21 Mei 2010
Type 081 Landing Helicopter Deck (photo : Strategycenter)
There has been significant soul-searching over the past year in the U.S. Defense Department about the viability of the Marine Corps’ amphibious assault mission, tied to the controversy over the troubled General Dynamics Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program. No such doubts about amphibious operations exist in China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Since the early 1990s, the PLA has developed and deployed two generations of amphibious armored assault vehicles, and more recently developed a range of specialized amphibious assault and support systems. While this effort is largely focused on preparing for a possible invasion of Taiwan, it will also help the PLA undertake long-distance amphibious assault operations as the PLA Navy (PLAN) builds a number of large amphibious transport ships later this decade.
ZTZ-63A amphibious tank (photo : tiexue)
In 2010, the 180,000-plus Marine Corps, supported by the U.S. Navy’s fleet of 31 large LHD/LPD (Landing Helicopter Dock/Landing Personnel Dock) transport ships and 11 aircraft carrier battle groups, may be the world’s premier amphibious projection force. But in terms of manpower and mechanized firepower, the PLA’s amphibious forces are much larger. Also subordinate to their navy, the PLA marines themselves only have about 10,000 personnel organized into two brigades. The PLA’s main amphibious forces, however, reside in six or so PLA group armies (GA) near the Taiwan theater of operations, which could total about 300,000 troops with varying degrees of amphibious equipment and proficiency. The most heavily equipped and trained are the 1st amphibious mechanized infantry division of the 1st GA of the Nanjing military region, and the 124th amphibious mechanized division of the 42nd GA of the Guangzhou military region.
Once dismissed by some U.S. analysts as amounting to a “million-man swim,” the PLA has made great strides toward assembling its “joint island campaign,” which combines electronic, missile and air attack capabilities to support coordinated PLA amphibious army, marine and airborne strikes to secure entry points for follow-on forces. While formal PLAN and PLA transport ships may only be able to move 30-40,000 troops (much less with armor and support equipment), a 2006 Taiwan military estimate held that 5-7 additional divisions could be carried by mobilizing civilian ships.
ZBD-05 (photo : huanqiu)
Since the PLA’s amphibious forces have lacked sufficient organic air and artillery support, a condition that will change, it has placed a premium on developing amphibious assault vehicles that fight their way to shore. Since the late 1990s, PLA amphibious army and marine units have operated the unique 18-ton ZTZ-63A amphibious tank. The vehicle is a successor to the T-63 amphibious tank, which was armed with an 85-mm. gun and derived from the Soviet PT-76 tank in the early 1960s. The ZTZ-63A compensates for its light armor by carrying a computer-controlled 105-mm. stabilized cannon, which fires while moving and in low visibility. The gun fires a co-produced version of Russia’s Bastion laser-guided, gun-launched antitank missile, which has a 4-5-km. (2.5-3.1-mi.) range that exceeds the accurate range of the conventional antitank rounds fired by the 105-mm. guns on Taiwan’s modified U.S. M48 and M60 Patton tanks.
Type 07 self propelled howitzer (photo : army recognition)
Along with this amphibious tank the PLA developed and deployed the 13-troop Type-63C amphibious armored personnel carrier (APC). This vehicle took the obsolete 1970s-vintage T-63 APC and added buoyant chambers fore and aft and an outboard motor for power. Though inelegant, it cut cost and development time. The Type-63C was made in command and armored repair and recovery (ARV) versions; there are also ARV and logistic support versions of the ZTZ-63A. With a 400-500-hp. diesel engine powering pump-jets, the ZTZ-63A’s estimated water speed of 12 kph. (7.4 mph.), with an expected 5-7-km deployment range, was quickly judged insufficient, and the 600 or so ZTZ-63A tanks and perhaps many more Type-63C APCs are now being succeeded by faster and longer-range vehicles.
Landing craft air cushion (photo : china-defense)
Likely spurred by the U.S. effort to move its amphibious operations farther from shore and develop the EFV, which it has tracked since the early 1990s, the PLA’s successor to the ZTZ‑63A was probably in advanced development as the latter was being deployed. First appearing in Chinese Internet source images in late 2005, by 2006 it was clear that the PLA was deploying what has been recently designated by government sources as the ZTD-05 and ZBD-05 family of amphibious assault vehicles. Both the Chinese and U.S. vehicles use a planing hull propelled by powerful water-pump jets, with retractable prow plane and rear “wing” and retractable suspension. But in contrast to the EFV, China’s vehicles are being deployed today in PLA army and marine units and could soon be offered for export.
Dong Feng EQ-2102 (photo : Militaryphotos)
The reasons for the success of the PLA’s new vehicles are simple: their lesser requirements and smaller size, which resulted in lower technological barriers and a faster development timetable. The ZTD-05 weighs an estimated 26 tons and can reportedly travel 40 kph., while the EFV pushes 35 tons and does 46 kph. Unlike the EFV, the ZTD-05 carries a version of the 105-mm. low-recoil gun that arms the ZTZ-63A, and also uses the Bastion antitank missile. The ZBD-05 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), armed with a 30-mm. automatic cannon and low-cost HJ-73C antitank missile, is more comparable to the EFV, which is also armed with a 30-mm. cannon in its IFV version. While both have crews of three, the ZBD‑05 carries 10 troops while the EFV carries 17. The ZTD/ZBD hull is used for command and ARV variants.
Type 071 Landing Platform Docks (photo : china-defense)
Other specialized amphibious vehicles have emerged that demonstrate the PLA’s commitment to forced amphibious landings. In late 2009, Chinese Internet images emerged of a new amphibious 122-mm howitzer, designated the Type-07B early this year. There was an unsuccessful amphibious 122-mm. program in the 1990s, but the Type-07B apparently combines the gun and fire control from the new Type-07 self-propelled howitzer with the ZTD/ZBD-05 hull. The Type-07B permits longer-range fire support farther inshore with heavier and varied ammunition, including laser-guided rounds.
The PLA is additionally gathering its versions of the “uglies,” specialized equipment to breach or clear a landing zone. These include a truck-mounted 240-mm. mine-clearing multiple-rocket system placed in a small landing craft utility, and trucks with heavy and lightweight aprons that roll on sand to prevent sinking by wheeled vehicles. There are also multiple amphibious logistic support vehicles: the Dong Feng EQ 2102 6 X 6 truck, two families of Jeep-like vehicles and an amphibious version of an Isuzu 4 X 4 truck.
Missing so far are larger transport ships and organic air support. The PLAN only has one 20,000-ton Type 071 LPD but more are expected later this decade.
Also expected are several similarly sized Type 081-class flat-deck LHDs. These will use a new hovercraft smaller than, but similar in configuration to the U.S. Navy’s LCAC. Since it tried and failed to purchase British Harriers in the late 1970s, the PLA has been interested in vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft, though a Chinese source from 2005 told DTI that Chengdu Aircraft Corp. was investigating a possible F-35-like program.
So it stands to reason that by the 2020s the PLA could be capable of projecting heavily armed amphibious forces well beyond East Asia, which should give pause to those who consider the U.S. Marine Corps a luxury of diminishing utility.