Monday, May 6, 2013

PLAN amphibious development

For PLAN followers, the past couple of months have brought some really interesting developments for PLAN amphibious warfare. The first Zubr was handed over from Ukraine to China on April 20th and the construction of the second one is well under way. The original contract called for 2 to be built in Ukraine and the other 2 to be built in China. It remains to be seen whether or not PLAN will see the need to procure more than that.

Last year, we were introduced to a LHD design that Chinas was offering for export. A couple of months ago, we’ve seen this LHD design displayed for export to Turkey and also at Abu Dhabi. This mysterious design is said to be 211 m long, 32.6 m in beam and 26.8 m high for a displacement of 20,000 to 22,000 ton. It’s a little wider than Type 071 and has a flat top, so it can hold 8 helicopters with the hangar space for 4. This is an increase over Type 071, but I would imagine the first Chinese LHD (let’s call it Type 081) to be much larger than this (30,000 to 40,000 in displacement) and able to hold carry more helicopters and armored vehicles. I personally think PLAN has studied USMC long enough that it would also want the LHD to be able to support STOVL fighter jet. Such a ship would be much more complex than Type 071, but is well within the technical capabilities of Chinese shipyards.

More than anything else, the most interesting development for me to watch recently is the recent exercise involving 999, the second Type 071 ship, launching attack and overtaking a defended island in the South China Sea. While I’m sure this development scared a couple of people in the Phillipines and Vietnam, it was interesting seeing all of the news report videos talking about what they tried to do in that exercise. It was also interesting to see that Type 071 can carry more hardware than I previous thought. Its hangar is said to be able to carry 4 helicopters of Z-8 class (the main helicopter used with Type 071 right now). Its well deck can hold a maximum of 4 Type 726 LCAC. Although in reality, we’ve never seen more than 1 Type 726 and several fast attack boats in the well deck due to the fact that only 2 Type 726s have thus far been commissioned. Each of the Type 726 is said to be able to carry 2 IFVs and one tank. It can also apparently transport 80 soldiers. It can travel at 50 knots and can reach 55 to 60 knots. So, it’s an impressive hardware if China can build enough of it. In front of the well deck, there is also a door to a large compartment of 2 floors holding armored vehicles and other heavy machineries. We’ve also seen numerous photos of well deck holding 1 Type 726 along with 15 or more amphibious IFVs. Depending on the number of Type 726 and boats it carries, a Type 071 could hold different numbers of IFVs and tanks based on the mission. According to news report, Type 071 has allowed PLA to launch assault 40 nm from the beach.

In this recent exercise, we can really see PLAN practicing different kind of maneuvers and learning how to really use Type 071. Z-8s were used in flanking maneuvers to attack the rear along with Type 726 sometimes later. This is used to soften the opposition while amphibious IFVs and fast attack boats are storming the beach. The first Type 071 was commissioned at the end of 2007 and this was the first time we’ve heard about this type of exercise. Maybe this would have happened sooner if Type 726 was available earlier, but I think this also shows how long it takes PLAN to learn to start using a new ship like this. They still have a shortage of Z-8s and Type 726s when we consider how many Type 071 they already have. So they will have to ramp up the production of those assets if they want to continue training and developing more advance doctrines and tactics in storming a guarded coastline. They will also need more of those if they want to build a much larger LHD. Attention has been shifted away from PLAN’s amphibious build up over the past year due to the development of CV-16, but it remains an important part of PLAN modernization.