Marines: China Quietly Expands

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March 17, 2016: In January 2016 China put three more Type 72A LSTs (landing ship, tank) into service and there appear to be more under construction. At least 18 Type 72As have been identified and it is unclear how many China will eventually have but they are obviously intent on having a lot of them..

The Type 72A is a 5,000 ton ship that can carry 500 tons of cargo, five medium tanks or eight troops. There is also space for 250 infantry. The crew of 104 operates the ship along with one twin 37mm anti-aircraft gun, twin diesel engines and all the machinery necessary to operate the equipment needed to get cargo on and off the ship (via dock, smaller landing craft or onto a beach). There is also a helicopter landing pad but no hanger. Top speed is 37 kilometers an hour although while cruising speed it is 25 kilometers an hour. Range on internal fuel, at cruising speed is 5,400 kilometers. Max endurance at sea is about two weeks.

The LST was developed in the United States at the request of Britain before the U.S. had entered World War II in 1941. Nearly a thousand of these hundred meter (300 foot long) ships were built from 1942 to 1945. They could carry as many as 20 tanks and put them right on to a beach. The beaching process was not without its shortcomings. While the ship had a full load displacement of 4,000 tons, it could only be at 2,400 tons when running up on the beach. Even at that, there was usually damage done to the LST. The average landing operation would render ten percent of the LSTs involved unfit for further service. Moreover, the wear and tear on those that survived the run up onto the beach was such that, during the war, only about 85 percent of the LSTs still operational were actually fit enough for another landing. In effect, after about ten landings, an LST was a wreck and no longer useable for anything but moving cargo from one dock to another. This was typical of all ships that ran up on beaches to disgorge their cargo. The LST was basically a modified transport and, as such, was rather slow (14 kilometers an hour normally, with a max speed of 20-22 kilometers an hour). Normally they carried a crew of some 100 and were usually armed with eight 40mm anti-aircraft guns. LSTs were often converted to other uses, especially when they only had a few more beach landings left in their tortured hulls. Some were ended up serving as repair ships, PT-boat tenders, floating barracks and supply dumps, casualty evacuation ships, and even improvised aircraft carriers for light reconnaissance planes (eight of which could be operated off a portable airstrip set up on deck). It was often said that "LST" referred to "Large Slow Target" because of their slow speed and weak anti-aircraft armament.

Since 2000 China has been diligently building more amphibious ships. This was largely an effort to replace aging Cold War era relics while upgrading the amphibious fleet overall. Currently China has three LPDs (the U.S. has nine), over a hundred landing ships (LSMs and LSTs) and nearly 200 landing craft. The LPDs and landing ships can cross oceans while the landing craft can reach Taiwan and are mainly coastal but are often carried by larger ships for long distance voyages.

Most of the smaller amphibious craft actually belong to the army and, until recently you could tell that because the army ships were painted blue, while the navy ones were gray. But now the army is also painting its ships gray so you will have to get a closer look to tell who owns what. That is even more difficult now that the army is building more large ships, like one that appeared in 2013 which the army officially described as a RO/RO (Roll On/Roll Off) ship but on closer examination it was an LSM that could carry a dozen vehicles and about two hundred troops. In other words a mechanized infantry company. This new LSM was built in an army shipyard, has ramps in front and back and is armed with four 14.5mm machine-guns.

The Type 067 LCU can carry 50 tons for up to 800 kilometers and remain at sea for ten days at a time. These seagoing LCUs can operate in rough water while using its own navigation system. These Type 067s have been around for a long time. The first version began building in the 1960s and 130 were put into service. A scaled up version of the Type 067, the Type 271, can carry the latest, heavier (50 ton) Chinese tanks.

China also keeps track of hundreds of commercial ferries and barges that can be mobilized by the military and used for amphibious operations against Taiwan. It is believed that there is sufficient lift for over 300 infantry and mechanized (tank and mechanized infantry) battalions. That’s about 24 divisions. There is additional shipping (mostly civilian) for moving support units.

Since 2008 more landing craft have been built that can operate far at sea. This shows that the Chinese had their eyes on the South China Sea for some time and built all these long-range amphibious ships in anticipation of going after small islands and reefs far from the coast.

 


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