Sea Transportation: Militarized Cruise Ships


August 7, 2023: Chinese ship builders and the military cooperate in deciding what features in new ship designs can be of use to the military as well as commercial firms buying and operating cruise ships. Foreign cruise ship builders often adopt the same features, at least the ones that confer a commercial advantage. Cruise ship design and equipment is always evolving. One of these developments is obvious; modern cruise ships are huge. Many cruise chips have displacements (250,000 tons) more than twice that of the largest aircraft carriers (100,000 tons). Ships that size are difficult to sink. Part of that is due to size, but the interior design is optimized to keep a sinking cruise ship afloat so that there is time for the thousands of passengers and crew to reach the lifeboats and get away from the sinking ship. Unlike the infamous Titanic over a century ago, modern cruise ships have enough lifeboats for everyone on board. These lifeboats are of a new design which means a larger capacity (over 200 people) are enclosed (for protection from the elements or rough seas) and have engines that can propel these large boats at speeds of up to 20 kilometers an hour.

These large, enclosed and relatively fast lifeboats are often a necessity for the ultra large (over, 200,000 ton) cruise whips. Size matters when it comes to finding a port where a ship can find a deep-water dock that can accommodate these behemoths, many ports don’t make the cut. Passengers can come ashore and return to ship via the lifeboats, which also resupply the cruise ships. The lifeboats may be enclosed but they have windows and comfortable seating to make it more attractive to passengers. The largest cruise ships have 30 or more of these large lifeboats.

China noted that these large lifeboats could also rapidly move over 6,000 soldiers armed with assault rifles and some anti-tank (or small ship) missiles. Such a force could secure an undefended coast so landing ships or ferries could bring in vehicles and heavy weapons like artillery and mobile rocket launchers.

For over a decade China has been planning to use a growing number of large civilian ferries, especially the RoRo (Roll On, Roll Off) models, for a major amphibious operation to seize Taiwan or other islands. Chinese military planners have run some simulations from the defender’s point-of-view and included the many anti-ship weapons Taiwan and its allies would have available, even after a port had been seized and reinforcements were needed to hold it. This is where the ferries and RoRos were essential, but staff exercises found that the civilian vessels were very vulnerable to attack and unexpected bad weather. These problems would, at the very least, render the civilian vessels unable to complete their missions and in some cases be lost. Arming the civilian ships with missile-defense systems, along with sailors to operate them, would help, but not solve the problem. The new, very large cruise ships are less vulnerable to anti-ship weapons and can carry enormous numbers of troops and support personnel as well as large quantities of supplies and munitions.

The staff exercises also found that there were now so many ferries and RoRos available, and part of the invasion operation, that there were not sufficient nearby Chinese ports to load all the civilian vessels at once. This was found to be a problem when the Germans were planning an amphibious invasion of Britain in 1940. With that in mind, China is now reconsidering its invasion plans.

As part of those plans, many Chinese RoRos have been modified for amphibious operations. Back in 2020 China was observed using a 20-year-old passenger RoRo ferry modified for amphibious operations in an amphibious training exercise. Built in 1995 as a vehicle/passenger ferry, the Bang Chui Dao was modified in 2019 to give it a sturdier and longer rear ramp that could load and unload the 26-ton ZTD-5 amphibious tank as well as the lighter ZBD-5 amphibious IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). Other modifications revamped the passenger area to accommodate about a thousand troops. Originally built to carry 1,200 passengers and about a hundred cars and small trucks, with the modifications the ferry can now carry fifty armored vehicles and nearly as many military trucks. In effect the militarized ferry can carry and land an amphibious mechanized infantry battalion on any dock, jetty or coastal area that the ferry can get close enough for its ramp to reach. RoRo ferries like this cannot handle rough weather, especially away from coastal areas. The ferries are not equipped for long voyages and these militarized ferries are intended for use against Taiwan or other nearby land masses. That means they must be loaded at ports close to the landing areas in Taiwan and there are not enough Chinese ports for that, plus such mass loading is observable from orbit and makes surprise attacks more difficult.

China has been modifying ferry designs for military use since 2012 when China launched Bohai Emerald Bead, the first of four passenger ferries designed for military use when called up for military service. These four ferries, each displacing 30,000 tons, can each carry 2,000 passengers (or troops) and up to 300 vehicles and do so for long voyages on the open ocean. This was but the first of many dual use (civilian-military) RoRo ships built in China. The government pays for the military modifications and assists in obtaining the financing for these ships. Owners are compensated when these RoRos are occasionally used for short periods of military service.

Militarized RoRos was an interesting development since it wasn’t until 2009 that the first RoRo ship designed and built in China entered service. This ship was designed for military use, as it can carry up to 5,000 vehicles (cars and light trucks), or over a thousand armored vehicles. It has nine fixed and three adjustable decks for vehicles. A RoRo ship moves next to a dock and then deploys ramps so that its cargo of vehicles can quickly drive right off. If, for example, China invaded Taiwan, a RoRo ship could move into a recently captured port and unload an armored brigade in a few hours. Chinese planners became aware that the Taiwanese knew some intact docks in the right places were essential for the RoRos to succeed, so those ports are now more difficult to take quickly and Taiwan has plans to cripple key ports before the RoRos can get to them.

The owner of most of these RoRo ferries is COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Co.), which operates a fleet of over 700 cargo, tanker, and RoRo ships. COSCO is owned by the Chinese government and its ships are available for use by the military. COSCO is a $20 billion a year business that also owns ship repair facilities and port operations around the world.

COSCO has been scrambling to buy or build more RoRo ships, mainly because Chinese automobile manufacturers are exporting more cars to developing countries where Chinese vehicles are very popular, some selling for half what Western cars sell for. Back in 2005 COSCO had only three small RoRo ships, all leased from Japanese owners, and realized it would be cheaper to build Chinese RoRos to move most or all its exported cars. At the time, most of the RoRo ships in the world were owned by Japanese shippers. Noting the military usefulness of RoRo ships, COSCO was ordered to not only build these ships in China, but to optimize them for military use. Now China is exporting most of its vehicles using Chinese-built RoRo ships and many are part of the wartime reserve fleet. This concept of a wartime reserve fleet had long been used in the West.

China has also been building conventional military amphibious assault ships like those used by the United States since the 1960s. In early 2021 China launched the third (of eight) 40,000-ton Type 075 LHDs. This type of amphibious assault ship uses helicopters to get most of its troops ashore. That makes three LHDs put into service or launched within 16 months. The first two were launched in September 2019 and April 2020. The first one entered service April 2021 and another is undergoing sea trials. As more are built the basic design is modified based on the experience of earlier ships and the availability of new technology.

There is a well dock in the rear for loading Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft as well as conventional landing craft. The vehicle deck carries up to a hundred vehicles, usually a mix of trucks and amphibious ZBD-5 IFVs and ZTD-5 light tanks. Vehicles can also be driven on or off the LHDs via ramps, like RoRo vehicle transports and ferries. It will take a few years of experience before determining the optimal mix of combat vehicles and landing craft for this class of LHDs.

For the moment China depends on militarized, but more vulnerable, RoRo ships to deliver most of the troops and vehicles during an amphibious operation and that plan is in trouble because the enemy has the means to damage or sink the RoRos as well as destroy the Taiwanese docks needed to unload the RoRo. There are not enough ports available to load all the RoRos and Taiwan has been practicing airstrikes on some of these ports, using new air-to-surface missiles. Taiwan is following Chinese efforts in this area with great interest and responding with their own disruptive ideas.

The primary problem is that China must cope with a near-peer opponent that is also Chinese. This bothers Chinese military planners because the situation is like what Russia faced in Ukraine. There the Russians were shocked by the unexpected steadfast and effective resistance by the Ukrainians. China, like Russia, has become a police state run by men (Putin and Xi) who expect to rule indefinitely. Putin ignored the poor state of his military and the Chinese have long openly complained of the same thing. China considers itself more pragmatic than Russia and that is good news for Taiwan, which is continuing to prepare to do a Ukraine against any Chinese attack.




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