PLA Amphibious Capabilities: Structured for Deterrence

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.