MELBOURNE, Australia — China has converted civilian ferries for use in military amphibious operations, potentially enabling the country to significantly surge its amphibious assault capabilities in a contingency like a Taiwan invasion, according to a new report.
The July report was published in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief by Conor Kennedy, an instructor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. The report said that since 2019, the roll-on/roll-off ferry Bang Chui Dao, a 15,560-ton vessel owned and operated by COSCO Shipping Ferry Company, has been fitted with a modified ramp able to launch and recover amphibious armored vehicles while offshore.
This capability means the ship can launch and recover vehicles without dedicated port facilities. This is in contrast to typical RO/RO vessels, which have straight hydraulic ramps for vehicles to drive on or off while ships are in port.
According to the Jamestown report, the modified ramp is “driven directly by two large hydraulic cylinders and two support arms. When conducting launch and recovery, these are connected between the top of the hydraulic mounting assemblies on the inner ramp and the top of the freight deck threshold to provide the strength and leverage required to deploy the ramp into the water and withstand sea action.”
The report added that “the support arms also act as preventers at maximum extension, while the ramp is kept rigid by the hydraulic cylinders. A longer outer ramp flap has also been added, controlled by another set of hydraulic cylinders mounted on the underside or backside of the ramp. These help to provide strength at the end of the outer ramp and may also allow for further articulation to help vehicles get on the inner ramp.”
The author suggested the introduction of this system reflects the confidence of Chinese engineers and the vessel’s operators that their technological approach can work, despite the use of ramps at sea being “fraught with challenges.”
The analysis noted the combined use of hydraulic systems and support arms means this new ramp is better situated to handle light sea states, with converted ships able to simply anchor and discharge vehicles using the vessel’s own lee or run at low speed to ensure smooth vehicle launching if currents complicate operations.
China’s state media reported the Bang Chui Dao took part in People’s Liberation Army amphibious exercises in August 2020. The vessel, which plies ferry routes in northern China across the Yellow Sea and Bohai Gulf, participated in training activities off the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang in Guangdong province.
The Jamestown report identified the location of the activities as an amphibious training area in Dianbai County. Footage from the exercise showed the RO/RO vessel operating a PLA Marine Corps ZTD-05 amphibious armored vehicle.
Exercises with civilian RO/RO ferries have continued this year, with the Chinese tabloid Global Times reporting that brigades of the PLA’s 72nd Group Army and Marine Corps “coordinated with civilian ships and conducted a long-distance cross-sea maneuvering exercise at an undisclosed location.” State-run television station CCTV reported that “large groups of different types of amphibious armored vehicles and military trucks were loaded onto civilian ships as part of the transport mission” at the exercise.
These civilian vessels might have been those noticed on an open-source ship-tracking website by Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Using automatic identification system data from marinetraffic.com, he noted two more RO/RO ferries normally plying routes in the Yellow Sea off a beach off Guangdong, to the west of Hong Kong, in late July.
The two ferries were the 33,000-ton Bo Hai Ma Zhu (owned by Bohai Ferry and based at Yantai) and the 16,000-ton Hu Lu Dao (owned by China Shipping Passenger Liner Company and based at Dalian).
Both ferries were anchored for more than 24 hours off the sandy coasts of Yangxi County on July 26 after stopping at nearby ports and remain at or near Zhanjiang as of the afternoon of Aug. 4.
China’s relatively modest high-end amphibious assault capabilities have been viewed as a key impediment to its ability to mount an all-out invasion of Taiwan, although it is making efforts to address this shortfall with the rapid construction of three Type 075 amphibious assault ships to join six Type 071 landing platform docks already in service.
The conversion of more civilian RO/RO ferries with the modified ramp would improve the PLA’s ability to surge its amphibious forces in a contingency, with the Jamestown report identifying 63 vessels that could potentially be converted, citing data published by the PLA’s Military Transportation University.
Shugart said the PLA’s effort to use civilian ferries as amphibious transports is part of its attempt to “integrate China’s world-class merchant marine into its amphibious assault forces.” He added that if successful, the nation “could potentially increase its [cross-Taiwan Strait] sealift capacity immensely, removing one of the major obstacles to [an] invasion of Taiwan.”
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.