In mid-May, China’s news media reported People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force H-6K bombers landed on disputed Woody Island–the first time nuclear-capable aircraft landed on any of the features in the South China Sea region.
From islands China has militarized in the South China Sea, H-6K bombers are today technically able to strike Singapore and much of Indonesia, with potential capability to hit US installations in Guam and northern Australia.
But nuclear-capable bombers are not the only formidable power projection capability China is forward basing in the maritime area. Another potent force China has inserted into these disputed waters is the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLAMC).
As part of its military reform, the PLA has dramatically increased the size of its Marine Corps and developed advanced amphibious assault ships and vehicles. Further, in activities patterned after those of the US Marines, PLA Marines are now actively engaged in overseas operations.
These operations include PLA Navy escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, island-seizing exercises in the South China Sea, live fire “political warfare” exercises in the Taiwan Straits designed to demoralize Taipei, evacuation of Chinese civilians from Yemen in 2015, and establishment of China’s first overseas military logistics support base in Djibouti in 2017.
In Djibouti, China’s Marines are touted as an installation security force, but static base defense is not the mission of the PLA Marine Corps. That mission is to project military power — to rapidly put “boots and bayonets” on the ground – from the sea.
As retired US Navy Captain James Fanell testified before Congress earlier this month, “the most important aspect to any successful Chinese maritime campaign involves the act of physically occupying islands within the First and Second Island Chain. The key to holding these contested islands is the ability to successfully move forces ashore to seize and hold the ground.”
Fanell reported that “in the South China Sea recently, Chinese Marines conducted amphibious assault exercises utilizing amphibious dock landing ships, air-cushion landing craft, and ship-borne helicopters.
“This type of training is ubiquitous across the East and South China Sea, and is the most tangible evidence of the PLA’s intention of being prepared to conduct such a mission,” he said.
To support the Marines, China’s artificial SCS “islands” help serve as amphibious assault staging areas. The Straits Times reported this week that China has built massive facilities on Mischief Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, and Subi Reef, including 3,000 foot runways, extensive storage facilities, missile emplacements, and structures to support PLAMC regiment-sized forces of 1,500 and 2,400 Marines each.
Additional forces rapidly deployed to these islands to stage for expeditionary strike missions would require few facilities, of course–just enough space for short-term troop and equipment laydown immediately prior to an assault.
What will the PLAMC’s presence look like in the SCS? It seems initially much like the US Marine Corps. It’s not just the US Marine Corps operations the PLAMC has mimicked; it’s also the USMC organization and equipment, as well as key doctrine, training and tactics.
In addition to the island-based regiments, the PLAMC’s “at sea” expeditionary capability will be a version of the US Navy-Marine Corps team.
America’s forward-deployed “tip of the spear” is the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). The Navy side of an ESG normally consists of a Landing Helicopter Dock/Assault (LHD/LHA), a Landing Platform Dock (LPD), a Landing Ship Dock (LSD), and often other surface warships and attack submarines as required.
Embarked is a Marine Expeditionary Unit, with a reinforced infantry battalion-centered Marine Air-Ground Task Force, to include attack and transport helicopters and STOVL attack aircraft.
In an effort to replicate the ESG and to build a 500-ship Navy by the year 2030, China is producing many high-end, large amphibious warships, according to Fanell.
The US Navy Office of Naval Intelligence reports the PLAN has 56 amphibious warships, including the large, modern Yuzhao-class Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship. The Type 071 can hold up to four Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCACs), as well as four or more helicopters, and armored vehicles and troops.
The Yuzhao-class ship has proven effective in many overseas operations and is perfectly fitted for a wide range of likely Chinese campaigns, including in Taiwan, the Senkakus and South China Sea.
Not content with the Yuzhao, China has announced it “has started building a new generation of large amphibious assault vessels that will strengthen the navy as it plays a more dominant role in projecting the nation’s power overseas,” according to Fanell.
One such ship is the Type 075. Although slightly smaller than a US Navy LHA, the Type 075 is much larger than any other amphibious warship previously built for the PLA Navy. It can carry up to 900 Marines and roughly a dozen amphibious assault vehicles in the well deck.
Reports of aircraft space vary, but reportedly the Type 075 will carry between 20 and 30 attack and transport helicopters and STOVL aircraft (when they become available). It has the ability to launch 6 helicopters simultaneously.
Again mimicking US Navy capabilities as reflected in the Expeditionary Transfer Dock (T-ESD-1, USNS Montford Point), the PLA Navy has acquired a semi-submersible heavy lift (SSHL) ship.
The PLA Navy’s SSHL can offload heavy equipment and vehicles from Roll-On Roll Off (Ro/RO) ships and then load them on LCACs or amphibious assault vehicles. The PRC civilian fleet also has at least ten of these vessels, all built to military standard.
Since the PLA is authorized to mobilize all civilian vessels for military purposes, the dozens of China’s existing SSHL and RO/RO ships can augment amphibious assault support capabilities quite significantly on very short notice.
To get the Marines from the “amphibs” onto the beach, the PLA uses Zubr-class and 726-class LCACs. A Zubr can carry up to three main battle tanks or 10 armored vehicles, or 500 Marines.
With a top speed of 63 knots and range of 300 nautical miles, the Zubr-class LCACs allow the PLA Marines a greater element of surprise than does the PLAN’s 726-class LCACs (similar in size to the US Navy LCAC), which carry one main battle tank or 80 Marines.
Once ashore, the PLA Marines will use the ZBD-05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicle and the ZTD-05 amphibious assault vehicle, which is very similar to the USMC’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. In addition, they will fight from ZBL-08 wheeled fighting vehicles, which wield 30mm cannons or 105mm assault guns. China’s Djibouti-based Marines use the ZBL-08 for live-fire assault training.
To expand from a force of 20,000 Marines to a corps-level force of 100,000 PLA Marines poses organizational, training and other challenges. Marines are elite forces, so they must undergo a rigorous physical, mental and technical training regimen to be able to fulfill complex missions such as combined arms attack, amphibious assault, urban combat, heliborne assault and non-combatant evacuation missions.
By December 2017, PRC media reported that 30,000 Marines were serving in its three fleets, with each fleet commanding two brigades. Among these six brigades, two were the original PLAMC brigades, one was from the Army and three were from coastal defense forces.
According to Republic of China (Taiwan) Marine Corps Colonel Ho Pei-sung at Taiwan’s National Defense University, it will take at least another year to train units with this diverse background to conduct
“Marine-style expeditionary missions.” Still, Ho says that eventually the PLAMC will become “a more powerful, capable, flexible, versatile expeditionary fighting force.”
While some of these new PLAMC forces will be dispatched to far-flung installations like Gwadar, Pakistan, and Djibouti, most will also be used as a force of intimidation and coercion, according to Fanell, “effectively posing threats not just in the South China Sea, but globally as well.”
Professor Kerry K Gershaneck is a scholar at the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, National Chengchi University, ROC; a guest lecturer at the ROC National Defense University; a senior research associate with Thammasat University’s Faculty of Law (CPG); and the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Thailand. He is a former US Marine Corps officer.