China put a fifth Type 071 class amphibious ship into service in January and two more are under construction. The first one arrived for duty in 2007 and by the time the second one entered service in 2011 the Chinese apparently realized they would need more than the four they originally planned to build. Meanwhile China is also expanding its marine force from three to seven brigades.
The 071s are LPD (landing ship dock) type vessels and were the largest ships in the Chinese Navy until the first aircraft carrier entered service in 2013. But while Chinese aircraft carriers are still a work in progress work was quickly found for the LPDs right away. This makes Chinese neighbors uncomfortable.
These LPDs are 210 meter (689 foot) long, 25,000 ton amphibious ships with a flight deck for up to four helicopters and a flooded well in the rear for landing craft. It normally carries four hovercraft in the well and two smaller landing craft suspended on davits. The ship can carry up to 800 troops (500 are more common) and up to 20 armored vehicles. Max speed is 46 kilometers an hour with cruising speed 33 kilometers an hour. At that speed an 071 can stay at sea for up to 60 days. The 071 class ships are similar to the American 25,000 ton San Antonio class or the French 21,500 ton Mistral class. The 071s have the smallest crew (120) compared to 180 in the Mistral and 396 for the San Antonio.
Armament consists of a 76mm gun, four 30mm anti-missile autocannon, and four 18 tube decoy/chaff dispensers (for anti-missile work). Each 071 is believed to cost about $300 million, less than half what a San Antonio or Mistral cost. .
The 071s have had some interesting adventures early on. In 2010 China sent the first one (the Kunlan Shan) to join the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. The Kunlan Shan went to Somalia without a lot of troops or any armored vehicles. But there were two Z-8 helicopters on board, each capable of carrying up to twenty troops, and the landing craft could be used to go after pirates. Some naval commandos were probably on board as these troops have been seen, several times, practicing landing on cargo ships (via helicopter or small boats).
The Kunlan Shan was the largest Chinese warship to be sent on anti-piracy duty. The previous five rotations (each four months long) only included frigates and destroyers. The appearance of the second LPD in the South China Sea made Vietnam and the Philippines nervous that China might be ready to seize possession of some uninhabited islands that all these nations claim. But the Chinese also found the LPD useful for handling the situation in the South China Sea and for disaster relief missions. These proved very popular with the distressed locals and Chinese diplomats.
Now that it is clear that China will soon have seven (and possibly even more) of these LPDs it is clear that these ships will be crucial in establishing and supplying small outposts in the South China Sea and elsewhere off the Chinese coast where there more disputed islands. The recent appearance of 071s in the Indian Ocean indicates Chinese amphibious ambitions have a very long reach indeed. When not being the intimidator the 071s stand ready to help out in natural disasters in the region. In both cases the 071s show countries in the region that China now has a large fleet and can be your friend or the neighbor who quickly invades you from the sea.