China and the US: amphibious ambitions

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As the United States Marine Corps contemplates shifting the make-up of its forces in the face of a challenging operating environment and the proliferation of anti-access/area-denial capabilities, China is about to take the next step in beefing up its amphibious capability.

Recent images from China reveal that the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is close to taking the next step in the rapid development of its amphibious forces, with the first of a new class of large amphibious assault ship (LHD) in an advanced stage of construction. Meanwhile, the vision recently set out by the new head of the world’s premier amphibious force, the US Marine Corps, has been causing a stir by suggesting that it might shift emphasis away from what have been some of the classic building blocks of its capability.

What has been missing so far from the PLAN’s burgeoning amphibious line-up has been an LHD-type vessel with a large flight deck for helicopter operations and a floodable well-deck for landing craft and air-cushion vehicles. Such a vessel was long anticipated, and evidence steadily grew that the PLAN’s first LHD, designated Type-075, was under construction in Shanghai. The latest available images suggest the vessel is structurally nearly complete and could be ready for launch either later this year or in 2020. It looks as if a second Type-075 is also now under construction. It is believed that at least three ships of this type are planned.

PLAN Type-075

What imagery has been revealed so far shows an imposing-looking vessel that could rival the US Navy’s Wasp-class LHDs in size, at about 40,000 tonnes full-load displacement (FLD). At the very least, the vessel looks to be on a par with the largest European LHD designs, the Spanish Juan Carlos I, at some 27,000 tonnes FLD, or the new Italian Trieste of 32,000 tonnes.

The Type-075 will further increase China’s potential to conduct expeditionary amphibious operations in and around the South China Sea, and possibly beyond. This potential has already been significantly enhanced with the completion of six of the PLAN’s impressive-looking 18,000-tonne FLD Yuzhao-class Type-071 amphibious landing ships (LPDs), with at least two more being built. To go with this capacity, the PLAN Marine Corps has expanded from approximately 10,000 personnel in the middle of this decade to an estimated 28,000-35,000.

Nevertheless, rather like aircraft-carrier operations, mastering the complexities of operating an LHD and fully developing its supporting aviation capabilities are likely to be challenges for the PLAN. Just what scale of capability the navy will be able to deliver in the near future at least, and in what circumstances, will remain open to question.

Operational evolution

To add to this imponderable, the operating environment for amphibious operations, and particularly operating large amphibious naval platforms like LHDs and LPDs close to shore, has become significantly more challenging with the proliferation of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. This has been underscored by the words of the new commandant of the US Marine Corps, General David Berger, who took over in July this year.

The US Marine Corps has already been undergoing a significant refocusing of its capabilities and posture, not least to respond to the A2/AD challenge. But, as he set out his vision in his Commandant’s Intent and Commandant’s Planning Guidance documents, Berger suggested that the US Marines will have to go significantly further to remain credible and effective when these A2/AD capabilities increasingly threaten ‘traditional large-signature platforms’ in close and confined waters. The aim is to field capabilities that enable the US Marine Corps to play an integrated role in supporting forward sea-control and sea-denial operations in a heavily contested environment.

Berger is certainly not advocating the abandonment of the US Navy’s traditional large amphibious ships, not least because of their huge utility – including the LHDs (and LHAs with enhanced aviation capacity) as ‘light carriers’ for the short take-off and vertical landing variant of the F-35 Lightning II strike fighter.

More innovative and flexible

However, he is certainly arguing that the US needs to be more innovative and flexible in the options it deploys, including new uninhabited systems that will allow forces to stand off much further from the coast and use the new technologies and capabilities themselves to deliver persistent presence ‘inside an adversary’s weapons systems threat range’. But what most captured people’s attention was his directive that the US should not in future be bound by the long-established and somewhat iconic force goal of 38 large amphibious ships.

This will inevitably provide Chinese planners with food for thought as they contemplate bringing the Type-075 into service. There is little evidence that China is at all advanced in the kinds of innovative and, particularly, stand-off capabilities that the US Marine Corps is already fielding, such as tilt-rotor aircraft, or is working on in the shape of uninhabited systems.

Many other nations are now investing in amphibious capabilities because of their growing utility in a wide variety of missions. None have the same level of operational ambition as either China or the US, but all are sure to be watching closely how the PLAN’s and US Navy’s amphibious capabilities continue to take and change shape.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime. The Military Balance+ includes data on amphibious vessels in navies and maritime forces worldwide.

Nick Childs, IISS, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security