PLA Amphibious Capabilities: Structured for Deterrence

Publication: China Brief Volume: 10 Issue: 17

A few weeks before the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released its 2010 report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” a Taiwanese military intelligence assessment reportedly asserted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) "regular amphibious abilities have … increased, with transport capacity reaching a full division" (Taipei Times, Jul 19). Unfortunately, the 2010 DoD report does not support the assertion that amphibious capabilities have “increased.” This year’s report shows no change in the number of PLA large and medium amphibious ships from 2009. In fact, based on these figures and other publicly available material, despite the expansion of PLA Army amphibious and Marine units, the modernization of the PLA Navy (PLAN) amphibious landing fleet, and increased amphibious training over the past decade, PLA amphibious lift capacity is roughly the same as it was assessed to be in 1997. Moreover, as non-traditional security missions have risen in prominence for the PLA, barring a major change in the international and cross-Strait political environment, the PLA does not appear to be readying itself for large-scale amphibious operations in the near to mid-term (probably out to at least five years), particularly against Taiwan.

Background

Prior to the 500,000-troop reduction of 1997, the PLA amphibious order-of-battle consisted of a single Navy marine brigade at Zhanjiang, Guangdong province in the South Sea Fleet and an Army amphibious tank brigade in Fujian province in the Nanjing Military Region (MR). While other Army units trained occasionally in amphibious operations, these two brigades, with less than 10,000 personnel, were the PLA’s main amphibious force.

At about the same time, the DoD’s first report to Congress on the “Selected Military Capabilities of the People’s Republic of China” concluded, “China’s fleet of about sixty amphibious ships conducts modest-size training exercises in coastal regions. Although China has never conducted a division-scale or larger amphibious exercise fully coordinated with air support and airborne operations, its amphibious force is believed capable of landing at least one infantry division on a beach, depending on the mix of equipment and stores for immediate resupply” [1]. The capacity of landing “at least one infantry division” means that it was sufficient to transport the two amphibious brigades.

During the reduction in force from 1997 to 2000, the personnel size of the PLA’s amphibious force tripled as Army units were transformed and assigned new duties, but amphibious lift capacity did not increase at the same pace. The PLAN is assessed to be able to transport to Taiwan roughly the same size force as it was assessed to be capable of lifting 13 years ago. This means that the PLAN amphibious ship force has been modernized, but not significantly expanded in capability over the past decade.

The former 164th Infantry Division was downsized and transferred to the Navy to become the second marine brigade. Two motorized infantry divisions were reorganized, issued armored vehicles and transformed into amphibious mechanized infantry divisions. Currently, PLA Army amphibious units are more than twice the size of the two PLAN brigades. Yet the total designated amphibious force (two divisions and three brigades), estimated at some 30,000 to 35,000 personnel, amounts to only a fraction of the approximately 34 maneuver divisions and 40 brigades in the Army (and Marines) [2].

Amphibious training has become more prominent, larger and routine. Designated amphibious units receive priority for annual maritime training, but also conduct training for other missions. Other maneuver and support units from the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs undertake amphibious training to a lesser extent, as do some units from the Jinan and Shenyang MRs. Over the past decade, roughly 25 infantry and armored divisions and brigades, amounting to one-quarter to one-third of the total ground force, have conducted some type of amphibious training [3]. The size and number of exercises per year varies, with a peak in 2001 when nearly 100,000 Army, Navy and Air Force personnel participated in a drill at Dongshan Island at the southern tip of Fujian province (China Daily, July 12, 2004).

Nonetheless, according to the Pentagon, despite modernization of the amphibious fleet, the PLA’s amphibious lift capacity now remains roughly the same size as a decade ago: “capable of sealift of one infantry division.” Overall capabilities are described as:

“The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands such as the Pratas or Itu Aba …. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, defended offshore island such as Mazu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities” [4].

The paragraphs below provide details that support these conclusions and demonstrate how these capabilities are consistent with Beijing’s declared intention to protect its sovereignty and to deter what Beijing labels “separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’.”

Marine and Army Amphibious Units

The 1st Marine Brigade was formed in 1980 (PLA Daily, May 6). Previously, a Marine division had been established in 1954, but was disbanded in 1959. Nearly 20 years later, the 164th Marine Brigade was established out of an Army division [5]. Each brigade consists of approximately 5,000-6,000 personnel (including some women) and is organized into three or four infantry or amphibious mechanized infantry battalions, an armored regiment, an artillery regiment (including air defense and anti-tank missile units), plus smaller engineer, reconnaissance (including some Special Operations Forces), chemical defense and communications units [6]. Amphibious vehicles include Type 63A amphibious tanks, older armored personnel carriers (including Type 86 BMP-type infantry fighting vehicles and Type 63 APCs modified with bow and stern extensions and outboard motors), new ZBD05-series amphibious vehicles (seen in October 2009 military parade), and 122mm self-propelled howitzers [7]. These amphibious vehicles can “swim” in shallow water for several kilometers. Often they are launched from amphibious ships a few kilometers offshore, but are vulnerable to high winds and waves.

Due to their location, Marine units are primarily oriented toward operations in the South China Sea but can undertake out-of-area missions. They train with South Sea Fleet landing ship units and helicopters often at training areas on the Leizhou Peninsula. Mostly they train by themselves (i.e. not in “joint” exercises among the services), though Marine units can participate in larger joint training, such as the Sino-Russian combined exercise, Peace Mission 2005, held in Shandong. There, on Day 2 of a three-day exercise, elements of a Marine armored regiment conducted a beach landing along with Russian forces (People’s Daily Aug 25, 2005; Kommersant, September 8, 2005). Detachments of Marine Special Operations Forces have also been assigned to each of the six PLAN task forces conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

The Army’s designated amphibious force is comprised of 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division and an amphibious armored brigade in the Nanjing MR and the 124th Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division in the Guangzhou MR. The armored brigade likely has three or four armored battalions and a mechanized infantry battalion plus support units. It appears to be armed with newer Type 96A amphibious tanks as well as older light tanks and APCs (PLA Daily, June 16, 2009). Total personnel for the brigade probably reaches nearly 2,000 men [8].

The 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division has undergone two transformations in the past decade. The first was from its motorized predecessor into its initial amphibious mechanized form, which entailed getting new equipment (such as modified Type 63 amphibious APCs) and dedicating itself to the practice of amphibious warfare. The second conversion began in 2009 when new armored vehicles, like the ZTD05 series (seen in the October 2009 parade) and ZBD05, were delivered. Currently, the unit has a three-year plan to build an information-based operational system. Significantly, division leaders acknowledge that although they know what their goal is, the unit still has a long way to go to accomplish it (PLA Daily, April 26). The division undertakes extended amphibious training every year, often culminating in a full division evaluation exercise, but it also is involved in many other types of exercises, including acting as a “blue force” in opposing force exercises [9].

In the Guangzhou MR, the 124th is equipped and trains much like its brother unit to the north. Similar to several other infantry divisions in the ground force, these two divisions have been downsized to consist only of two mechanized infantry regiments and one armored regiment along with artillery and anti-aircraft regiments and other support units. As such, these reorganized divisions now count roughly 10,000 personnel on their rosters instead of 12,000 or more under previous structures [10].

Amphibious units can spend three or more months per year training in tasks associated with landing operations. These units also prepare for non-amphibious roles and can be used in non-traditional security missions. In addition to the designated amphibious units, nearly all main force combat units in the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs have conducted some amount of amphibious training, as have units from Jinan MR and a few from Shenyang and Beijing MRs. Amphibious training areas have been established in the four MRs along the coast (Guangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan and Shenyang) to accommodate this activity, though a shortage of training areas is a problem [11]. Training usually begins with movement to coastal sites around May and can continue through September or later, as new units rotate into the areas. Training often progresses from swimming lessons, to loading and unloading vessels, to small unit exercises, and finally large unit evaluation. Usually units practice within their own MRs, but cross-regional training has become more common in recent years. For example, in September 2008, Joint 2008 (Lianhe 2008) involved all three services and featured the 138th Motorized Infantry Brigade of Jinan MR moving from Shandong across the Bohai to conduct an amphibious landing on the Liaodong peninsula (People’s Daily, September 23, 2008). In the last few years, amphibious exercises have not reached the grand scale demonstrated in 2001.

Amphibious Ship Units

The PLAN has two landing ship flotillas (denglujian zhidui), one in the South Sea Fleet and another in the East Sea Fleet, and a landing ship group (dadui) in the North Sea Fleet [12]. Each flotilla probably has two or three subordinate groups. Because it provides direct support to the Marine brigades, the South Sea Fleet landing ship flotilla appears to be larger than the East Sea Fleet’s. Each landing ship group commands some 10 to 15 large and medium landing ships. Smaller landing craft used to transfer personnel and equipment from ship to shore include many small 10-man-boats with outboard motors and about a dozen small and medium air cushioned craft.

Over the past 10 years, newer ships have replaced older amphibious ships, which were retired from service. Currently, large landing ships include one Type 071 Landing Platform Dock, approximately seven Type 072 (Yukan Class), 10 Type 072-II (Yuting Class), and nine Type 072-III (Yuting-II Class). Medium landing ships include seven Type 074A, 13 Type 074 (Yuhai Class), and 11 Type 073-III (Yudeng Class) [13]. Large and medium landing ships can make the 100-plus nautical mile voyage (depending on the point of embarkation) from the mainland to Taiwan [14]. The personnel capacity of these 58 ships remains at about 12,000 personnel, or one division. Not included in this total are another 31 (or fewer) Type 079 (Yulian Class) medium landing ships which mostly operate in coastal waters and the South China Sea, but may not be able to make the transit to Taiwan safely when fully loaded except in the most ideal weather conditions.

The Army has up to another 15 ship groups (dadui), each with around 10 landing craft assigned to two or three squadrons (zhongdui). These vessels, mostly Type 271-series and Type 068 (Yuqing Class) landing craft, also are primarily used in coastal waters and would be unsuitable for a long amphibious mission over open seas. The Army coastal defense force appears to control eight ship transport groups, used mostly for supporting coastal defense units with water and fuel, but which can also be used for transport and amphibious operations close to the mainland [15]. Some Joint Logistics sub-departments also have ship transport groups (at least two have been identified in Nanjing MR) and the Nanjing MR Army Reserve Logistics Support Brigade is assigned a ship transport unit [16]. Finally, eight years ago, a ship group (chuanting dadui) was formed at the Dongshan Island training area. According to its commander, this unit has participated in some 40 exercises and is the only Army ship unit that undertakes amphibious operational support missions exclusively (China News, March 20). Though these units are quite dispersed, they potentially add about 150 small landing craft for amphibious operations in coastal waters (but likely not extending to Taiwan).

Sealift forces may be expanded by incorporating civilian vessels into the force. Maritime militia units have organized ship units and civilian fishing and transport vessels may also be mobilized. In many cases, civilian ships require modifications to transport military equipment. Under most conditions, civilian shipping would not be suitable for amphibious assault but would be more appropriate for landing in ports captured in the early phase of an operation. Military and civilian ships may also secure artillery and rocket launchers to their decks to provide fire support for landing operations. These weapons, however, most likely would be effective primarily for large area suppressive barrages since their accuracies would not be as precise as naval gunfire or aircraft.

Conclusions

Although the number of units equipped and trained to conduct amphibious operations has increased over the past decade, the Navy’s sealift capacity for operations beyond China’s immediate coastal waters has not matched this growth. Army, Navy, and civilian forces probably could mass amphibious lift for a multi-division operation against smaller offshore islands (though they probably would lose the element of surprise as they assembled and loaded troops).

The current lack of strategic sealift suggests that the increase in amphibious capabilities is directed more to deterrence than to preparation for war in the short-term. This posture is consistent with Beijing’s policy of “opposing and checking [i.e., deterring] Taiwan’s secession … promoting peaceful national reunification and maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits” [17].

Despite the modernization [emphasis added] of the PLAN amphibious landing fleet, the expansion of Army amphibious and Marine units and increased amphibious training, the PLA does not appear to be readying itself for a large-scale amphibious operation in the near to mid-term. This may not have been the case 10 years ago. Obviously, the cross-Strait political situation has changed and Beijing may have realized that overt, obvious attempts to intimidate Taiwan with amphibious exercises in Fujian are counterproductive. To be sure, the Chinese defense industry has the capacity to build more landing ships and craft in a relatively short time and the PLA could be given the resources to surge the tempo and intensity of amphibious training.

At the same time, the PLA is practicing other actions required for local war scenarios and major amphibious operations, such as cross-region movements, air defense over land and sea, control of surface and subsurface sea areas, joint firepower campaigns, information operations and logistics support. While preparing for local war remains the PLA’s core mission, as seen by the recent deployment of the Kunlunshan Type 071 Landing Platform Dock on the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, non-traditional security operations are also receiving high priority (CCTV.com, June 29).

In the final analysis, the creation of a credible force is the first element of deterrence. The second element of deterrence, demonstrating the forces’ ability, can be accomplished through exercises, parades and opening military units to foreign visitors, as has been seen for most of this decade [18]. With the changes in cross-Strait political environment since 2008, China’s leadership apparently sees little need to repeat the large-scale landing demonstrations of years past. Were Beijing’s intentions to change toward a forced reunification, we could expect to see an expansion of amphibious shipbuilding along with increased amphibious training in the forces. Large-scale amphibious operations, however, would almost certainly be low on the list of PLA force options and follow extensive air, sea, information and special operations campaigns, which would result in the loss of strategic surprise.

Notes

1.  “Selected Military Capabilities of the People’s Republic of China,” April 1997: 9.
2. “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009,” Figure 15: 60. “Maneuver” units include all types of infantry and armored divisions and brigades. The number of divisions does not include the three airborne divisions in the PLA Air Force. Coincidentally, the number of dedicated amphibious personnel is almost exactly the same as the number of airborne personnel.
3. Dennis J. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, (Routledge, 2006): 155.
4.  “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009”: VIII and 44 and “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2010”: 51.
5. Dennis J. Blasko, “PLA Ground Forces: Moving Toward a Smaller, More Rapidly Deployable, Modern Combined Arms Force,” in The People’s Liberation Army as Organization, eds. James C. Mulvenon and Andrew N. D. Yang, RAND Conference Proceedings (2002): 330.
6. International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 2010: 402 and Office of Naval Intelligence, China’s Navy 2007: 55.
7. Marine vehicles are painted in blue camouflage patterns and have turret/side numbers beginning with an “H.”
8. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: 42.
9. Perhaps the most famous single PLA amphibious unit is the “Hardbone [or “Dauntless”] 6th Company” (yinggutou liulian) subordinate to the 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division. PLA Daily has a webpage for the unit at http://www.chinamil.com.cn/site1/2009zt/2009ygtll/index.htm. It has also been the subject of many television reports on China Central Television. Recognizing the propaganda elements of these reports, they are nonetheless useful in getting a sense of the unit’s training and equipment.
10. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: 42.
11. Blasko, The Chinese Army Today: 151-6 and Blasko, “PLA Ground Forces: Moving Toward a Smaller, More Rapidly Deployable, Modern Combined Arms Force”: 322-31.
12. China’s Navy 2007: 41.
13. The number of PLAN amphibious ships varies among sources. The numbers used here were derived from Office of Naval Intelligence, A Modern Navy with Chinese Characteristics; The Military Balance 2010; “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2009”; and the Sinodefence website. Nomenclature for landing ships are taken from Sinodefence.com at http://www.sinodefence.com/navy/vessel.asp. Type 071, Type 072-II and Type 072-III are capable of supporting helicopter operations. PLA Navy large and some medium amphibious ships have three-digit bow numbers beginning with 9 while other medium landing ships have four-digit bow numbers beginning with 3 or 7.
14. The distance from the mainland directly across the Taiwan Strait is roughly 100 nautical miles. Naval units from the South Sea Fleet would have to travel at least 500 nautical miles and those from the North Sea Fleet would have to travel at least 700 nautical miles to reach Taiwan.
15. These units are listed on the “Military Spirit” website that lists PLA border and coastal defense units, http://bbs.junhunw.cn/viewthread.php?action=printable&tid=626. Border Defense Ship Transport Groups (chuanyun dadui) are held at Waichangshan, Liaoning; Neichangshan, Shandong; Yantai, Shandong; Qingdao, Shandong; Zhoushan, Zhejiang; Haotou in Xiamen, Fujian; Zhuhai; and Qiongshan, Hainan (listed as vehicle/ship transport group). Army landing craft can be identified by bow numbers that start with the English initial for the Military Region to which they are assigned, G, N, J, and S, followed by another letter and three numbers or four numbers.
16. For a Shanghai ship transport group, see http://www.sgs.gov.cn/sabicsgs/ShangHaiGS/sub/post_con_6_20.html; for a Nanjing ship transport group, see http://www.jslib.org.cn/njlib_hdzn/200507/t20050721_2408.htm; and for the reserve unit, see http://pic.chinamil.com.cn/news/2008-04/16/content_1201158.htm. One of the main missions of these units is transport of fuel, though they could be used for amphibious operations. The PLA Air Force also has a ship transport unit used to transport fuel along rivers.
17. Anti-Secession Law, Article 1, March 14, 2005. The term e’zhi translated here as “checking” is also rendered as “to deter,” as in “to deter war,” in official Chinese documents, such as the 2006 White Paper on National Defense. Any policy of deterrence retains the option for the use of force, as stated Article 8 of the Anti-Secession Law.
18. Peng Guangqian and Yao Youzhi (eds), The Science of Military Strategy, (Beijing: Military Science Publishing House, 2005): 213-229.