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China's Littoral Ambitions Go Air-Cushioned

Jan. 13, 2014 - 05:59PM   |  
By WENDELL MINNICK   |   Comments
A Sept. 26 photo shows a Russian Zubr-class hovercraft landing on shore in Kaliningrad during a military exercise. China recently received the first of two of the Ukrainian-built craft, and it plans to build two more.
A Sept. 26 photo shows a Russian Zubr-class hovercraft landing on shore in Kaliningrad during a military exercise. China recently received the first of two of the Ukrainian-built craft, and it plans to build two more. (Alexey Druzhinin / Agence France-Presse via RIA NO)
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TAIPEI — China will retake the Diaoyu Islands along with the Ryukyu island chain from Japan in the East China Sea and seize the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea within the next 30 to 40 years, according to an editorial published in July by the Chinese-language Wen Wei Po newspaper.

“Six Wars China is Sure to Fight in the Next 50 Years” suggests China fight a war with Vietnam over the South China Sea, place troops on the Spratly Islands and build ports, and intimidate others who “dare to challenge Chinese domination.”

The war over territories in the East China Sea would be more difficult against Japan’s advanced military, but “payback” is necessary for what the editorial calls Japan’s illegal occupation of the islands. The result of China’s victory would turn the East China Sea into an “inner lake of China,” according to the editorial

This editorial and others encouraging such conflict have gotten Western analysts to pay more attention to Chinese efforts at building a viable littoral capability to seize disputed islands.

Analysts point to China’s procurement of hovercraft, also known as air-cushioned landing craft, with special interest.

In May, media reports out of China indicated the country’s Navy received the first of two Ukrainian-built Zubr-class hovercraft ordered in 2009 from Feodosia Shipbuilding for $315 million. The contract includes a technology transfer agreement for another two to be built in China.

According to the company website, the 500-ton Zubr is the biggest hovercraft ever built. It can transport three medium tanks or 10 armored personnel carriers or a landing force of 500 troops. If China adopts the normal armament provided by Feodosia, the craft will be outfitted with two 30mm gun mounts of AK-630 type and two launchers for 140mm unguided rocket shells. However, China is more likely to outfit the Zubr with locally developed systems.

“I expect that a unique Chinese version will soon emerge, just as the Chinese started producing their own version of the Ukrainian Kolchuga passive radar about a decade ago,” said Richard Fisher, a China military specialist at the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of the new book, “China’s Military Modernization.”

The Chinese military “can more quickly execute a smash-and-grab campaign” for disputed islands, he said, including the Sakashima Islands, which are part of the Ryukyu chain, “greatly decreasing warning time and increasing the requirements for deterrence.”

Unlike the smaller Chinese-built 150-ton Yuyi-class (Type 722) hovercraft, four of which can fit in the well deck of the Yuzhao-class (Type 071) landing platform dock, the Zubr craft are far too big for a ship. China has a total of three confirmed, and one possible build in progress, of the Yuzhao. Assuming there are four in total, that would bring the number of expected Yuyi hovercraft to 16.

Analysts said there are three Yuyi hovercraft in service, with more likely to be built in the future.

Not everyone views the Zubr as a practical invasion asset for small islets in the East and South China Seas. Carlyle Thayer, a maritime defense specialist at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the vessel’s size renders it “ungainly for assault operations.”

The Zubr would also present a “huge target” as it “stands four stories high and would dwarf most of the physical features that China could conceivably occupy,” he said.

The behemoth also is restricted from operating in the South China Sea because its range is limited to 300 nautical miles without refueling. In addition, Thayer said, the hovercraft generates enough wash to make it difficult for small escort ships, such as patrol boats, corvettes and frigates, to operate alongside.

The use of tanks and armored personnel vehicles transported by the Zubr also is “unlikely” in the South China Sea because of the limited size of any islets China would seek to occupy, Thayer said.

Still, he said, the Zubr could “deliver a sizable force of several hundred marines” to any number of littoral locations that would be impossible for other vessels to enter. And the Zubr provides options.

Rather than taking a large force of 500 troops and equipment, the Zubr could be equipped to carry additional fuel necessary to transport 150 special operations troops and about 50 tons of weaponry to retake the Diaoyu (Senkaku to the Japanese) Islands in the East China Sea in about seven hours, Thayer said.

The speed of such operations raises questions about Japanese response time, Fisher said. “Can Japan detect initial preparations in time to issue sufficient diplomatic warnings, or can their decision process produce a timely preemptive deployment from bases in Okinawa?” ■


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