Chinese Solutions for Marine Landings
With persistent calamities occurring in almost every new US Marine weapons platform, it is no wonder than some are laying doubt on its core amphibious mission. In a now infamous speech before the Navy League earlier this month, Defense Secretary Gates made this jaw-dropping comment:
We have to take a hard look at where it would be necessary or sensible to launch another major amphibious landing again…
An overview of the programs in question might have you agreeing with the Secretary’s frustration-instigated questions:
- LHA-6 America amphibious assault carrier-At $3 billion each, this 45,000 ton vessel is actually less capable than the ship it is replacing (sans well-deck), yet more expensive.
- Expeditionary Fighting Vehicles-Where to start? At $22 million each, the EFV is more expensive than an M-1 tank, technically faulty, and a decade late in deployment.
- LPD-17 San Antonio Landing Platform Dock-$1.8 billion per vessel has not produced quality, since nearly every vessel so far has suffered mechanical deficiencies, including the lead ship which broke down on its maiden voyage.
- V-22 Osprey tiltroter-Dubbed by some the “widow maker” for its habit of crashing loaded with Marines. The Osprey has been soaking up Marine Corps spending for decades with little to show for it.
- F-35 Joint Strike Fighter-Like every other Marine program, riddled with technical faults, suffering from cost overruns, and greatly delayed entering service. Something has to give before it all breaks down.
In stark contrast, China is fielding and even expanding its amphibious capabilities, on a far smaller budget and with far less experience in beaching landings than the legendary Marines. An overview of the country’s expanding capabilities was provided by Richard D. Fisher, Jr. at Aviation Week:
- 18-ton ZTZ-63A amphibious tank (or T-63A)
- 13-troop Type-63C amphibious armored personnel carrier (APC)
- ZTD-05 and ZBD-05 family of amphibious assault vehicles
- Type-07B amphibious 122-mm. howitzer
- truck-mounted 240-mm. mine-clearing multiple-rocket system and “trucks with heavy and lightweight aprons”.
- amphibious logistic support vehicles such as “the Dong Feng EQ 2102 6 X 6 truck, two families of Jeep-like vehicles and an amphibious version of an Isuzu 4 X 4 truck”.
- 20,000-ton Type 071 LPD and Type 081-class flat-deck LHDs.
- New hovercraft and possibility homemade V/STOL planes.
How can the Chinese expand on a limited budget while the masters of the Gator Navy are endangered of losing their vaunted capability entirely? A simple matter of budget priorities according to Richard:
The reasons for the success of the PLA’s new vehicles are simple: their lesser requirements and smaller size, which resulted in lower technological barriers and a faster development timetable. The ZTD-05 weighs an estimated 26 tons and can reportedly travel 40 kph., while the EFV pushes 35 tons and does 46 kph. Unlike the EFV, the ZTD-05 carries a version of the 105-mm. low-recoil gun that arms the ZTZ-63A, and also uses the Bastion antitank missile. The ZBD-05 infantry fighting vehicle (IFV), armed with a 30-mm. automatic cannon and low-cost HJ-73C antitank missile, is more comparable to the EFV, which is also armed with a 30-mm. cannon in its IFV version. While both have crews of three, the ZBD‑05 carries 10 troops while the EFV carries 17. The ZTD/ZBD hull is used for command and ARV variants.
Keeping things simple bypasses many headaches. Also using off-the shelf vehicles as the basis for their new craft. The above mentioned T-63A amphibious tank is based on the venerable Russian PT-76 light tank. Perhaps the Marine might also adapt land vehicles for this specialized role, such as its LAVs already in service, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel which has consistently led to greatly delayed weapons, gold plated and technically flawed. An historical example is the DD tank for the Normandy Invasions which allowed a Sherman tank to wade safely ashore, when it was deployed properly at least, as the British proved.
Turning from vehicles, to naval vessels, while the Marines struggle to maintain a fleet of a little more than 30 ships, the PLAN has in 2003-2005 alone commissioned 30 amphibious ships and landing craft. More are planned including some fairly large ships rivaling our own. While the argument might be that USN versions are greatly more capable, as we learn with the LPD-17 class, capability doesn’t insure availability.
Smaller and simpler craft would often be all that is required for most Marine missions, who haven’t conducted a major beach landing since Inchon 60 years ago. For the type of very low tech missions, as we see in the above picture of USS Mesa Verde off Somalia, very low tech craft are all that is required, including traditional landing craft (LSTs) which the PLAN still embraces.
Certainly the USMC could make use of numerous examples of the Joint High Speed Vessel, which is a handy “Stryker at Sea”, able to navigate shallow waters where our forces need to be, traverse the Blue Water environment, all for a reasonable price ($160 million each). The point is for variety and numbers, having many good weapons instead of a few outstanding. Normal Marine procurement practice has been to bet the farm on a few wonder weapons, which turn out so heavenly capable, like the EFV, but is of little earthly good since they aren’t there when needed, nor work properly when they finally enter service.