TAIPEI — Competition from rivals such as the Philippines and Vietnam for the vast oil and fishing resources of the South China Sea has pushed China to expand its airlift and sealift capabilities with new cargo/transport aircraft and landing ships.
Though development of this equipment originally was planned for a possible confrontation with Taiwan, China is lookingat the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, and minor clashes with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal and Chinese oil exploration efforts inside Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, both in the South China Sea.
In 2006, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense estimated that with mobilized civilian lift, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could transport five to six divisions of troops to Taiwan. All of the PLA Navy’s large amphibious transports and most of the new large civil ferries have been built since 2006.
China’s Navy just launched its third 28,000-ton Yuzhao-class (Type 071) landing platform dock, which can transport 500 to 800 troops and 15 to 20 amphibious armored vehicles. Three additional 071s could be built in the near future.
“In April, the Chinese military previewed in model form what may be a new Landing Helicopter Dock [LHD] amphibious transport ship,” said Richard Fisher, senior Asian military affairs specialist at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “These ships show a significant resemblance to the French Mistral-class LHD also being acquired by Russia. Three to six LHDs could be built for the PLA Navy.”
China’s landing ships include one 1,400-ton Yudeng-class medium landing ship (LCM), which can transport 500 troops and nine armored vehicles; 11 3,400-ton Yuting I and 12 3,700-ton Yuting II landing ship tanks (LSTs), which can carry 250 troops, 10 tanks and four landing craft vehicle/personnel (LCVP); seven 3,000-ton Yukan-class LSTs, capable of transporting 200 troops; and the largest of its vessels, three 17,000-ton Yuzhao-class landing platform docks that can transport one battalion of marines, 500 to 800 troops, 15 to 20 amphibious armored vehicles and four Yuyi-class air-cushioned landing craft. China also has 500 small LCMs and LCVPs used to transport equipment, supplies and troops.
This year, China has held several exercises with large passenger and vehicle-carrying ferries.
“In terms of amphibious lift potential, the civilian large ferry fleet may be able to transport two to three times what formal PLA amphibious ships could carry,” Fisher said. “These are also capable of being loaded rapidly, but require captured functional ports in order to be used to their full benefit.”
This year, China has demonstrated or previewed the full spectrum of amphibious sealift capabilities. At the “micro” end, it has proved it can surge large numbers of fishing ships into a “maritime militia,” Fisher said.
China used this coercive tactic against the Philippines in late April; in July in both Scarborough Shoal and then the Spratly Island group; and then against Japan near the Senkaku Islands in September.
“The utility of using organized fishing and light cargo ships is that they are normally very dispersed regionally, but can be organized into effective numbers very quickly,” Fisher said. “For operations against micro-size islands, 10 fishing ships each with 10 well-armed soldiers can win the battle and possibly the war.”
China also is expanding its airlift capabilities with the new four-engine Shaanxi Y-9 multipurpose and four-engine Y-20 heavy transport aircraft.
According to a report by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, “Shooting Star: China’s Military Machine in the 21st Century,” the Y-9 was developed with the assistance of Ukraine’s ANTK Antonov. The first prototype was flown in 2011.
New photos on Chinese-language military blogs indicate the Y-9 has entered service in the PLA Air Force. A clear photo can be seen on chinesemilitaryreview.blogspot.tw. Analysts compare it to the Lockheed Martin C-130J and it is unclear how many will be built.
“There is a blurry picture of it … showing some serial numbers, but you can’t really make it out. The clear one is most likely an unofficial leak as the serials have been carefully Photoshopped away,” said Gary Li, a China military specialist with U.K.-based Exclusive Analysis.
The Y-9 is a stretched version of the Shaanxi Y-8F-200 commercial transport. The Y-8, copied from the Russian An-12, serves missionsincluding transport, electronic intelligence, tanker, airborne early warning, airborne warning and control system, and maritime patrol. The new Y-9 also is expected to evolve into a multimission platform.
According to a Shaanxi Aircraft brochure acquired at the 2010 Airshow China (Zhuhai), the Y-9 is a medium-range, medium-sized transport equipped with four Chinese-made FWJ6C turboprop engines. It will be outfitted with an electronic flight instrument system, engine-indicating and crew-alerting system, and enhanced ground proximity warning system.
“It can airlift 16 tons of containerized cargo or 20 tons of bulk cargo,” the brochure says. “The ramp-type cargo door can be extended to the ground for easy loading/unloading, and can be kept at truck bed height for fast loading from the truck.”
It can be equipped with 106 seats for troops or 72 stretchers. It can also transport large equipment, such as an attack helicopter.
“Single ... and successive airdrops can be performed. The maximum single airdrop weight is 8.2 tons, and the total airdrop weight is 14 tons,” the brochure states. “It can successively airdrop two platforms of 6 meter by extraction or 13 platforms of 1 meter by gravity.” It can drop more than 100 paratroopers per mission.
Antonov also is assisting the Xian Aircraft Industry with Y-20 development. According to “Shooting Star,” “the designers hope that the Y-20’s specifications will be similar to those” of the C-17 Globemaster III.
China has relied on imports of the Il-76 transport and is expected to buy up to five more from Belarus to supplement its fleet of four, Li said.
“Shooting Star” indicates Russian D-30KP2 engines, which will later be replaced by the Chinese WS-18 turbofan engine — “a version of the CFM56 [F108], a joint product of General Electric and Snecma” — will power initial Y-20s.
The WS-18 also is being developed for a new “K” variant of the Xian H-6 medium bomber, based on the Tupolev Tu-16. The H-6K will have greater range, and could reach Australia, Guam, India and Japan.
If armed with anti-ship cruise missiles, the H-6K is expected to target U.S. aircraft carrier groups.