PLA Navy’s Expeditionary Force

Sub Title : The rapid build up of strong expeditionary capabilities by the PLA Navy must engage the urgent attention of Indian military planners

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2021

Author : Dr Vijay Sakhuja

Page No. : 24

Category : Military Affairs

: March 27, 2021

The rapid build up of strong expeditionary capabilities by the PLA Navy must engage the urgent attention of Indian military planners. Such capability affords the PLA Navy tremendous flexibility by enabling it to operate across a range of mission sets from providing humanitarian aid to executing military missions far from their homeland. We would be well advised to be conscious of the strategic implications

While much of the international focus is on the Chinese aircraft carrier plans, the PLA Navy has been building expeditionary capabilities. This is best demonstrated by the fact that in the last ten years, China built six amphibious assault ship (25,000 tons and 689-feet long) and three landing helicopter dock (LPD) (40,000 tons and 778-feet long) and five more of this class are under construction.

The landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships are inherently expeditionary platforms and designed for power projection. They are sometimes referred to as pseudo aircraft carriers similar to those of the Japanese and the South Korean navies. These can carry STOVL type fighter jets, surveillance planes and helicopters as also military equipment including artillery and armour for combat operations. Importantly, these vessels also serve as logistic bases to supply materials deep inside the heartland thus sustaining vital military supply chains. Besides power projection, the LPDs can engage in noncombatant evacuation operations (NEOs), transporting HADR supplies over-the-shore and safeguarding overseas interests (infrastructure).

In January this year, the third vessel of the Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) was seen outside the Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard in Shanghai close to the second ship of the same class. Earlier, in December 2020, the first-in-class Type 075 was spotted at Sanya naval base. Perhaps it needs attention that the Hudong-Zhonghua Shipyard is building one LHD launched nearly every 6 months.

The Type 075 LHD can carry 30 attack helicopters (including the Z-8, the smaller Z-9 utility and light attack helicopters) and 900 troops.  The design of the vessel suggests that it can carry short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) type fighters and conduct combat air operations in the future.

The PLA Navy already operates the Type 071 that can transport 600-800 troops, and can embark two classic landing craft and up to four Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft. It has a comparatively smaller flight deck at the stern and hangar space for up to four Z-8 heavy transport helicopters with two helicopter landing spots.  Six vessels of Type 071 are in active duty and two more are being fitted out.  Its export variant, the Type 071E is being built for the Royal Thai Navy (cost US$ 200.7 million) is “more advanced in technology and more powerful in comprehensive performance than the PLA’s in-commission Type 071 integrated LPD”  and  “integrates several major improvements and upgrades”

Meanwhile, in December 2020, the PLA Navy also commissioned the Nanyi 13, a new type of hospital ship (4,000 tons and can stage a rescue helicopter) which will “serve as a mobile medical force in the Nansha Islands in the South China Sea in missions including military and civilian medical support, international humanitarian aid and emergency rescue”.

It is smaller to the Peace Arc (14,000 tons, 100 beds with capacity to conduct three large-scale surgeries simultaneously) and will engage in naval medical diplomacy through routine “visits across the region as a mobile medical force, filling the void of maritime medical rescue”

Why Expeditionary Capability

The above Chinese developments are indeed very impressive and merit deeper enquiry into the purpose of building such a capability. There are at least seven reasons: first, China plans to use the LPD type vessels for at least four purposes: (a) combat operation’s against Taiwan ; (b) protecting the occupied islands in the South China Sea; (c) NEO;  and (d) delivery of ‘public goods at sea’;

Second, these ships will give China the “ability to conduct ‘vertical deployment’ during military operations on islands and reefs”; Third, the STOVL aircraft embarked onboard would significantly supplement and improve PLA Navy’s amphibious capabilities and if China is involved in a “limited amphibious conflicts in or near our territorial waters”, the “STOVL aircraft will be the best choice for air support in such conflicts,”

Fourth, these vessels can also “operate with aircraft carriers, letting the carriers seize air superiority as they transport troops, tanks, and armour vehicles to land, significantly improving the Chinese Navy’s combat capability in a comprehensive system”. A Chinese military website has commented that “the PLA Navy will officially embrace the layout of “double aircraft carriers flanked by double assault ships”; Fifth, LPDS can also support “anti-terrorism, anti-piracy, sea lanes protection, disaster relief, and humanitarian aid missions”;

Sixth reasons is that LPD could also perform similar roles as the hospital ship Peace Arc which has provided medical relief across the globe (treating over 180,000 patients in Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa;  Cuba and Venezuela in Latin America; Papa New Guinea and Tonga in the Pacific; and called at ports in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh) and engaged in medical activities (international maritime exercises, including the U.S.-led RIMPAC and the ADMM Plus) and is  a potent tool for naval diplomacy; Seventh, the LPDs also offer a strong element of interoperability with other navies which possess Chinese naval assets. For instance, the Thai Army operates Chinese built tanks and armored personnel carriers; conducts exercises with Chinese air force (exercise Falcon Strike involving J-10 fighters) and the Thai Navy is planning to acquire Chinese-built submarines.

Implications for India

These missions are significant and merit the attention of Indian military planners. China’s ambitious overdrive to achieve ‘Global Power’ status pivots on the use of its naval strengths for regional and trans-regional outreach. In this scheme, Chinese evolving expeditionary capability is noteworthy and can potentially challenge the geographical advantage the Indian Navy currently enjoys in the Indian Ocean.

It should not come as a surprise to the Indian Navy if the PLA Navy dispatches Type 075 LPD/Type 071 for naval exercises with Pakistan (Sea Guardian series), trilateral exercises with Iran and Russia (Marine Security Belt) and South Africa- Russia (Mosi). There is high likelihood of 075 LPD/Type 071 (individually or collectively) to be part of the Task Force 525 deployed in the Gulf of Aden. This would give added confidence to the PLA Navy in distant-deployment capability of these vessels.

Indian concerns over Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean are already aggravated by China’s plans to increase its Marine Corps by recruiting nearly 80,000 additional marines to “protect the nation’s maritime lifelines and its growing interests overseas”. This would bring the total marine force strength to 100,000 personnel. A large number of Marines could be stationed at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Gwadar in Pakistan.

The Type 075 and Type 71 LPDs could be deployed in a variety of combinations and their combined ability to embark Marines for rapid deployment could be a few thousands depending on the Chinese assessment of emergency(s). These could operate out of Hambantota, Colombo, Djibouti, Karachi, Gwadar, etc. as also through the planned Russian naval base which is being leased in Port Sudan.

It is fair to assume that Type 075/ Type 71 LPDs deployment could precede the PLA Navy aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, in all likelihood, the PLA Navy will commit its carriers in the Pacific Ocean where it faces greater threat from the formidable US Navy.

Concluding Thought

Although the Chinese aircraft carriers programme has been the center piece of debate and discussion among the Indian strategic community and the naval connoisseurs, the rapid buildup of Chinese expeditionary capability merits equal attention.