Once largely aimed at constraining an adversary’s ability to approach and operate off the Chinese mainland’s coastal waters, the modernisation priorities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have evidently shifted to power projection in recent years.
This intent has been telegraphed by China’s latest defence white paper released in July 2019, which described how the PLA Navy (PLAN) is expanding its mission from “defence on the near seas” to “protection missions on the far seas.”
According to the 2020 China Military Power Report published by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), the PLAN is now the numerically largest navy in the world with approximately 350 surface and underwater platforms, including 130 major surface combatants. This enables the service to operate at much greater distances from the mainland than previously possible.
The PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC) is widely seen to hold a privileged position within the vast Chinese armed forces because of its prominent role in asserting dominance in the South China Sea (SCS). As a result of this unique remit, the service has in recent years received greater attention in terms of funding, equipment, and higher-quality recruits than many of the other PLA forces.
The DoD also notes that the PLAN is responsible for organising, manning, training, and equipping the PLA’s naval and naval aviation forces as well as the PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC), which is subordinate to the Navy. Currently, the PLAN is believed to be capable of landing division-sized formations through amphibious operations.
A significant expansion of the PLAMC was initiated around 2017 following the transfer of four brigades from the PLA Ground Force (PLAGF) to supplement the two existing brigades at that time, which increased the size of the PLAMC from around 13,000 to an estimated 36,000 personnel.
In particular, the DoD pointed out that China’s sustained investment in amphibious warfare platforms such as helicopter and troop-carrying assault ships is a clear indication of its resolve to boost its expeditionary capabilities. The latest example of this would be the PLAN’s new Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) – also known by its NATO reporting name of Yushen-class – which displaces an estimated 36,000 tonnes and measures approximately 236 metres in length with a 36m wide flight deck. This new class of amphibious assault ships represent the second-largest platforms operated by the PLAN in terms of displacement and size after its aircraft carriers.
The vessel is believed to be capable of supporting up to 30 helicopters, with six landing spots on its deck dedicated to helicopter launch and recover operations. It also features a floodable well deck that enables air-cushion landing craft and amphibious armoured vehicles to deploy directly from the ship during landing assault operations.
The rate at which it is building these large vessels is astounding. On 29 January, state-owned shipbuilder China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) launched the third Yushen LHD at its Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai. The completed hull was manoeuvred out of its dry dock to a pierside berth in the Huangpu River where it will undergo fitting out and further testing before being commissioned into service.
The lead ship was launched in September 2019, while the second was launched in April 2020. It is worth noting that all three Type 075 LHDs have entered the water within a timeframe of just 16 months.
The lead ship suffered an internal fire on 11 April during its fit-out, although the extent of damage caused is not known. It eventually resumed sea trials in the SCS and appears to be close to its commissioning after it left the HudongZhonghua shipyard and arrived at the PLAN’s new naval base on Hainan Island. The second Type 075 returned to the shipyard following the first phase of its sea trials, which commenced in December, and is likely to undergo further testing.
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