Marines: The Chinese Mini Special

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February 21, 2019: At the end of 2018 a Chinese shipyard delivered a 1,750 ton LST (Landing Ship Tank) to the African nation of Mauritania. This will be the largest ship in the Mauritanian navy, a force which has only 700 personnel and consists largely of coastal patrol craft that are more coast guard than navy. What was unique about this LST is that it is a type not used by the Chinese navy. Yet it is fully capable LST that come up on the beach, open its forward doors and unload vehicles. The Mauritanian LST is armed with a 76mm gun and machine-guns and has a landing pad for helicopters. There are also two smaller landing craft mounted on davits for lowering into and retrieving from the water. Mauritania will use this LST for maritime patrol, transport, SAR (Search and Rescue) and emergency relief operations. A ship this size only requires a crew of 50 or so but the vehicle deck can carry cargo, a dozen or so vehicles (cars and trucks) as well as more than a hundred people. This smaller LST will be marketed to other navies in need of affordable LSTs and is another example of how flexible Chinese manufacturers can be. The other dozen ships in the Mauritanian navy are also for coastal patrol to protect fisheries and discourage smugglers. Some of these are also recent Chinese designs delivered to what appears to be a satisfied customer.

The smallest LST in the Chinese navy is the Type 72A LST and there are at least twenty in service and more under construction. The Type 72A is a 5,000 ton ship that can carry 500 tons of cargo, five medium tanks or eighty troops. There is also space for 250 infantry. The crew of 104 operates the ship along with one twin 37mm anti-aircraft gun, twin diesel engines and all the machinery necessary to operate the equipment needed to get cargo on and off the ship (via dock, smaller landing craft or onto a beach). There is also a helicopter landing pad but no hanger. Top speed is 37 kilometers an hour although while cruising speed is 25 kilometers an hour. Range on internal fuel, at cruising speed is 5,400 kilometers. Max endurance at sea is about two weeks.

The LST was developed in the United States at the request of Britain before the U.S. had entered World War II in 1941. Nearly a thousand of these hundred meter (300 foot long) ships were built from 1942 to 1945. They could carry as many as 20 tanks and put them right on to a beach. The beaching process was not without its shortcomings. While the ship had a full load displacement of 4,000 tons, it could only be at 2,400 tons when running up on the beach. Even at that, there was usually damage done to the LST. The average landing operation would render ten percent of the LSTs involved unfit for further service. Moreover, the wear and tear on those that survived the run-up onto the beach was such that, during the war, only about 85 percent of the LSTs still operational were actually fit enough for another landing. In effect, after about ten landings, an LST was a wreck and no longer useable for anything but moving cargo from one dock to another. This was typical of all ships that ran up on beaches to disgorge their cargo.

The LST was basically a modified transport and, as such, was rather slow (14 kilometers an hour normally, with a max speed of 20-22 kilometers an hour). Normally they carried a crew of some 100 sailors and were usually armed with eight 40mm anti-aircraft guns. LSTs were often converted to other uses, especially when they only had a few more beach landings left in their tortured hulls. Some were ended up serving as repair ships, PT-boat tenders, floating barracks and supply dumps, casualty evacuation ships, and even improvised aircraft carriers for light reconnaissance planes (eight of which could be operated off a portable airstrip set up on deck). It was often said that "LST" referred to "Large Slow Target" because of their slow speed and weak anti-aircraft armament.

Since 2000 China has been diligently building more amphibious ships. This was largely an effort to replace aging Cold War era relics while upgrading the amphibious fleet overall. Currently, China has six LPDs (the U.S. has nine), over a hundred landing ships (LSMs and LSTs) and nearly 200 landing craft. The LPDs and landing ships can cross oceans while the landing craft can reach Taiwan and are mainly coastal but are often carried by larger ships for long-distance voyages.

 


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