China’s New Large Amphibious Assault Ship
On December 27, before a meeting of Chinese Communist Party officials of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Party Chairman, Chinese President, and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Central Military Commission Chairman Hu Jintao stated, "We should strive to build a powerful navy that adapts to the needs of our military’s historical mission in this new century and at this new stage…We should make sound preparations for military struggles and ensure that the forces can effectively carry out missions at any time."
On December 20, Shanghai’s Hudong Zhonghua Shipyard launched the PLAN’s largest indigenously designed combat ship to date, known as the Type 071 "amphibious landing dock" (LPD) amphibious assault ship. This decade has witnessed the results of China’s most profound investment in naval power—perhaps since the legendary Muslim eunuch from the former state of Nanzhao, Zheng He, built and led his fleet on ocean-going junks in the early 15th Century on a mission whose purpose has never been clear. Since 1996 China has launched or purchased 29 new conventional and nuclear submarines, 10 modern air defense destroyers, 20+ new medium size amphibious assault ships, three new large underway supply ship, and has taken its initial steps toward building aircraft carriers.
Like the aircraft carrier, the new large LPD amphibious assault ship marks an important step toward building a navy that can project "hard" and "soft" power far from China’s East Asian littoral. Large amphibious assault ships such as these carry Marine or Army troops, plus their associated armored, mechanized and transport vehicles, artillery, plus a small number of transport or attack helicopters. With new hovercraft the LPD enables naval landing operations to commence far from the coastline, and even bypass initial coastal defenses, where smaller tank landing ships (LSTs) which need to unload at the shoreline would be very vulnerable to opposing Army forces. For the PLAN these ships would be most useful for deploying leading units for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. However, due to their size and range, these LPDs can also project influence by carrying troops to distant exercises with allies, or to participate in peacekeeping or humanitarian rescue missions.
The "Type 071"
While its official designator has not yet been revealed by Chinese government sources, for a number of years this program has been called, especially by Internet sources, as the "Type 071" amphibious assault ship. In March 2004 Chinese Internet sources first revealed a ship model, which in terms of its external shape and dimensions, bears about a 95 percent correlation with the ship launched on December 20, 2006. Subsequently, clearer versions of this picture were posted on the web, showing more ship details. While the model also shows the LPD carrying four new class hovercraft—unlikely given the size of this ship—this does constitute an example of the PLA offering a rare preview of a major weapons program via "modelology." The revelation of this model has also allowed some in the Chinese defense press to publish speculative illustrations and articles about this ship.
Some speculators on the Chinese Internet have estimated that the full displacement of the Type 071 is 17,600 tons. Asian military sources have recently told the author that the full load displacement is closer to 20,000 tons. By comparison the PLAN’s new No. 886 Fuchi non-combat underway replenishment displaces 23,000 tons, while the Shichang helicopter carrying support ship displaces about 10,000 tons. Consistent with other ships in this class, the Type 071 appears to be lightly armed, with a single 76mm bow gun, four Type 630 Gatling guns for defense against anti-ship missiles, and perhaps a short-range anti-aircraft missile like the HHQ-7.
Should published estimates prove correct, that would place the Type 071 in the same range as the 17,500 ton U.S. Austin class LPD. The U.S. Navy acquired 11 of these ships between 1964 and 1970, which can transport 800 to 900 troops, up to 20 LTV-7/AAV-7 size amphibious troop landing vehicles, 2 to 4 helicopters depending on their size and up to two Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercraft. These were succeeded by the slightly smaller 16,000 ton Whidbey Island class, which can carry up to 500 troops and up to 40 tanks. The Austin class is now being replaced by the 25,000 ton San Antonio class LPDM, which can carry up to 800 troops, up to 14 of the new Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles (EFV) fast troop landing/fighting vehicles, 2 to 4 helicopters and two LCACs.
At this point it is not possible to determine the actual cargo capacity or the eventual number of Type 071 LPDs the PLA will build. If it were to carry two LCAC size hovercraft, it would appear that the Type 071 could accommodate 500 to 800 troops plus about 25 to 50 combat vehicles. It is possible that two Type 071s could carry as much as 15 Chinese-size LSTs. A European source speculated to the author that the PLA may build an initial group of four, before deciding to build more of the same, or a modified version. What is clear, however, is that the PLA is able to build these ships relatively rapidly. While likely a program designed during the just-completed 2001-2005 Five Year Plan, the first Type 071 hull was built rather rapidly from the late Summer to December 2006. While this ship has yet to be outfitted and tested, it reasonable to estimate that under conditions of series production output could reach one ship a year per yard.
For PLA amphibious operations the Type 071 marks a sharp increase in carrying capacity and operational flexibility. Previously the largest PLAN amphibious assault ship was the landing ship medium/tank (LSM/LST). The PLAN started this decade with about 17 to 18 LSM/LST class ships which could carry up to 10 tanks or about 200 troops. But from 2001 to 2003 the PLA built 20+ more modern LSM/LST class ships, an increase of more than 100 percent. But these ships require the most dangerous form of amphibious operations: opposed landings. Such operations require surprise, air superiority, good weather and level or sanded beach zones to disembark their cargo, or the use of captured port facilities. On Taiwan, there are relatively few useful beach landing zones, and these plus existing ports can be rapidly surrounded by Taiwan Army forces—provided they survive PLA missile and air strikes. The Type 071, for the first time, gives the PLA the option to initiate amphibious assault operations from beyond the horizon and to bypass beach or port landing zones.
Key to the Type 071’s ability to conduct amphibious operations far from the coastline is its ability to accommodate helicopters, hovercraft and new fast troop landing vehicles. The model of the 071 shows that it has the deck space to accommodate two Changhe Z-8 size helicopters. Perhaps one or two more could fit inside its hanger. The Z-8 is a modified copy of the French Aerospatiale (now Eurocopter) SA-321 Super Frelon, a large three-engine helicopter that can carry 30 armed troops, 4,000kg of cargo internally or 5,000kg on a sling. Z-8s have long served in the PLAN and have in recent years been photographed exercising with PLA Marines. The PLA is also reportedly negotiating to purchase up to 40 Russian Kamov Ka-29 naval assault helicopters. Kamov uses a contra-rotating coaxial main rotor for most of its helicopters, which allows for a shorter fuselage, an important consideration for ship use, and reduced vibration for improved stability. The Ka-29 can carry 16 armed troops, 2,000kg of internal cargo, or it can be armed with a variety of unguided or guided missiles. In addition the 071 can support operations by future PLA attack helicopters, like the 5-ton WZ-10, now in advanced testing, or armed versions of the lighter WZ-9 and WZ-11 helicopters.
The Type 071 apparently will carry a new class of Chinese hovercraft similar in size to the U.S. LCAC. The later can carry 60 to 75 tons of cargo, or one M-1 Abrams size main battle tank, at speeds up to 40 kts. Hovercraft are also able to traverse difficult ground, can overcome many types of mines, enabling them to in many cases outflank immediate shore defenses, and place their cargo behind near-shore defensive positions. The PLA has been developing hovercraft since the 1970s, and smaller hovercraft have been operating from some PLA LST ships. The new Chinese hovercraft, also seen in the model of the Type 071, appears able to accommodate the latest PLA main battle tanks like the new Type 99, which outclasses all of Taiwan’s U.S.-made M-60 and M-48 main battle tanks. Or, this hovercraft could carry 2 to 4 of the PLA’s new Assaulter, a 18 to 20 ton wheeled fighting vehicle armed with a 105mm gun and gun-launched missiles which outrange the guns of Taiwan’s tanks. The 071 model also shows the ship carrying four of these hovercraft, which seems unlikely as that would greatly diminish its cargo carrying capacity. Given the PLA’s known interest in purchasing 4 to 8 Russian Almaz Zubr heavy hovercraft, which can carry up to 3 main battle tanks or 10 APCs plus 230 troops, the PLA stands to soon rapidly increase its capability for naval projection of armored and mechanized forces well beyond the shoreline.
In August 2006 Internet images began to appear of a new PLA amphibious assault tank apparently designed for use from the Type 071. Seemingly derived from the new ZBD-97 infantry fighting vehicle now entering PLA Army mechanized units, this new tank’s designation is unknown. But this new tank also appears to be similar to the new U.S. Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV or Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle). The EFV is a 35 ton armored vehicle that can transport 17 troops and three crew through the water at a remarkable 25kts for up to 25nm. It achieves such speed by using powerful water pump jets that allow the tank to "plane" atop the water. The infantry carrier version is armed with a 30mm automatic cannon, and it is just entering production for the U.S Marines. Internet images released since August show this new PLA amphibious tank uses large bow and stern water planning surfaces and two large water pump jets similar to the EFV. However, the PLA tank is armed with what appears to be an automatic 105mm tank gun. It is likely that in the future there will be dedicated troop transport and command/control versions of this tank. The emergence of this new tank, less than a decade after China began deploying its Type 63A 105mm gun armed amphibious tank, indicates the high level of resources the PLA is devoting toward new amphibious assault capabilities. Though only capable of slow speeds through water, the Type 63A is already the most heavily armed amphibious tank in the world and 400 to 600 now arm PLA Marine and Amphibious Army units.
What About Larger Helicopter Carriers?
In their recent insightful article about China’s debate over aircraft carrying ships, U.S. Naval War College analysts Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson cite Chinese studies and note, "Helicopter carriers might also better serve Chinese operational requirements, ranging from augmenting China’s currently anemic airborne ASW capability to logistical support and even humanitarian missions." China already has a decade of experience with its small helicopter carrying ship Shichang. In the late 1990s Chinese military officials visited European ship yards to discuss helicopter carrier plans. The PLA might find attractive the two European designs now being considered by the Australian Navy for a new LHD class ships. The first is the 21,500 ton French Mistral class which can carry 450 troops, 60 armored vehicles, up to 16 helicopters and can use LCACs. Also being considered is the 27,500 ton Spanish Strategic Projection Ship, which can carry 900 troops, 42 main battle tanks, or up to 32 NH-90 size helicopters or to 19 AV-8B Harrier II size fighters. In U.S. Navy/Marine operations, the LPD would complement the larger 40,600 ton Wasp class LHD, a small aircraft carrier designed to carry about 2,000 troops, 60 tanks, plus up to 40 aircraft, a combination of helicopters and Boeing AV-8B Harrier II troop support fighters. These are to be joined by the 46,000 ton LHA-6, a more modern design which can accommodate the future Lockheed-Martin F-35B Lightning II short take-off or landing support fighter.
The U.S. Navy/Marine combine has remained the world’s premier amphibious power projection force since World War Two with a current amphibious projection fleet of 13 LHA/LHD and 24 LPD/LSD ships. However, the emergence of the "Type 071" LPD indicates that China too is building up its capacity for future amphibious force projection. China’s interest in larger helicopter carriers could indicate possible plans to follow the Type 071 with a LHA/LHD class amphibious projection ship. But were China to build LHD/LPD ships in isolation, such a force would only be useful for potential military operations against Taiwan or elsewhere near China’s periphery. However, at least three other points add significance to these developments. First, China is also developing carrier aviation for its navy, at least indicating that China may also have the ambition to be able to escort Marine or Army amphibious action units to distant regions. Second, China’s economic interests are now global, and it political interests are following its economic interests, meaning its military interests could also become engaged. And third, China has the resources to build a power projection navy. By the end of the next decade it is not inconceivable that China’s single Type 071 LPD could be part of a larger carrier/amphibious action group, asserting China’s interests far from its shores.
 People’s Daily, December 27, 2006; David Lague, "China airs ambition to beef up naval power," International Herald Tribune, December 28, 2006; Mark Magnier and Mitchell Landsberg, "Chinese Focus on Navy Leaves Big Political Wake," Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2006.
 Chinese web posters often will offer edited versions of images of "classified" PLA weapons programs. The motives of the posters range from commercial to patriotic, but a general fear of government punishment means such examples of "transparency" are infrequent and often incomplete. There are examples where the PLA has allowed models to preview programs by two or more years, to include the Hongdu L-15 and Guizhou FTC-2000 jet trainers, the Type 054A air defense frigate and the YUAN class conventional submarine. Modelology, however, is by no means an exacting science and is prone to deception and disinformation efforts.
 Euronaval, October, 2006.
 "Russia To Deliver Aircraft Equipment To China’s Navy," Finmarket Agency, April 27, 2006; Wendell Minnick, "Chinese Eye Russian Warplanes," Defense News, May 15, 2006. The PLAN operates about a dozen Ka-28 helicopters for anti-submarine, anti-ship and rescue missions.
 "Almaz Plant to Sign Shipbuilding Contract With China," Interfax, September 1, 2006; Wendell Minnick, "China To Buy Armed Hovercraft," Defense News, September 11, 2006.
 After the 1999 October 1 large military parade in Beijing, rumors emerged that the Type 63A was deliberately kept out of the parade lineup so as not to alarm Taiwanese.
 Andrew S. Erickson and Andrew R. Wilson, "China’s Aircraft Carrier Dillema," Naval War College Review, Autumn 2006, http://www.nwc.navy.mil/PRESS/REVIEW/2006/autumn/art1-a06.htm
 Paul Lewis, "China Seeks Helicopter Carrier," Flight International, November 26-December 2, 1997, p. 18.
 While others analysts may not be ready to conclude that China is preparing to build aircraft carriers, this analyst is ready to do so on the basis of both China’s work to refurbish the Varyag and its oft-reported interest in purchasing a significant number of Russian Su-33 carrier fighters. See author’s, "2005: A Turning Point for China’s Aircraft Carrier Ambitions," International Assessment and Strategy Center, January 8, 2006; "PLA Navy Carrier Update and Euro-Naval Notes," International Assessment and Strategy Center, November 7, 2006.