Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
The Chinese fleet is hurriedly building purpose-designed Type 75 assault ships that can support helicopters and landing craft.
But it has also come up with a novel way to boost that capability to support amphibious landing operations in case of a conflict — it also mirrors what the Americans are doing.
According to Janes, an aviation brigade of China’s People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) has conducted an exercise at sea showing its ability to utilize a commercial semi-submersible heavy-lift ship as a flight deck.
Video footage released on Aug. 19 on the js7tv.cn website of the state-owned China Central Television 7 (CCTV 7) channel, shows Z-19 and Z-8 helicopters landing on and taking off from the vessel’s deck, which was marked with three operating spots.
From the video it is clear that the exercise included serials for aircraft refuelling, using conventional fuel bowser lorries embarked on the ship, and re-arming the attack helicopters with missiles, Janes reported.
The video was edited to conceal the name of the ship involved, but Rod Lee, Director of Research at the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) of the US Air Force’s Air University, identified it as Zhen Hua 28, which is registered in Hong Kong and operated by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries (ZPMC).
According to Forbes Magazine, some analysts see it as a creative — possibly desperate — bid to bolster its amphibious fleet, much like the US Navy has also done in building so-called “expeditionary sea-base ships.”
The US Navy ESBs, and the similar expeditionary transfer docks — ESDs — are variants of the Alaska-class crude carrier that General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego builds for the oil industry.
They are essentially little more than commercial heavy-load carrier ships with a grey coat of paint and radios, Forbes reported.
The two ESDs feature extremely low freeboard — that is, height at the waterline — along most of their length.
The ships’ low freeboard, combined with their ability to take on water and partially submerge, allows them to float landing craft directly on and off their main deck. The ESBs can’t submerge but, as a bonus, feature a positively huge flight deck, Forbes reported.
Built to commercial standards, they are slow, unarmored and effectively unarmed. But at a cost of around US$500 million apiece, they’re also a cheap way for the Navy to add capacity and flexibility to its amphibious flotilla.
The Chinese navy apparently has been watching the US Navy experiment.
For decades Beijing’s fleet has rented or borrowed commercial ships as an expedient method of expanding its modest-but-growing amphibious fleet, Forbes reported.
In wartime, the Chinese navy quickly could take up from trade scores or even hundreds of useful vessels, much like the Royal Navy famously did during the 1982 Falklands War.
Which is to say, in employing Zhen Hua 28, the Chinese navy isn’t necessarily copying the Americans. But it is noteworthy that both fleets have, at around the same time, discovered the utility of submersible load-carriers.