PLA Amphibious Capabilities: Structured for Deterrence

A few weeks before the U.S. Department of Defense(DoD) released its 2010 report to Congress on “Military and SecurityDevelopments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” a Taiwanesemilitary intelligence assessment reportedly asserted that the People'sLiberation Army (PLA) "regular amphibious abilities have ... increased,with transport capacity reaching a full division" (Taipei Times, Jul19). Unfortunately, the 2010 DoD report does not support the assertionthat amphibious capabilities have “increased.” This year’s report showsno change in the number of PLA large and medium amphibious ships from2009. In fact, based on these figures and other publicly availablematerial, despite the expansion of PLA Army amphibious and Marineunits, the modernization of the PLA Navy (PLAN) amphibious landingfleet, and increased amphibious training over the past decade, PLAamphibious lift capacity is roughly the same as it was assessed to bein 1997. Moreover, as non-traditional security missions have risen inprominence for the PLA, barring a major change in the international andcross-Strait political environment, the PLA does not appear to bereadying itself for large-scale amphibious operations in the near tomid-term (probably out to at least five years), particularly againstTaiwan.


Prior to the 500,000-troop reductionof 1997, the PLA amphibious order-of-battle consisted of a single Navymarine brigade at Zhanjiang, Guangdong province in the South Sea Fleetand an Army amphibious tank brigade in Fujian province in the NanjingMilitary Region (MR). While other Army units trained occasionally inamphibious operations, these two brigades, with less than 10,000personnel, were the PLA’s main amphibious force.

At about thesame time, the DoD's first report to Congress on the “Selected MilitaryCapabilities of the People’s Republic of China” concluded, “China’sfleet of about sixty amphibious ships conducts modest-size trainingexercises in coastal regions. Although China has never conducted adivision-scale or larger amphibious exercise fully coordinated with airsupport and airborne operations, its amphibious force is believedcapable of landing at least one infantry division on a beach, dependingon the mix of equipment and stores for immediate resupply” [1]. Thecapacity of landing “at least one infantry division” means that it wassufficient to transport the two amphibious brigades.

During thereduction in force from 1997 to 2000, the personnel size of the PLA’samphibious force tripled as Army units were transformed and assignednew duties, but amphibious lift capacity did not increase at the samepace. The PLAN is assessed to be able to transport to Taiwan roughlythe same size force as it was assessed to be capable of lifting 13years ago. This means that the PLAN amphibious ship force has beenmodernized, but not significantly expanded in capability over the pastdecade.

The former 164th Infantry Division was downsized andtransferred to the Navy to become the second marine brigade. Twomotorized infantry divisions were reorganized, issued armored vehiclesand transformed into amphibious mechanized infantry divisions.Currently, PLA Army amphibious units are more than twice the size ofthe two PLAN brigades. Yet the total designated amphibious force (twodivisions and three brigades), estimated at some 30,000 to 35,000personnel, amounts to only a fraction of the approximately 34 maneuverdivisions and 40 brigades in the Army (and Marines) [2].

Amphibioustraining has become more prominent, larger and routine. Designatedamphibious units receive priority for annual maritime training, butalso conduct training for other missions. Other maneuver and supportunits from the Nanjing and Guangzhou MRs undertake amphibious trainingto a lesser extent, as do some units from the Jinan and Shenyang MRs.Over the past decade, roughly 25 infantry and armored divisions andbrigades, amounting to one-quarter to one-third of the total groundforce, have conducted some type of amphibious training [3]. The sizeand number of exercises per year varies, with a peak in 2001 whennearly 100,000 Army, Navy and Air Force personnel participated in adrill at Dongshan Island at the southern tip of Fujian province (ChinaDaily, July 12, 2004).

Nonetheless, according to the Pentagon,despite modernization of the amphibious fleet, the PLA’s amphibiouslift capacity now remains roughly the same size as a decade ago:“capable of sealift of one infantry division.” Overall capabilities aredescribed as:

“The PLA is capable of accomplishing variousamphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. Withfew overt military preparations beyond routine training, China couldlaunch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands such as the Pratas orItu Aba …. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, defended offshore islandsuch as Mazu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities” [4].

Theparagraphs below provide details that support these conclusions anddemonstrate how these capabilities are consistent with Beijing’sdeclared intention to protect its sovereignty and to deter what Beijinglabels “separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’.”

Marine and Army Amphibious Units

The1st Marine Brigade was formed in 1980 (PLA Daily, May 6). Previously, aMarine division had been established in 1954, but was disbanded in1959. Nearly 20 years later, the 164th Marine Brigade was establishedout of an Army division [5]. Each brigade consists of approximately5,000-6,000 personnel (including some women) and is organized intothree or four infantry or amphibious mechanized infantry battalions, anarmored regiment, an artillery regiment (including air defense andanti-tank missile units), plus smaller engineer, reconnaissance(including some Special Operations Forces), chemical defense andcommunications units [6]. Amphibious vehicles include Type 63Aamphibious tanks, older armored personnel carriers (including Type 86BMP-type infantry fighting vehicles and Type 63 APCs modified with bowand stern extensions and outboard motors), new ZBD05-series amphibiousvehicles (seen in October 2009 military parade), and 122mmself-propelled howitzers [7]. These amphibious vehicles can “swim” inshallow water for several kilometers. Often they are launched fromamphibious ships a few kilometers offshore, but are vulnerable to highwinds and waves.

Due to their location, Marine units areprimarily oriented toward operations in the South China Sea but canundertake out-of-area missions. They train with South Sea Fleet landingship units and helicopters often at training areas on the LeizhouPeninsula. Mostly they train by themselves (i.e. not in “joint”exercises among the services), though Marine units can participate inlarger joint training, such as the Sino-Russian combined exercise,Peace Mission 2005, held in Shandong. There, on Day 2 of a three-dayexercise, elements of a Marine armored regiment conducted a beachlanding along with Russian forces (People’s Daily Aug 25, 2005;Kommersant, September 8, 2005). Detachments of Marine SpecialOperations Forces have also been assigned to each of the six PLAN taskforces conducting anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

TheArmy’s designated amphibious force is comprised of 1st AmphibiousMechanized Infantry Division and an amphibious armored brigade in theNanjing MR and the 124th Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division in theGuangzhou MR. The armored brigade likely has three or four armoredbattalions and a mechanized infantry battalion plus support units. Itappears to be armed with newer Type 96A amphibious tanks as well asolder light tanks and APCs (PLA Daily, June 16, 2009). Total personnelfor the brigade probably reaches nearly 2,000 men [8].

The 1stAmphibious Mechanized Infantry Division has undergone twotransformations in the past decade. The first was from its motorizedpredecessor into its initial amphibious mechanized form, which entailedgetting new equipment (such as modified Type 63 amphibious APCs) anddedicating itself to the practice of amphibious warfare. The secondconversion began in 2009 when new armored vehicles, like the ZTD05series (seen in the October 2009 parade) and ZBD05, were delivered.Currently, the unit has a three-year plan to build an information-basedoperational system. Significantly, division leaders acknowledge thatalthough they know what their goal is, the unit still has a long way togo to accomplish it (PLA Daily, April 26). The division undertakesextended amphibious training every year, often culminating in a fulldivision evaluation exercise, but it also is involved in many othertypes of exercises, including acting as a “blue force” in opposingforce exercises [9].

In the Guangzhou MR, the 124th is equippedand trains much like its brother unit to the north. Similar to severalother infantry divisions in the ground force, these two divisions havebeen downsized to consist only of two mechanized infantry regiments andone armored regiment along with artillery and anti-aircraft regimentsand other support units. As such, these reorganized divisions now countroughly 10,000 personnel on their rosters instead of 12,000 or moreunder previous structures [10].

Amphibious units can spend threeor more months per year training in tasks associated with landingoperations. These units also prepare for non-amphibious roles and canbe used in non-traditional security missions. In addition to thedesignated amphibious units, nearly all main force combat units in theNanjing and Guangzhou MRs have conducted some amount of amphibioustraining, as have units from Jinan MR and a few from Shenyang andBeijing MRs. Amphibious training areas have been established in thefour MRs along the coast (Guangzhou, Nanjing, Jinan and Shenyang) toaccommodate this activity, though a shortage of training areas is aproblem [11]. Training usually begins with movement to coastal sitesaround May and can continue through September or later, as new unitsrotate into the areas. Training often progresses from swimming lessons,to loading and unloading vessels, to small unit exercises, and finallylarge unit evaluation. Usually units practice within their own MRs, butcross-regional training has become more common in recent years. Forexample, in September 2008, Joint 2008 (Lianhe 2008) involved all threeservices and featured the 138th Motorized Infantry Brigade of Jinan MRmoving from Shandong across the Bohai to conduct an amphibious landingon the Liaodong peninsula (People’s Daily, September 23, 2008). In thelast few years, amphibious exercises have not reached the grand scaledemonstrated in 2001.

Amphibious Ship Units

The PLAN hastwo landing ship flotillas (denglujian zhidui), one in the South SeaFleet and another in the East Sea Fleet, and a landing ship group(dadui) in the North Sea Fleet [12]. Each flotilla probably has two orthree subordinate groups. Because it provides direct support to theMarine brigades, the South Sea Fleet landing ship flotilla appears tobe larger than the East Sea Fleet’s. Each landing ship group commandssome 10 to 15 large and medium landing ships. Smaller landing craftused to transfer personnel and equipment from ship to shore includemany small 10-man-boats with outboard motors and about a dozen smalland medium air cushioned craft.

Over the past 10 years, newerships have replaced older amphibious ships, which were retired fromservice. Currently, large landing ships include one Type 071 LandingPlatform Dock, approximately seven Type 072 (Yukan Class), 10 Type072-II (Yuting Class), and nine Type 072-III (Yuting-II Class). Mediumlanding ships include seven Type 074A, 13 Type 074 (Yuhai Class), and11 Type 073-III (Yudeng Class) [13]. Large and medium landing ships canmake the 100-plus nautical mile voyage (depending on the point ofembarkation) from the mainland to Taiwan [14]. The personnel capacityof these 58 ships remains at about 12,000 personnel, or one division.Not included in this total are another 31 (or fewer) Type 079 (YulianClass) medium landing ships which mostly operate in coastal waters andthe South China Sea, but may not be able to make the transit to Taiwansafely when fully loaded except in the most ideal weather conditions.

TheArmy has up to another 15 ship groups (dadui), each with around 10landing craft assigned to two or three squadrons (zhongdui). Thesevessels, mostly Type 271-series and Type 068 (Yuqing Class) landingcraft, also are primarily used in coastal waters and would beunsuitable for a long amphibious mission over open seas. The Armycoastal defense force appears to control eight ship transport groups,used mostly for supporting coastal defense units with water and fuel,but which can also be used for transport and amphibious operationsclose to the mainland [15]. Some Joint Logistics sub-departments alsohave ship transport groups (at least two have been identified inNanjing MR) and the Nanjing MR Army Reserve Logistics Support Brigadeis assigned a ship transport unit [16]. Finally, eight years ago, aship group (chuanting dadui) was formed at the Dongshan Island trainingarea. According to its commander, this unit has participated in some 40exercises and is the only Army ship unit that undertakes amphibiousoperational support missions exclusively (China News, March 20). Thoughthese units are quite dispersed, they potentially add about 150 smalllanding craft for amphibious operations in coastal waters (but likelynot extending to Taiwan).

Sealift forces may be expanded byincorporating civilian vessels into the force. Maritime militia unitshave organized ship units and civilian fishing and transport vesselsmay also be mobilized. In many cases, civilian ships requiremodifications to transport military equipment. Under most conditions,civilian shipping would not be suitable for amphibious assault butwould be more appropriate for landing in ports captured in the earlyphase of an operation. Military and civilian ships may also secureartillery and rocket launchers to their decks to provide fire supportfor landing operations. These weapons, however, most likely would beeffective primarily for large area suppressive barrages since theiraccuracies would not be as precise as naval gunfire or aircraft.


Althoughthe number of units equipped and trained to conduct amphibiousoperations has increased over the past decade, the Navy’s sealiftcapacity for operations beyond China’s immediate coastal waters has notmatched this growth. Army, Navy, and civilian forces probably couldmass amphibious lift for a multi-division operation against smalleroffshore islands (though they probably would lose the element ofsurprise as they assembled and loaded troops).

The currentlack of strategic sealift suggests that the increase in amphibiouscapabilities is directed more to deterrence than to preparation for warin the short-term. This posture is consistent with Beijing’s policy of“opposing and checking [i.e., deterring] Taiwan's secession … promotingpeaceful national reunification and maintaining peace and stability inthe Taiwan Straits” [17].

Despite the modernization [emphasisadded] of the PLAN amphibious landing fleet, the expansion of Armyamphibious and Marine units and increased amphibious training, the PLAdoes not appear to be readying itself for a large-scale amphibiousoperation in the near to mid-term. This may not have been the case 10years ago. Obviously, the cross-Strait political situation has changedand Beijing may have realized that overt, obvious attempts tointimidate Taiwan with amphibious exercises in Fujian arecounterproductive. To be sure, the Chinese defense industry has thecapacity to build more landing ships and craft in a relatively shorttime and the PLA could be given the resources to surge the tempo andintensity of amphibious training.

At the same time, the PLA ispracticing other actions required for local war scenarios and majoramphibious operations, such as cross-region movements, air defense overland and sea, control of surface and subsurface sea areas, jointfirepower campaigns, information operations and logistics support.While preparing for local war remains the PLA’s core mission, as seenby the recent deployment of the Kunlunshan Type 071 Landing PlatformDock on the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, non-traditionalsecurity operations are also receiving high priority (, June29).

In the final analysis, the creation of a credible force isthe first element of deterrence. The second element of deterrence,demonstrating the forces’ ability, can be accomplished throughexercises, parades and opening military units to foreign visitors, ashas been seen for most of this decade [18]. With the changes incross-Strait political environment since 2008, China’s leadershipapparently sees little need to repeat the large-scale landingdemonstrations of years past. Were Beijing’s intentions to changetoward a forced reunification, we could expect to see an expansion ofamphibious shipbuilding along with increased amphibious training in theforces. Large-scale amphibious operations, however, would almostcertainly be low on the list of PLA force options and follow extensiveair, sea, information and special operations campaigns, which wouldresult in the loss of strategic surprise.

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