Marines: The Chinese Secret Weapon


December 18, 2014: The Zubrs are assembling in the east. Since the 1990s both Greece and China bought Zubr type hovercraft from Russia and Ukraine, and came to regret it. China came out of this debacle better than Greece, having always had more success keeping cranky Russian gear working. Thus China recently agreed to buy the four Zubrs Greece bought but was never really able to keep operational. In 2010 Greece decided to retire two of its four Zubr class hovercraft. These vessels had entered service between 2001 and 2005. One came from Ukraine and three from Russia. They turned out to be more expensive than expected to maintain and spare parts were difficult to obtain. Because of this, often only one of the Zubrs were fit for service most of the time. So, to solve the spare parts problem, and save money, two of the Zubrs were retired early. By 2014 none of them were really in service but they had not been abandoned either. Meanwhile in early 2011 the first Zubr built for China was badly damaged in an accident but was eventually returned to service. The four Zubrs China already has have been service most of the time China has had them.

Zubr is a 555 ton watercraft developed by the Soviet Union during the 1980s. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, three years after the first Zubr entered service, the shipyard that built the Zubrs went to Ukraine, where it was located. After years of marketing the Zubr, Ukraine finally got its first export sale, to Greece, in 2000. Russia helped out with this by providing three of the four Zubrs it had. Before the Greek sale, only four Zubrs were in service (two in the Russian Navy, and two in the Ukrainian.) These craft are expensive. The Greeks paid $50 million each for four of them and the Chinese paid even more. The Chinese order was to be completed by 2013, and that would make 12 Zubrs in service, if the reliability and spare parts problems had not shown up.

The Zubrs can carry about 150 tons of cargo, including tanks (three of them). Alternately, ten smaller armored vehicles can be carried, or trucks, or up to 500 troops. The big advantage of the Zubr is that it moves over coastal waters at speeds of up to 110 kilometers an hour (nearly a hundred kilometers an hour sustained.) Range is short (about 480 kilometers), mainly because a craft like this consumes enormous quantities of fuel. Armament consists of a 30mm autocannon for defense against anti-ship missiles, and two quad launchers with SA-N-5 anti-aircraft missiles (with 6,000 meter range.) Zubr is also designed to carry 140mm unguided rockets, or up to 80 naval mines. China armed its Zubrs with an AK-630 anti-missile autocannon and an optical fire control system. Zubrs have a crew of 31, and usually stay at sea for less than six hours per sortie.

The Chinese deal involved buying two Zubrs to be built in Ukraine and another two built in China with the help of Ukrainian engineers and technicians. China was actually buying, licensing or stealing the Zubr construction technology. China paid about $80 million each for their Zubrs. China has a long coast, and the Zubrs will have plenty to do. The Zubrs will be something else for Taiwan to worry about, and would come in handy if the communist government in North Korea collapsed, and China wanted to rush in forces to seize ports along the west coast of the Korean peninsula. Zubrs are also seen as key weapons if China decides to settle some disputes with its neighbors over possession of contested islands. Using the Zubrs, with air cover, China can occupy disputed islands, even those with small garrisons, before anyone can interfere and then offer to make peace. The Philippines is particular upset at there being more Zubrs in the Chinese fleet. By next year China plans to have eight Zubrs although only 4-5 will be operational initially.