As reported by I H S Janes, China’s PLAN —People’s Liberation Army Navy, latest Amphibious Ship TAI SHAN, fifth out of planned six, each 25000 ton LPD, is nearing completion. It may be ready to join the Fleet by end of this year. This will be at least two years before the much touted first aircraft carrier built locally and capable of sailing, unlike LIAONING, out into the Oceans of the World. These amphibious Type 071 ships, can mobilize large groups of personnel helicopters, tanks and boats for shore invasion missions. China as per reports, wants a naval fleet of 500 ships.
For perspective, US President Donald Trump’s ambitious and expensive naval target is to maintain a fleet of 350 sea- worthy warships. India is more modest with a projected number of 200 sea going ships by 2025. The Chinese understand the need of a balanced amphibious warfare force, for deterrence and as a means to be used for protection of their national interests. It involves both, maintaining territorial integrity and also protecting interests far from its shores.
In light of the PLAN’s current pace of building the world should witness the deployment of a Chinese aircraft carrier battle group -integrated with an amphibious Force by the year 2025. Constructing increasingly powerful ships in greater numbers, especially its amphibious ships, soon China will possess the ability to seize islands by force. To support and defend its claimed chain of islands China is developing a powerful and flexible amphibious warfare force that can respond rapidly to threats from various parties claiming sovereignty over the area in South China Sea, and also an increasingly credible challenge from various other Powers.
China is obviously moving toward the creation of a viable Air Defence & strike capability in the South China Sea. The creation of a rapid reaction amphibious group is the next step in protecting its claims in the region. China perceives challenges not only to integrity of its island territories form several regional neighbours, but also active challenge from the United States and Japan.
Therefore around 2014, the Chinese high command decided to expand its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions (AMID) from existing two to four and also upgrade the existing two Naval Marine Corps brigades. The AMID Divisions are under the command of the PLA, while the Marines come under the command of the PLAN. Perhaps one of the major problems facing the employment of the AMIDs in any Amphibious Operations, is the issue of command and control across the PLA and PLAN. Visualizing this problem, PLAN conducted several amphibious exercises over the past two years to master the issues of command and control. The current force structure of the PLAMC is of two brigades, the 1st Marine Brigade and 164th Marine Brigade. Each brigade consists of one armoured marine battalion and two mechanised marine battalions and various support elements. Details are as under:
PLAN MC Brigade
1 x Armored Regiment comprising 1 x Marine Battalion with Amphibious Assault Vehicles/Light Tanks and 2 x Marine Battalions with Infantry Fighting vehicles.
1 x Self-Propelled Artillery Battalion equipped with amphibious 122mm SPGs .
1 x Missile Battalion of AT and AD missiles.
1 x Engineer Battalion
1 x Signals Battalion
1 x Field Maintenance Battalion
Amphibious exercises conducted in 2015 and 2016 demonstrated the use of Type 96 MBTs in amphibious assaults. These came from armoured units of the PLA’s AMIDs, and not PLAMC armoured regiments. Although heavier armoured vehicles can be beached rapidly by PLAN hovercrafts, the PLAMC relies on the high speed of its ZBD05/2000 series vehicles to carry them from offshore amphibious platforms such as the Type 071 LPD. The ZBD05 is the world’s fastest armoured amphibious assault vehicle, capable of a top speed of 45kph in the water. In addition, PLA marines are skilled in air assault operations, small boat assaults and underwater diving operations.
Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division
2 x Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Regiments
1 x Amphibious Armoured Regiment
1 x Artillery Regiment
1 x Air Defense Artillery Regiment
Various Support elements: Engineers, Signals, Field Maintenance
There are four AMIDs currently established in the PLA. The 1st and 86th AMIDs based in the Nanjing Military Region [East], and the 123rd and 124th AMIDs based in the Guangzhou Military Region [South] .The expansion of the AMIDs from two to four gives the PLA a greater amphibious capability that might be required in the near future for deterring challenges to territorial claims in the South and East China Seas, and for power projection in the Malacca Strait and beyond into Indian Ocean. Matters have been inflamed with Japan announcing plans to partner with the United States in “freedom of navigation” patrols in the area. Japan is also increasing its own amphibious warfare capabilities to challenge Chinese claims over what it sees as its own sovereign territory.
China’s amphibious forces have experienced both a growth in number and capability over the past two decades. The Chinese military continues to be reduced in quantity but is being further streamlined, transforming from a mostly conscript force, to a highly trained professional military. China has been successful in reforming its military, as well as investing wisely in new, high tech weapons systems, communications and information technology management systems. It has also created an extremely nimble and powerful amphibious warfare force. The one component that is currently lacking but rapidly building is the modern sealift for its expanded amphibious capability. The construction of an amphibious ship reflects a broader priority for China’s Navy to emphasize Near Shore and Near Sea operations. Focusing on these types of missions is part of China’s defense strategy in the event of any conflict. Amphibious capabilities also serve the tactical purpose of allowing PLAN to challenge adversary operations in the East and South China Seas and towards Malacca Strait too. The Sea Lift Platforms under construction are as under:
Type 071 LPD [25000 ton, Range 19000 km]
Beginning in 2006, China commenced modernizing its amphibious assault capabilities. The first vessel, of the Type 071 class Amphibious Transport Dock (LPD), the Kunlun Shan, was the first of six ships planned. Four ships have been launched and commissioned since December 2006. These LPDs are equipped with an aft flight deck and hangar to support helicopter operations, and a well deck to allow amphibious assaults via AAVs, 2xlanding craft and 4 x LCAC (Landing Craft Air Cushioned) hovercrafts. Each ship is equipped with a hospital, ample cargo space for the provision of disaster relief supplies and light vehicles. In addition there is enough space to house a troop complement of approximately 500 to 800 troops as per the mission along with 15 to 20 AFVs.
The LPD has the inherent flexibility to provide over the horizon air assault and amphibious assault capability. The LPD is the perfect platform to respond to both military incursions into disputed island territories as well as a support platform for island bases. The LPD is also suited to respond to humanitarian disasters, due to its capabilities and inherent flexibility. It is smaller and has a shallower draft than a larger Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), and can thus gain entry to areas of minimal maritime infrastructure in cases of responding to humanitarian disasters. In areas prone to hurricanes and flooding, such as Southeast Asia, the LPD is a valuable tool in Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief operations.
Type 072A LST [4800 ton Range 5400 km]
The PLAN has 15 x Type 072A Class LSTs in service. Though total number of ships planned is not known, it is clear that this type is going to replace the existing older Type 072 and Type 072II Class LSTs. Similar in design to its predecessor, the Type 072A has a more streamlined superstructure, and a well deck designed to accommodate an LCAC.
The vessel has a small flight deck to accommodate one helicopter, and enough under deck space to stow a maximum of 10 MBTs, or 500 tons worth of light vehicles and cargo. Approximately 250 to 300 troops can also be accommodated.
There are a total of 17 x Type 072 LSTs and 13 x Type 072II LSTs classes in service with the PLAN. These LSTs are traditional amphibious assault vessels that are loaded via a stern ramp and are beached bow-first during an assault. Egress is via bow doors that open to allow a bow ramp to be lowered so that vehicles and troops can exit the ship. Whereas Type 072A can facilitate the launch and recovery of LCACs even at sea due to the provision of a true well deck, similar to an LPD, LSD or LHD. The design and the very shallow draft of just 2.8m in Type 072A LST enable this discharge process.
Type 073A LST [2000 ton Range 2800km]
There are total of around 13 x Type 073A LSTs for assault beach landing with 500 troops or 10 x light amphibious tanks or 5 x medium tanks.
Type 074A LCU [800 ton Range 2000km]
There are around 18 x LCUs of this variety for assault beach landings. These utility crafts have a range of 1800 Kms and can carry 250 troops or 3x heavy MBTs.
Landing Hovercrafts and LCACs
Type 726 Class LCAC
China has made a significant effort to acquire large air cushioned landing craft, both indigenously and from abroad. The advantage of air cushioned vessels is that they can carry their payload of troops and vehicles inland from the sea, traveling beyond the beach and deeper inland. This capability gives military planners more options when combined with traditional amphibious assaults and air assault operations. Given the significant payload of the 8 x Zubr class held by PLAN, a maximum of three Type 96 MBTs can be transported quickly by each to the battlefield, and deployed behind enemy lines at speed of 40 knots.
China has also produced an LCAC similar in design as the U.S. Navy LCAC, but it is smaller and carries a smaller payload. The Type 726 Yuyi was designed to be carried in the well deck of the Type 071 LPD, which can accommodate four of this hovercraft. The Yuyi can carry a payload of 60 tons at a speed of 60 knots. China has only been producing these LCACs for a few years and the total number in active service is unknown; however, it can be assumed that the PLAN will require 4 LCACs per Type 071 LPD that is in service and one each for all the Type 072A to be produced.
Type 075/Type 081 Landing Helicopter Dock LHD [planned 40000 ton]
A number of different concepts and models released recently indicate launching of an LHD in the near future. The utility and flexibility of such a platform has been widely recognized and implemented by nearly every major navy in the world. A large LHD offers increased flexibility and additional options and forces potential adversaries to change their strategic plans and attitudes accordingly. Therefore the PLAN would surely try and have one or two LHD to respond to perceived infringements. LHDs are extremely useful in carrying out successful evacuation and disaster relief operations as well.
Their large size and endurance allow them to bring massive amounts of material aid and humanitarian support with large numbers of helicopters, in events of crisis. China could earn political goodwill by aiding its neighbours in times of humanitarian disaster with such a valuable tool.
Now coming down further South, it is seen that Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, the four countries around the Straits of Malacca, have acute sensitivities about each other’s maritime activities closer to their own territorial waters. They are also inherently wary of extra-regional contributions to the patrolling effort. Part of the problem is that three of the four states have competing territorial claims in littorals adjoining the Malacca Straits.
However with rising piracy, in 2006 they formed the Malacca Straits Patrol to provide maritime security to the Straits of Malacca. The MSP comprises the Sea Patrol, the Combined Maritime Air Patrols, as well as the Intelligence Exchange Group. Now, as armed piracy in Southeast Asia is once again on the rise, India has been asked to join this MSP framework.
Very soon India will formally commence naval operations to patrol the area, which acts as an oceanic gateway to and from the South China Sea, and also links the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. From an economic and strategic perspective, the Malacca Straits is one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. It serves as the main shipping channel between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and links major Asian economies such as India, China, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. It is one of eight major oil chokepoints throughout the world, and about 80 percent of China’s crude and oil imports from the Middle East and Africa passes through these straits.
The Straits of Malacca are considered a weak spot in China’s maritime strategy, and India wants to assert itself more with such a strategic move as becoming part of the MSP. Once India is formally authorized to patrol the Malacca Straits, it will have access to real-time data of commercial ships and naval platforms operating in the area or passing through.
The move is certain to upset China, whose own occupation and development of various disputed reefs around the South China Sea has caused regional criticism. India’s involvement in the MSP will essentially limit the extent of any further Chinese expansion and could be used to blockade supplies to China in the event of a conflict.
The move also signals that India is ready to take on greater responsibilities in acting as a counterweight to the perceived Chinese naval might and help some of the ASEAN nations to counter perceived territorial threats from Beijing.
India has a powerful Navy, including nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers. These are certainly required and their number needs further beefing up, in case there is a need ever take on any trouble causing Naval Force. However for routine Anti-Piracy role and to ensure peaceful passage to all merchant shipping, what India needs to do is to expand its Amphibious Force. Indian Navy must augment its Amphibious lift Capability for roles like maritime security, beaching, un-beaching, humanitarian relief operations and evacuation from Arabian/African coasts and even distant islands, search and rescue operations , peace-keeping missions and also for patrolling our EEZ for anti-poaching operations.
In such roles apart from the tonnage, numbers too have their own importance. For assault beaching against opposition, anti-piracy and anti-poaching patrols, the nimble LCUs are required in requisite numbers along with the LSTs and LPDs and of course the backing of the fighting Fleet.
India has enough reasons to ensure an expansion of its amphibious warfare capability. Apart from ensuring territorial integrity of its islands, it is likely to encounter more active geopolitical challenge from China.
An increasingly empowered India with growing global interests and increasing regional and global influence is likely to be hemmed in by China. Such a combination will undoubtedly lead to diplomatic conflict, if not outright military conflict at some time in foreseeable future. India must prepare itself for that eventuality and develop the means to protect its national interests at greater geographical range. India must increase its capabilities in real terms, by developing, military bases and early warning stations on its islands and also outposts in friendly countries. The Indian Navy must also have a viable amphibious warfare deterrent and the means by which to wrest control of islands by force, if and when required. For the present other than the Malaccan Pirates, acute piracy problem also exists in the West due to Somalian Pirates, whose daring actions have reached the seas near Lakshadweep too. Then we have problems to
our fishermen on the Tamil Nadu Coast and astride Sir Creak–Jakhau Coast. Other than safeguarding all our island assets in Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep & Minnacoy, oil rigs in the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal, we also have to safe guard the Maldives, Mauritious and Sycheles. Therefore Indian Navy needs to develop three Amphibious Warfare Hubs to ensure that India is able to fulfil all the peacetime obligations as listed above. Also in future there may be a need to assault an adversary’s coast line to seize a port or an offensive from sea in conjunction with Land and Air Operations.
The Amphibious Force Hubs located at Andaman and Tuticorin respectively should have an Amphibious Brigade Group each along with an Amphibious Naval Squadron. The hub at Kakinada is most suited for location of the HQ of the Amphibious Force, the third Amphibious Brigade Group and the Amphibious Warfare School. Each Amphibious Naval Squadron should have capability to lift one Amphibious Brigade Group in one go. Therefore keeping in mind the tactics and strategy of amphibous operations, each Amphibious Naval Squadron must have
The following types of Naval Ships:
Landing Platform Dock……25000 Tons————— 01
Landing Ship Tank……….6000 Tons————— 03
Landing Ship Tank……….2000 Tons————— 06
Landing CraftUtilityMK4…. 800 Tons—————-12
Now, we already have one second hand, 16600 ton LPD, INS JALASHWA, five LSTs of the MAGAR/ SHARDUL class, three of the older KUMBHIR class, eight LCU MK4 [built/building] and three LCUs MK3. Also Indian Navy has issued a 16,000 crore domestic tender to three domestic shipyards – Larsen & Toubro which has tied up with Navantia of Spain, Reliance Defence and Engineering which has partnered with France’s DCNS, and ABG Shipyard which has partnered with USA’s Alion. After the winning design is selected, the private shipyard will construct two LPDs and the remaining two will be constructed by state-owned Hindustan Shipyard Ltd. One LPD each should go to the Amphibious Squadrons and remaining two should be stationed at Mumbai and Vishakhapatnam. These LPDs will have a crew of 500 with capacity to carry 1000 troops, 6x tanks,20 x APCs and 40 x heavy trucks. There will also be space for 10 x Heavy Support Helicopters of Chinook variety.
A total of six SHARDUL Type of LSTs are required and we already have SHARDUL, KESRI and AIRAVAT and two a bit older ones MAGAR and GHARIAL displacing 5500tons, each ship has capacity to carry 4 x LCVPs, 15 x tanks , 8 x APCs or 10 x vehicles, 500 troops and a crew of 136 . The range is 4800 kms. So there is need to place an order of just one more LST of SHARDUL variety for the present. However there is immediate need to construct 12 x LSTs in the 2000 ton variety as the existing three KUMBHIR , CHEETAH and GULDAR are due for de commissioning .
One Mk IV LCU class vessel has already been commissioned and being operated by the Indian Navy augmenting the three left over MK3 LCUs. GRSE signed an agreement for INR21 billion with the Indian Navy for designing and building eight LCU and construction began in September 2012.The remarkable feature of these LCU Mark-IV ships are that, these have been developed in-house by GRSE as per requirements specified by Indian Navy. The ship is 63 meters long, overall beam of 11 meters, a hull draught of 2.2 meters and displaces around 830 tons. They can transport by sea and beach at far away islands, to deploy army tanks and troops.
With a maximum speed of 15 knots and an endurance of more than 2700 km. Two 30mm CRN-91 mounted guns with a Bharat Electronics-built electro-optic director provide artillery fire support during assault landing operations .The LCU has lift capacity for up to 216 personnel, including 160 fully equipped soldiers and 56 crew and 145 tonnes of military equipment. The vehicle lift capacity is one 65 ton Arjun tank or two 45 ton T 72 tanks or four BMP Infantry Fighting Vehicles. It is fitted with a hydraulic bow ramp which enables loading and unloading of combat equipment and vehicles on beaching. Ballast arrangement further ensures desired trim for smooth beaching operations. By 2020 all eight MK4 should be commissioned.
So there is need to place orders for 16 more LCU MK4/5 without further delay. By the time a few of them arrive all MK3 would get decommissioned. Since Mazagaon, Garden Reach, Cochin and Hindustan Shipyard must concentrate on the muscular type’s big brothers; therefore to construct the LCUs and lighter LSTs we must involve L & T and Reliance Defence Shipyard at Pipavav.
India and its Navy must aim to have the above lift capacity fully deployed by 2025 and be ready to welcome and escort any amphibious guest entering the Indian Ocean.
Colonel Awadhesh Kumar, Veteran