The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is moving quickly towards the launch of its amphibious landing ship or LHD (landing helicopter dock) Type 075, currently under construction in Shanghai by the Hudong-Zhonghua Shipbuilding Company (subsidiary of the China State Shipbuilding Corporation, CSSC). From various images taken of the new amphibious assault ship, initially published on the Chinese social media network Weibo and later on Twitter, it seems that the works are proceeding faster than initially planned and the launch could take place in the coming months. Compared to the satellite images from last June in which the Type 075 still appeared to be unfinished, in these recent shots the ship’s hull is complete and the works mainly concern two superstructures above the flight deck. Probably, similar to the British Queen Elizabeth and the Italian Trieste, the first LHD Type 075 will have twin islands, thus separating the ship’s control tower from that of the combat operations, both terrestrial and aerial.
The features of the Type 075
Once completed, the Type 075 should have a total displacement of between 31,000 and 40,000 tons, with an overall length of 250 metres and a maximum width of 30 metres. The most noteworthy feature, and a departure from past designs, seems to be that of the twin islands. This engineering characteristic, recently implemented in Europe, allows for more space on the ship’s flight deck. There it will be possible to accommodate five or six of the medium-to-large helicopters used by the Chinese armed forces, while the lifts, located in the stern and bow, will be able to access the hangars that will host further helicopters (the maximum capacity should be 30) and amphibious landing craft, which can be put to sea by a pump-action ramp. However, the ships of the Type 075 class could in future also be modified and transformed into light aircraft carriers, because the dimensions and characteristics of the flight deck and the hangars do not preclude the use of short take-off and vertical landing aircraft. At the moment, however, they do not seem to be developing any such jets to require the use of Type 075 as light aircraft carriers. On the other hand, this could not be ruled out in the short term, and it would bring the capacity of the PLAN closer to that of the US Navy, giving it more chance of exercising power plays around the South and East China Seas.
The first step towards large-scale amphibious landings?
The initial step will be to launch the first Type 075, which will allow China to modernise and improve their fleet of amphibious landing ships, currently comprised of the smaller Type 071. The plan seems to be to complete the construction of three new LHDs, and put them into active service, then to increase efforts in the following five-year period to try to reach a total of between six and nine Type 075. The Beijing government’s clear objective was recently stated in its defence white paper published in July, which stressed the need to equip their armed forces to a level sufficient to protect China’s political-economic interests. In this context the LHD are vital because they facilitate aerial and logistic support operations, as well as allow helicopters to take off to combat submarines. The main use, however, of this type of ship is to guarantee being able to carry out amphibious landings.
China’s strategy seems to be focussed on precisely this because, at present, as pointed out in the 2019 Pentagon report on Chinese military capabilities, Beijing’s armed forces would not be able to carry out landings of any size. According to this report, the shipyards’ efforts would be aimed at allowing the Navy to carry out landings of limited scope, perhaps in the small islands of the South China Sea. In future, when nine or ten LHD will be in use, the target could become more ambitious and a large-scale landing could be organised and implemented in Taiwan. The possibility of a military operation against the Taipei government has never been denied by Beijing – in fact, in the recent white paper they underlined the chance of direct intervention if the idea of “a single China” should be put under threat. Even the reorganisation of the Chinese Marine Corps, due to triple its manpower in the coming years, is an indication of Beijing’s willingness to equip itself with forces that can support government foreign policy.
Active support for Beijing’s policies
Comparison with US forces is unrealistic, but with the new Type 075 China is moving closer to a guarantee of being able to use its Navy for large-scale amphibious operations. Additionally, with the speed of the construction of the LHD in Shanghai, China is once again demonstrating its willingness to shorten timelines in order to have the military capacity needed to support President Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, which aims to have “total” control of the Asia Pacific region. This could already be possible in the next few years, especially if Shanghai’s shipyards could be configured to build more Type 075s simultaneously. If so, the signal to the world would be clear and unmistakeable.