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Hovercraft From Hell
by James Dunnigan
June 23, 2011

Both Greece and China bought Zubr type hovercraft from Russia and Ukraine, and came to regret it. The bad news began last year when Greece decided to retire two of its four Zubr class hovercraft. These vessels entered service between 2001-5. One came from Ukraine and three from Russia. They turned out to be more expensive, than expected, to maintain, and spare parts were difficult to obtain. Because of this, often only one of the Zubrs were fit for service most of the time. So, to solve the spare parts problem, and save money, two of the Zubrs were retired early.

Earlier this year, the first Zubr built for China was badly damaged in an accident, and now China is looking into just buying the technology and trying to improve on it, while building all the hovercraft itself. 

These 555 ton watercraft were developed by the Soviet Union during the 1980s. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, three years after the first Zubr entered service, the shipyard that built the Zubrs went to Ukraine, where it was located. After years of marketing the Zubr, Ukraine finally got its first export sale, to Greece, in 2000. Russia helped out with this by providing three of the four Zubrs it had. Before the Greek sale, only four Zubrs were in service (two in the Russian Navy, and two in the Ukrainian.) These craft are expensive. The Greeks paid $50 million each for four of them. The Chinese order was to be completed by 2013, and that would make 12 Zubrs in service, if the reliability and spare parts problems had not shown up.

The Zubrs can carry about 150 tons of cargo, including tanks (three of them). Alternately, ten smaller armored vehicles can be carried, or trucks, or up to 500 troops. The big advantage of the Zubr is that it moves over coastal waters at speeds of up to 110 kilometers an hour (nearly a hundred kilometers an hour sustained.) Range is short (about 480 kilometers), mainly because a craft like this consumes enormous quantities of fuel. Armament consists of a 30mm autocannon for defense against anti-ship missiles, and two quad launchers with SA-N-5 anti-aircraft missiles (with 6,000 meter range.) Zubr is also designed to carry 140mm unguided rockets, or up to 80 naval mines. Zubrs have a crew of 31, and usually stay at sea for less than six hours per sortie.

The Chinese were buying two Zubrs to be built in Ukraine, and another two built in China, with the help of Ukrainian engineers and technicians. Apparently the Chinese are actually buying, licensing or stealing the Zubr construction technology. China is paying about $80 million each for their Zubrs. China has a long coast, and the Zubrs will have plenty to do. The Zubrs will be something else for Taiwan to worry about, and would come in handy if the communist government in North Korea collapsed, and China wanted to rush in forces to seize ports along the west coast of the Korean peninsula.

But now it looks like it may be a while before Zubrs are perfected, and can then reliably prowl the Chinese coast.


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