Marines: The Chinese Raiders

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February 10, 2016: Since the 1980s China has been busy transforming its amphibious troops into a force very similar to the U.S. Marine Corps. The most recent bit of emulation was a late 2015 marine exercise in the northwest (Gobi Desert). Training for operations far from the sea is something the American marines been training for and doing since the 1960s.

Another new Chinese development is, as recently revealed in a photo, a proposed 40,000 ton LHA (helicopter carrier). In 2014 the United States put the first of its latest LHAs into service. The eleven America class LHAs are big ships (45,000 tons, 257 meters/844 feet long) and, like all other American amphibious assault ships, look like small aircraft carriers. But the Americas are larger than earlier LHAs and have no well deck taking up lots of space in the stern. The Americas have a crew of 1,050 and carry 1,600 marines as well as 32 aircraft (helicopters, V-22s, and F-35Bs). The reasoning behind this design is that the proliferation of anti-ship missiles makes it too risky to get close enough for landing craft. So now it's back to LPHs and longer range transports like the V-22.

The Chinese seem to be planning some of these LHAs as well, which would enable them to also emulate the American ESGs (Expeditionary Strike Groups). The main fighting element of the ESG is a battalion of marines supported by a helicopters squadron and a Service Support Group. All of these travel on three amphibious ships (an LHA, LPD, and LSD). The rest of the ESG consists of warships (usually a cruiser, a destroyer, a frigate, and an attack submarine.) Supporting firepower comes from cruise missiles and some 127mm (five inch) guns on the cruiser and destroyer plus attack helicopters. The American first ESG went to sea in 2003. Each ESG is built around a battalion landing team. This consists of one marine infantry battalion, an artillery battery (six guns), an armored car company, a platoon of M-1 tanks, an amphibious assault platoon (operating armored amphibious vehicles), an engineer platoon, and a recon platoon. In all, over 1,200 troops plus helicopters and landing craft from the amphibious ships, along with their troops.

Currently the Chinese marines are a small force. The actual “marines” are 12,000 infantry. There also two army divisions trained to undertake amphibious operations and who regularly train with the marines. This is not, in a Western sense, a "marine corps" but the Chinese “marines” have come to be considered elite troops.

In the West the nature of China's amphibious forces has been misunderstood for decades. Until the 1980s, the Chinese didn't have a distinct marine force, only army units that were trained to conduct amphibious operations. China didn't start building its own large amphibious ships until the 1980s, at the same time they organized marine brigades. There are currently two Chinese marine brigades, containing a total of 10,000 troops, plus another 2,000 troops in support and training units.

The marines are equipped with amphibious armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft missiles. All of these marines are volunteers and undergo strenuous training. Each brigade also has a reconnaissance battalion, with several hundred men (and thirty women) trained to use scuba gear to get ashore and look around. These are actually special operations troops and are carefully selected and trained. In Western terms, the Chinese marines share some characteristics with both the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Royal Marine Commandos in terms of training and intended capabilities. The Chinese appear to be going more for their marines to be considered special operations troops. The U.S. Marine Corps is doing the same thing.

Interestingly, the Chinese marines are not stationed where they could be used for an invasion of Taiwan but in the south, where they can grab disputed islands in the South China Sea. While these islands, which control fishing and potential oil fields, are considered disputed, China has already laid claim to some of them by force. In 1974, China fought a naval battle with Vietnam off the Paracel islands. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought another naval battle, off the Spratly islands. Both of these battles were followed by Chinese troops establishing garrisons on some of the islands. In 1992, Chinese marines landed on Da Lac reef, in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, Chinese marines occupied Mischief Reef, which was claimed by the Philippines.

Initially Chinese marines were trained and equipped for raiding, not for large scale landings against a defended shore. The latter task is apparently left to army divisions that have been drilled on how to get on, and off, amphibious ships. While the Chinese marines might play a part in a Taiwan invasion, their full time job appears to be in the South China Sea, where the Chinese stand ready to grab more islands, if the economic advantages seem high enough. The navy supplies the amphibious ships and any air support (fixed wing aircraft and helicopters) needed. Detachments of marines have accompanied the warships China sends to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia.

The U.S. Navy has come to view the Chinese marines as tip of the spear for any Chinese amphibious operations. While China has other special operations forces, only the marines regularly practice operations at sea. The marines have been used against Somali pirates and to provide security for Chinese aid efforts in dangerous areas. As China practices to use military force in the South China Sea or other disputed offshore areas, the marines always tend to be present. So American intel tracks the Chinese marines carefully, for these amphibious troops will often be the first in if China decides to fight.

 


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