By Yihong Chang
It has been fashionable for many Western analysts to discount the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ability to mount an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, calling it a potential “million-man swim.” But in the face of such doubts, the PLA is modernizing and strengthening its amphibious units, and may be exploring unconventional means for transporting these forces with rapid speed.
For an all-out invasion of Taiwan, the PLA would have to mobilize possibly thousands of military and civilian ships under conditions of total air and naval superiority. For the medium term, this would be difficult to impossible. With its existing amphibious transports, the PLA could move only about one division of troops and equipment. But it may consider a “limited” invasion as victory–especially if victory is defined in diplomatic rather than military terms. There is ample evidence of possible PLA “coercive” strategies that would use finely tuned military power to force the government in Taipei into negotiations leading to a “reunification” dictated by Beijing. In this context, a “limited” or small-scale invasion coming on top of missile, air and Special Forces strikes could provide the necessary final push. It is thus important to monitor the PLA’s growing amphibious capabilities.
The PLA has two types of amphibious units. First is a single Marine Brigade attached to PLA Navy’s South Sea Fleet, which could assist in a Taiwan campaign. It is also designed, however, to undertake possible operations in the South China Sea. But, in contrast to most armed forces that maintain specialized marine forces separate from the army, the PLA also includes amphibious units in its main ground forces. These units are dedicated to a future Taiwan campaign. The most important army units in this regard are in the 1st Group Army (GA) in the Nanjing Military Region and in the 54th GA in the Jinan Military Region.
FIRST GROUP ARMY
Perhaps the most important capabability rests with the 1st GA of the Nanjing Military Region, which is opposite Taiwan. Its amphibious combat capability has been significantly upgraded. In 1998, its first division was reorganized from a mechanized division into an amphibious mechanized one. It is very likely that it will be the first PLA ground unit to launch an assault against the northern front of Taiwan.
To increase its capabilities, it is receiving new equipment. In particular, the new generation Type 63A amphibious tanks and Type 2000 (Kanwa name) amphibious armored personnel carrier (APC). The Type 63A is armed with 105mm gun and perhaps a day/night thermal sight system as well. As such, its firepower surpasses that of any other amphibious tank in the world, and matches that of Taiwan’s current M-60 main battle tanks. Type 2000 APCs protective power, mobility and nighttime combat capability have been greatly improved over previous models. In addition, a digital commanding system for the armored force has also been set up for these forces. With these new amphibious APCs, a mechanized combat pattern similar to that of infantry and tanks is possible.
It is estimated that the second regiment of this first division, a force with a “glorious history in war time,” will be given priority in the deployment of the above arms. (Last summer, the entire No. 1 division took part in the 5,000m fully armed swimming operation during the annual military exercise.)
54 GROUP ARMY
It is anticipated that in the future battle for Taiwan, the No. 54 Group Army will join the assault against Taiwan’s cities and mountainous regions. Its No. 127 Division has been reorganized into a “light mechanized infantry division,” and took part in the major military exercises in December 2000–a clear indication that new combat strength has been established in the force. To enhance its mobility, the No. 379 Regiment of the same division was armed with more Type-92 wheeled armored vehicles and Russian-built Mi-17 combat helicopters. The division’s air-defense power has been reinforced with the new Type 95 gun/missile system on a tank chassis, first revealed in 1999. Although the No. 127 is a “light mechanized division,” it is possible that it may either receive or cooperate with units with the new Type 88C main battle tanks, which carry a 125mm gun more powerful than that on Taiwan’s M-60s. The PLA might have determined that the Type 88Cs are better suited to confront Taiwanese tanks and to attack cities. The division is therefore now trying to combine the firepower of the main battle tank with that of the rapid reaction infantry force. Will this become a trend in the Chinese rapid reaction forces? This also deserves close observation in the future.
For even a smaller assault force, the PLA will need ample naval transport. While it has not embarked on a major amphibious assault ship building program, it is improving types already in production. A source from China Shipbuilding Trade Corporation LTD (CSSC) indicated to Kanwa that they plan to install Type 76A 37mm twin anti-aircraft guns on the YUTING (Type 074) class and YUKAN (Type 072) amphibious troop and tank transport ships. This air defense system is capable of intercepting antiship cruise missile. In addition, these ships may receive a new twin 100mm gun system, with a range of 22km. The modification will enable transport ships to support landing operation with gunfire.
In addition to slower conventional transports, the PLA is also developing unconventional and far faster transport systems for its amphibious troops. One such system under development is the large Wing-In-Ground-Effect Landing Craft (WIGELC), which fly close to the sea but carry large loads and can land on a beach. Kanwa has also learned that the PLA is planning on at least two large type WIGELCs, a 400-ton craft and a 370-ton one. The latter is a passenger-cargo transport version with a loading capacity of two wheeled armored vehicles and 250 soldiers. With a fleet of such craft the PLA could launch surprise amphibious attacks against ports or other strategic areas where geography might block conventional assault ships.
Kanwa has also learned that Russia is currently helping China to establish a production line in Guangzhou be capable of producing large WIGELC for both civil and military use. It is not yet known which type of Russian WIGELC China will buy. One possibility is the ORLYONOK, which weighs 140 tons and can carry 20 tons at a speed of 375 knots. China has also expressed strong interest in Russia’s Beriev Be-200 amphibious jet transport aircraft. Sales negotiations are underway. The Be-200 has a speed of 420 mph and a cargo capacity of 8 tons of goods or eighty soldiers.
These developments indicate that while the PLA may not be capable of a “Normandy” style invasion of Taiwan, it continues to envision some use for an amphibious assault capability during possible future operations against Taiwan. It is therefore not only important, but critical to monitor the PLA’s continued modernization of its amphibious forces.
Yihong Chang is senior military analyst in Kanwa Information Center Canada and an Asia Pacific correspondent of Jane’s Defence Weekly.
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