TAIPEI — China’s military is expanding its capabilities for an amphibious assault on the self-ruled island of Taiwan. This, according to the newly released “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” which is issued by the Pentagon each year as mandated by the US Congress.
China now has two amphibious mechanized infantry divisions, one amphibious armor brigade, 11 army aviation brigades and regiments, three Airborne divisions, and two Marine brigades. For the navy, new ships include 30 tank landing ships/amphibious transport docks, 22 medium landing ships, and China has signed significant purchase contracts with Ukraine for assault hovercraft.
China’s investments in its amphibious ship force signal China’s intent to develop an expeditionary and over-the-horizon amphibious assault capability, said the report.
“Since 2005, China has built three large Yuzhao-class (Type 071) amphibious transport docks with a fourth soon to enter service, providing considerably greater and more flexible capability for ‘far seas’ operations than the older landing ships.” The Yuzhao can carry up to four of the new Yuyi-class, air-cushion medium landing craft and four or more helicopters, as well as armored vehicles and marines for long-distance deployments. Additional Yuzhao construction is expected to continue, as is a follow-on amphibious assault ship that is not only larger, but also incorporates a full flight deck for helicopters. Two Yuting II-class tank landing ships (LST) are currently being built to replace older LST units that are reaching the end of their service lives.
The Pentagon report states that Chinese writings indicate there are different operational concepts for an amphibious invasion of Taiwan, but the most prominent of these is the Joint Island Landing Campaign, which envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air, naval support and electronic warfare.
“The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites in the north or south of Taiwan’s western coastline, and launch attacks to seize and to occupy key targets or the entire island.”
The report appears skeptical China could successfully invade Taiwan at present. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention, said the report. “These stresses, combined with China’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency (assuming a successful landing and breakout), make an amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk.”
However, China continues to improve its ability to conduct and sustain amphibious operations through its fleet modernization and joint exercise programs.
In 2012, China and Thailand participated in a joint amphibious assault exercise dubbed “Blue Assault Force,” but it was not until 2015 that China began serious amphibious exercise operations. In that year, China staged three joint landing exercises that tested its capabilities, marking an increase in the complexity of its amphibious training.
In July 2015, China used a Zubr-class (Pomornik) air-cushioned landing craft for the first time in an actual ground-forces landing mode during a South Sea Fleet joint landing exercise. China also used Jinsha II-class/Type 722 (Yuyi) air-cushioned landing craft for the first time in an unfamiliar landing area — the naval equivalent of traveling to, and conducting landing operations within, an out-of-region training area. “Although the exercise was not large (just more than 20 vessels of 10 types participated), it was unique in that it reportedly was the PLA's first uncooperative, opposition force (OPFOR)-enabled joint amphibious operation.”
JOINT ACTION-2015B in the East Sea Fleet focused on mobilization, uploading, multi-modal transport, offloading and follow-on second-echelon assaults inshore. The primary participants were subordinate to the Nanjing Military Region, including elements of the 12th Group Army. “Participants were supported by civilian aircraft, vessels, facilities, and equipment. The exercise’s focus on operations following a landing suggests the PLA is confident in its ability to seize and to expand significant beachheads during an amphibious operation.”
JOINT MARITIME-2015 involved Chinese and Russian surface combatants, amphibious forces, and rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft, and involved a combined amphibious and air landing operations on the Russian coastline northeast of North Korea. “The number of participants was relatively small, however, and China probably did not gain much tactical insight.”
Taiwan remains China’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance. The island literally blocks China’s access to the Pacific Ocean; it must fly missions around the island as well as sail around the island to project force beyond China’s peripheral waters.