China’s Amphibious Capabilities Are Emerging Forcefully. What Are We To Do About it?

The Chinese Communist Party has rapidly invested in its Marines, Navy, and Assault capabilities with frightening implications for not only its Asian neighbors but American national security.

© Reuters

Over the last three decades, the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) economy experienced explosive growth as the nation opened itself up to the West. As a result, the PRC gradually expanded and modernized all five of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) branches. More recently, tensions grew in disputed regions such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, Taiwan, and other unstable areas with significant Chinese investment such as Africa and the Middle East. The PLA has placed more emphasis on improving the People’s Liberation Army Army’s (PLAA) ability to conduct amphibious, combined arms operations as well as the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps’s (PLANMC) ability to react and deploy overseas quickly.

The PLA’s amphibious warfare capabilities are split into two forces: the amphibious combined arms brigade and the PLANMC. These two forces are roughly the same size but occupy two very different roles within the PLA. PLAA amphibious combined arms brigade is focused on the hot spots near China’s coast and as a follow-on, post-landing force intended for high-intensity combat operations.

PLA Ground Force Amphibious Brigade Structure. Source: “Sea Dragons: China’s Growing Marine Capability [Explained]” by ‘Battle Order’

Each amphibious brigade consisted of one Brigade Headquarters (HQ), one Combat Support Battalion, one Combat Service Battalion, four Combined Arms Battalions, one Artillery Battalion, one Air Defense Battalion, and one Recon Battalion. The four Combined Arms Battalions are structured and equipped identically. Each consisted of one Battalion HQ and Battalion Company, three Rifle Companies, one Assault Vehicle Company, one Self-Propelled Mortar Company, and one Support Company. The Battalion HQ includes command armor vehicles, communications vehicles, and an unknown amount of recon vehicles. The companies’ exact composition is unknown, but it likely uses Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) along with a recon platoon and a communications platoon. The Rifle Companies are mounted in ZBD-05 amphibious IFVs, and the company consisted of one Company HQ and three Rifle Platoons with four IFVs in each platoon. The Assault Vehicle Company is organized similarly, with one Company HQ and three identical Assault Vehicle Platoons, each equipped with four ZTD-05 assault vehicles, a modernized Soviet-era design from the 50s. The mortar battery is likely equipped with 120mm PLZ-05 Self-Propelled Mortar Systems — a weapon system that is fast and can be used to lay down saturation fire on enemy positions without being in the line of sight — alongside its recon platoon and communications platoon. For the Air Defense and Recon Battalions, the exact composition remains unclear; however, it is safe to assume that the Air Defense Battalions use Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) and 30mm or 20mm Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft guns. According to the Department of Defense’s 2020 Report on China’s Military Power, these combined arms brigades are stationed in Southern Theater (focused on the South China Sea), Eastern Theater (focused on Taiwan), and Northern Theater (focused on the Korean Peninsula, Russia, and Japan). It is logical to assume that these combined arms brigades will be deployed following an amphibious landing to provide heavy weaponry and firepower and assist in establishing a foothold in enemy territory.

PLAN Marine Amphibious Combined Brigade Structure. Source: “Sea Dragons: China’s Growing Marine Capability [Explained]” by ‘Battle Order’

Unlike the PLAA amphibious combined arms brigade, the PLANMC is diverse in its composition and delivery methods. Following the major reforms of 2017, the marine brigade consists of one Brigade HQ, one Brigade Company, one Combat Support Battalion, one Combat Service Battalion, three Combined Arms Battalions, one Air Assault Battalion, one Artillery Battalion, one Air Defense Battalion, and one Recon Battalion. The more interesting part of this force is the three Combined Arms Battalions, further divided into Heavy Combined Arms Battalion, Medium Combined Arms Battalion, and Light Combined Arms Battalion, alongside the independent Air Assault battalion. The Heavy Battalion is defined by its tracked IFVs, such as the ZTD-05 equipped with a 105mm gun, which replaced the Type-63A Amphibious Light Tanks in 2007. The Medium battalion is structured identically to the heavy battalion but uses the eight by eight-wheel platforms instead and serves as a quick reaction force with greater tactical and strategic mobility. The Light Battalion infantry is mounted either in armored cars or all-terrain vehicles, similar to the PLAA’s high mobility infantry. The Light Battalion also has a Fire Power Company, which uses eight Type 87 82mm mortars, PF-98 Anti-Armor rocket launchers (similar to the US AT4 and BGM-71 TOW), and HJ-8 Anti-Tank guided missiles (similar to the US FGM-148 Javelin)

China aims to achieve fully modernized status by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the PRC’s birth, and mostly modernized status by 2020. Chinese state media report that the 2020 goal has yet to be achieved, but will be in 2022. Despite this, China is building the Type-075 Amphibious Assault Ship (or Type-075 LHD, Landing Helicopter Dock) at an incredible rate. The Type-075 is similar to the US Wasp Class Amphibious Assault Ship without the capability of launching fixed-wing, short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft like the F-35C and the British Aerospace Sea Harrier; however, it can carry over 1000 PLANMC marines and over 30 helicopters for attack (CAIC Z-10 Attack Helicopter), transport (Harbin “Haitun” Z-9 Utility Helicopter), and anti-submarine roles (Harbin Z-20F Utility Helicopter). In January of 2021, PLAN launched the third Type-075 LHD, the first and second Type-075 LHD were completed in September 2019 and April 2020 respectively. This represents an incredible rate of one Type-075 LHD launched every six months, four times the US is building the Wasp Class LHD.

Yulin Navy Base, Tugboats Maneuvering the Type-075 LHD (#1) onto the South Side of the Pier.

In contrast to the offensive objectives of the PLAA combined arms brigade, the PLANMC is China’s global force moving forward. China’s first overseas military base, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Support Base In Djibouti, was established in 2017 in Djibouti. The base is operated by the PLAN and manned by PLANMC personnel. The PLANMC’s mission in Djibouti is stated to protect the over 1.5 million Chinese citizens in Africa and the Middle East while also serving as a forward operating base to assist in anti-pirate operations. In the future, as China’s influence expands to other corners of the world, we will also see the expansion of the PLANMC and the scope of its mission.

In March 2021, Admiral Philip Davidson, Washington’s top military officer in Asia-Pacific, said “I worry that they’re (China) accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rule-bases international order…. By 2050,” and “Taiwan is clearly one of their ambitions before that. And I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years.” Taiwan saw closer ties to the US during the Trump Administration as Donald Trump feuded with China on issues such as trade and national security and referred to them (China) as the number one threat to the US. The Biden Administration sought to undo the hostile relationship Trump has created by reversing laws that are aimed to expel anyone with ties to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) from major American Institutions. This move by Biden has soured relations between the US and Taiwan, as Taiwan saw it as pandering to China. The Biden Administration is still committed to the continued support, and Biden’s State Department said in January “US commitment to the island was ‘rock-solid’”. Like Admiral Davidson stated, the PRC may very well invade Taiwan by 2027 or sooner, the question is, will America sacrifice Taiwan to China to avoid all-out war? Or will America defend its democratic ally from autocracy? If the US was to abandon Taiwan in hope of avoiding World War 3, NATO’s European members may lose confidence in US support against Russian aggression. And If the US was to intervene, war is certainly inevitable. As the PRC builds up more modern amphibious forces, navy, and air force, the tension only rises and waits to explode.

Dunn Zhang is a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon studying Architecture. His interests include history, military history and technology and their impact on modern society. He also enjoys playing video games and working out!

The Triple Helix at Carnegie Mellon University promotes the interdisciplinary nature of public policy, science, technology, and society.