Beijing is developing a military vessel that is a hybrid of an amphibious assault ship and aircraft carrier, which would enable China to project its power far from its shores sooner than expected, according to procurement documents.
As Beijing’s great rivalry with Washington turns openly hostile, and the US military seeks to reassert its traditional dominance in the Asia-Pacific region, the planned ship could accelerate the People’s Liberation Army’s attempts to match American power.
According to documents published online on July 19, the 708th Research Institute of China State Shipbuilding, an institution involved in the development of military vessels, is tendering for research and modelling work worth Rmb478.3m ($68m).
The tender, which is headlined “Project XX6”, does not spell out what is being developed. But PLA experts said the detailed list of items reflected the modification of China’s largest amphibious assault ship, the Type 075, into a vessel that can carry combat drones and launch fighter jets in addition to transporting helicopters and amphibious assault troops.
Plans for a “Type 076”, a tweaked version of Type 075, which China launched last year, had been rumoured among Chinese military enthusiasts and foreign PLA watchers.
“As a slightly larger Type 075 Landing Helicopter Deck, the Type 076 is a realistic new weapon system for the PLA Navy,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Centre, a US think-tank focused on security issues.
“It takes a modification of the existing LHD design and combines it with the electromagnetic launch system [EMALS] that may equip the next PLA Navy conventional aircraft carrier, with some advanced developments in unmanned aerial combat vehicles [combat drones].”
The plans for the hybrid vessel surfaced as the assembly of the PLA’s third aircraft carrier, and the first entirely Chinese designed, progressed in a Shanghai shipyard.
The South China Morning Post reported last week that construction of a fourth carrier had begun. Both are expected to come with EMALS. The PLA Navy has only two carriers in operation: a refurbished Ukrainian carrier and a domestically built copy of that. But Beijing aspires to a fleet of up to six aircraft carriers.
Over the past few weeks, the US has been demonstrating its superior carrier force with repeated exercises in the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Philippine Sea.
China’s attempt to catch up by modifying an amphibious assault ship reflects the PLA’s time-tested strategy of experimenting with small numbers of one type of platform and then optimising it — an approach called “running fast in small steps”.
The lower cost of the planned hybrid ship would allow the PLA Navy to “more rapidly increase its number of ‘carrier’ air support platforms”, Mr Fisher said.
Lin Ying-yu, a PLA expert at National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, said the plans suggested that the PLA’s Marine Corps, which is being rapidly expanded, could evolve to more closely resemble the US Marine Corps.
“It indicates they would become an independent fighting force and have their own close air support,” he said, pointing to the role of combat drones.
That function would make it easier for the PLA navy to move against less well-armed adversaries in conflict zones far from home. It would also greatly enhance its capabilities in an attack on Taiwan.
Additional reporting by Xueqiao Wang in Beijing