Marines: Bigger Is Scarier

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September 17, 2019: In 2019 a new Chinese class of Chinese amphibious ship was seen under construction. There had been no official announcement from China, but this is normal. This shipyard photos showed what was apparently the planned 40,000 ton Type 075 LHD. This ship is designed to carry 30 helicopters as well as landing craft operating out of the well dock in the rear. These would move up to a thousand marine infantry troops carried on the ship to landing zones ashore. At present it appears that three Type 075s are planned and how many more are built will depend on how well the first Type 075s perform in service. These ships appear to be 250m (820 feet) long and 30m (99 feet) wide.

The Type 75 is similar to the eight American 41,000 ton LHD helicopter carriers that are capable of carrying up to twenty F-35B vertical take-off fighters. The design of these American mini-carriers began with the eight Wasp class LHDs. The last of these amphibious assault ships (Makin Island, LHD-8) entered service in 2009 and was followed by two more that had some drastic modifications that led them to be designated LHAs because they were a bit larger (45,000 tons) and did not have the internal dock for landing craft. The additional space was devoted to more fuel, weapons storage and aircraft maintenance. The first of these ships (LHA-6) entered service in 2014 and another is being built. The U.S. Navy would like to have six of these LHAs but that depends on money being available. The LPDs tend to carry 12 CH-46 troop transport helicopters, 4 AH-1 attack helicopters, 2-4 UH-1 helicopters, 4 CH-53E heavy-lift choppers, and 6-8 multi-role VSTOL aircraft. This is in the process of changing to 12 V-22s, 8 AH-1s, 10 F-35Bs, 4 CH-53Ks, and 4 Navy CH-60 helicopters. In both cases, actual air combat elements (the term for the reinforced squadron deployed on these vessels) may vary depending on the mission. The LHA-6 is being built with these new aircraft, tilt-rotors, and helicopters in mind.

Meanwhile, China was scaling up. In early 2018 they put a fifth Type 071 class amphibious ship into service 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 infantry 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 210m (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, a Type 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 Type 75s appear to have the same four 30mm autocannon plus two HHQ-10 anti-aircraft missile launchers. These have a range of about six kilometers.

The 071s 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) LPDs plus the larger Type 75s. 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.

 


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