to that to a power projecting blue water navy like USN.
The picture below shows modules from the new Type 071 under construction:
We first started to see photos of Type 071 under construction in 2006 and it was launched by the end of that year. It was commissioned by the end of 2007, but the process of learning to operate this new behemoth has been ongoing since. The second and third Type 071s launched in quick succession in late 2010 and 2011 while joining service a year later. There were speculations of modules for a 4th Type 071 at the time 3rd one was launched, but were proven to be false.
So, why have we not seen more Type 071 until now? There is both the human factor and also the supporting system factor. In the former case, PLAN and PLAMC have really just started operating something with the size ond blue water projection of Type 071. No. 998 was sent out on to Gulf of Aden relatively early on and other Type 071 units have been sent since. Most recently this year, all 3 Type 071s were out on different missions at the same time showing their value of this blue water asset to PLAN. It seems like at the time that PLA really needed more units of this class. Even so, only in the past couple of years have we seen the marine corp starting to conduct large scale amphibious exercises in South China Sea involving Type 071 + helicopters/hovercrafts/boats operating from it. All of this shows that it really takes time to recruit the personnel and train the crew member and the new marines to operate something like Type 071. At the same time, all 3 Type 071s have been assigned to the Zhanjiang naval base and there is probably a limit to how many Type 071s that base can handle before needing further expansion. So even if Hudong shipyard is capable of building one a year, PLA may not be able to accept them at that pace even if it has high need for this series. I don't see this as a problem, since it just gives them more time to identify problems and make incremental updates to the ship.
The other part that Type 071 depended on are the helicopters and hovercraft. Type 726 LCAC was designed to be operated from Type 071. According to some CGs in Chinese TV news and pictures of the inside of well deck, 4 Type 726s can be fit in there. In reality, we have never seen more than one such LCAC inside the well deck, because they have only built 3 Type 726s up to this point. It looks like Type 726 has finally been certified with the commissioning of 2nd and 3rd unit. Type 071 may have been held back while Type 726 is reaching this point. At the same time, more variants of Z-18 has come out recently. In Gulf of Aden missions, we've seen Z-8S, Z-8J and Z-8JH on Type 071. More recently, the more capable Z-18 series have entered service with PLAN as part of the carrier project and they could increase the capability of Type 071. It's quite possible that AEW and/or ASW variant of Z-18 will get stationed on Type 071 on missions where it is operating as the command ship of a expeditionary strike group, whereas transport variant of Z-18 will be used for more amphibious missions. According to mockups we've seen, 4 helicopters can be stored in the hangar of Type 071 with 2 Z-8 sized landing spot on the helipad. In reality, I've seen at most 2 Z-8s and 1 Z-9 operating on Type 071. This will probably change as more naval helicopters are inducted. The other thing we've seen operating in amphibious exercises are the amphibious armoured vehicles. At least 15 of which can be parked in the well deck of Type 071 and more of them can be parked inside Type 071. Since these vehicles already started to exercise with Type 072 landing ships, they are probably the most mature of the amphibious units operating off Type 071.
In conclusion, PLA is continuing with its practice of building amphibious ships for littoral and blue water missions. The construction of the 4 Type 071 would indicate that PLA is feeling more comfortable with this class of ships and ready to accept new unit.