While a great deal of emphasis has been placed on China’s growing aircraft carrier and submarine fleets, the rising power’s Type 075 large-deck amphibious warfare ships have quietly taken shape, sparking the next phase of the Indo-Pacific arms race.
Quick reaction forces of overwhelming maritime and air power have traditionally formed the basis of power projection doctrine, however, rapidly deployable airborne and amphibious forces serve as critical force multipliers at both the tactical and strategic level – in the Indo-Pacific, amphibious operations and capabilities serve as major tactical and strategic deterrents and force multipliers as the geographic realities directly influence the force structures and capability developments of competing powers.
Driven by the tactical and strategic realities of the European and Middle East theatres, combined with the painful lessons learned throughout the bloody Pacific war against Japan, the evolution of both tactical and strategic air and sea lift capabilities during the Cold War served to radically reshape the power projection calculus for nations ranging from the US and UK to Australia.
These are lessons that have not gone unnoticed by many emerging and established powers throughout the Indo-Pacific, as nations including Australia, Japan and South Korea embark on a period of modernisation, restructuring and recapitalisation of their respective amphibious expeditionary capabilities – the tactical and strategic importance of amphibious expeditionary capabilities for humanitarian, sea control and power projection purposes has also been a driving force behind the development of China's own rapidly growing amphibious expeditionary capacity.
China's new LHD – Type 075
While the established Indo-Pacific powers have established and modernised their fleets of large-deck amphibious warfare ships like the Canberra, Hyuga, Izumo and Dokdo Class vessels respectively and tailored their respective force structures to operate with a degree of autonomy or within the confines of larger US Navy-led carrier or expeditionary strike groups – China, as the emerging regional and global power, is starting from scratch.
The Type 075 currently under construction at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyards is designed to operate in a similar manner to the LHDs of the US, Australian, Japanese and South Korean Navies, providing amphibious power projection, sea-control and amphibious air support with an impressive helicopter complement and command and control capabilities – with a displacement of between 30,000-40,000 tons, the Type 075 also incorporates a floodable well-dock capable of supporting both Russian and Chinese designed landing craft air cushions (LCAC).
The first vessel is suspected to be part of a larger class of between six and eight such vessels, with the first three vessels built to the Type 075 standard and the subsequent block builds to be built to the Type 075A variant, bringing the ships closer to the 40,000 tons of displacement and providing greater tactical and strategic capability. These ships will, like their Western counterparts, not operate alone, rather they will operate in conjunction with China's growing fleet of amphibious warfare ships – with the bulk of China's new amphibious warfare and sea control capabilities expected to be in service beginning in the mid-2020s.
Fleshing out the fleet - the Type 071 LPD and LST fleets
Further enhancing China's rapidly growing LHD capability is the formidable fleet of Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD), similar in function to the Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Choules and the US Navy's San Antonio Class vessels – which are designed to provide supporting tactical and strategic sealift for amphibious expeditionary units, including the People's Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) and the broader PLA force structure.
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The Type 071 has seen a major ramp-up in production, with the seventh and eighth vessels expected to be commissioned in the coming 18 months providing a larger amphibious capability for Chinese decision-makers – while little is known about the class, it is expected that the Type 071 has a full displacement of approximately 25,000 tons and can accommodate four 13-ton helicopters, along with 20 armoured vehicles and four Chinese-designed LCAC hovercraft to support amphibious landings.
Further rounding out the PLAN's growing amphibious capacity is the fleet of various landing tank ships (LST), of which China currently operates up to 32 vessels of various sizes each capable of transporting a range of both PLANMC and PLA ground forces, up to and including armour, artillery and infantry, providing China's decision-makers with a powerful tactical and strategic force multiplier.
Finally, it is important to identify the capacity of China's commercial roll-on, roll-off fleet, which can be requisitioned and pressed into military service should the Chinese government require the additional sealift capacity. These commercial vessels would serve to provide a significant augmentation to China's military sealift capabilities, with the China Defense Blog estimating that the combined capabilities would enable China to deploy up to 150,000 troops and associated vehicles and materiel at once.
Sea control in Indo-Pacific Asia
The unique geographic realities of Indo-Pacific Asia ranges from vast swathes of deep, open ocean to Australia's west, to relatively shallow, congested and narrow archipelagic bound choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea. These serve as unique tactical and strategic challenges for all regional nations, including Australia.
Further complicating the calculus is the advent of advanced and integrated anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems, introduced largely by the Chinese on reclaimed islands in international waters in the SCS.
While sea control has traditionally been the domain of ocean going, 'blue water' navies, the strategic realities combined with the modernisation programs expanding regional naval capabilities requires a hybrid approach, combining traditional 'blue water' and 'green water' capabilities and doctrines.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Given the rapidly developing amphibious, sea control and power projection capabilities developing throughout the region, is Australia's current naval modernisation and recapitalisation enough to further the nation's tactical and strategic position?