For over a decade China has been planning to use a growing number of large civilian ferries, especially the RoRo (Roll On, Roll Off) models for a major amphibious operation to seize Taiwan. In the last year Chinese military planners also ran some simulations from the defender’s point-of-view and included the many anti-ship weapons Taiwan and its allies would have available, even after an enemy port had been seized and reinforcements were needed to hold on to it. This is where the ferries and RoRos were essential and the staff exercises found that the civilian vessels were very vulnerable to attack and unexpected bad weather. These problems would, at the very least, render the civilian vessels unable to complete its mission and in some cases the ferries and RoRos would be lost. Arming the civilian ships with some missile-defense systems, along with sailors to operate them, would help, but not solve the problem.
The staff exercises also found that there were now so many ferries and RoRos available and part of the invasion operation, that there were not sufficient nearby Chinese ports to load all the civilian vessels at once. Installing the defensive systems would also disrupt this. China is now reconsidering its invasion plans.
Meanwhile many Chinese RoRos have been modified for amphibious operations. As recently as 2020 China was observed using the Bang Chui Dao, a 20-year-old passenger RoRo ferry modified for amphibious operations actually using its new capabilities in an amphibious training exercise. Built in 1995 as a vehicle/passenger ferry, the Bang Chui Dao was modified in 2019 to give it a sturdier, and longer rear ramp that could load and unload the 26-ton ZTD-5 amphibious tank as well as the lighter ZBD-5 amphibious IFV (Infantry Fighting Vehicles). Other modifications revamped the passenger area to accommodate about a thousand troops. Originally built to carry 1,200 passengers and about a hundred cars and small trucks, with the modifications the ferry can now carry fifty armored vehicles and nearly as many military trucks. In effect the militarized ferry can carry and land an amphibious mechanized infantry battalion on any dock, jetty or coastal area that the ferry can get close enough for its ramp to reach. RoRo ferries like this cannot handle rough weather, especially away from coastal areas. The ferries are not equipped for long voyages and these militarized ferries are intended for use against Taiwan or other nearby land masses. That means they have to be loaded at ports close to the landing areas in Taiwan and there are not enough Chinese ports for that.
China has been modifying ferry designs for military use since 2012 when China launched Bohai Emerald Bead, the first of four passenger ferries designed for military use, when called up for military service. These four ferries, each displacing 30,000 tons, can each carry 2,000 passengers (or troops) and up to 300 vehicles and do so for long voyages on the open ocean. This was but the first of many dual use (civilian-military) RoRo ships built in China. The government pays for the military modifications and assists in obtaining the financing for these ships. Owners are compensated when these RoRos are occasionally used for short periods of military service.
Militarized RoRos was an interesting development since it wasn’t until 2009 that the first RoRo ship designed and built in China entered service. This ship was designed for military use, as it can carry up to 5,000 vehicles (cars and light trucks), or over a thousand armored vehicles. It has nine fixed and three adjustable decks for vehicles. A RoRo ship moves next to a dock and then deploys ramps so that its cargo of vehicles can quickly drive right off. If, for example, China invaded Taiwan, a RoRo ship could move into a recently captured port and unload an armored brigade in a few hours. Chinese planners became aware that the Taiwanese knew some intact docks in the right places were essential for the RoRos to succeed and those ports are now more difficult to take quickly and Taiwan has plans to cripple key ports before the RoRos can get to them.
The owner of most of these RoRo ferries is COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Co.), which operates a fleet of over 700 cargo, tanker, and RoRo ships. COSCO is owned by the Chinese government and its ships are available for use by the military. COSCO is a $20 billion a year business that also owns ship repair facilities and port operations around the world.
COSCO has been scrambling to buy or build more RoRo ships, mainly because Chinese automobile manufacturers are exporting more cars to developing countries where their cheaper, some going for half what Western cars sell for, Chinese vehicles are very popular. Back in 2005 COSCO had only three small RoRo ships, all leased from Japanese owners, and realized it would be cheaper to build Chinese RoRos to move most or all of its exported cars. At the time, most of the RoRo ships in the world were owned by Japanese shippers. Noting the military usefulness of RoRo ships, COSCO was ordered to not only build these ships in China, but to optimize them for military use. Now China is exporting most of its vehicles using Chinese built RoRo ships and many are part of the wartime reserve fleet. This concept of a wartime reserve fleet had long been used in the West.
Meanwhile China has also been building conventional military amphibious assault ships similar to those used by the United States since the 1960s. In January 2021 China launched the third (of eight) 40,000-ton Type 075 LHDs. This type of amphibious assault ship uses helicopters to get most of its troops ashore. That makes three LHDs put into the water within 16 months. The first two were launched in September 2019 and April 2020. The first one entered service April 2021 and another is undergoing sea trials. As more are built the basic design is modified based on the experience of earlier ships and the availability of new technology.
The Type 075D LHD is 237m (778 feet) long and 35m (118 feet) wide. Air defense consists of two 30mm CIWS (similar to the American Phalanx) and two HQ-10 SAM (Surface to Air Missile) launchers.
There is a crew of 1,100 sailors and capacity for carrying up to 1,200 troops who are put ashore using about 20 transport helicopters and a few landing craft. There is a well dock in the rear for loading Type 726 air-cushioned landing craft as well as conventional landing craft. The vehicle deck carries up to a hundred vehicles, usually a mix of trucks and amphibious ZBD-5 IFVs and ZTD-5 light tanks. Vehicles can also be driven on or off the LHDs via ramps, like a RoRo vehicle transports or ferry. It will take a few years of experience before determining the optimal mix of combat vehicles and landing craft for this class of LHDs.
This LHD is designed to carry up to 30 helicopters of various types. China does not have any heavy lift helicopters or tilt wing transports like those that operate off American amphibious ships. China also lacks VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) warplanes like the F-35B or the earlier Harrier. China is currently using the 13-ton Z-8 naval helicopter transport on amphibious ships. The Z-8 is based on the French Super Frelon. The Z-8 can carry 20 or more troops and also be armed with missiles, rockets and machine-guns. China has a growing number of helicopter gunships and these have been seen practicing operations from warships. China is also introducing a copy of the American 11-ton SH-60 naval helicopter.
China decided to build only three Type 75s while switching to a larger Type 76 with a catapult to launch armed UAVs. Construction plans for the Type 76 have not been completed and it is not known when the first one will be built.
For the moment China depends on militarized, but more vulnerable, RoRo ships to deliver most of the troops and vehicles during an amphibious operation and that plan is in trouble because the enemy has the means to damage or sink the RoRos as well as destroy the Taiwanese docks needed to unload the RoRo. There are not enough ports available to load all the RoRos and Taiwan has been practicing airstrikes on some of these ports, using new air-to-surface missiles. Taiwan is following Chinese efforts in this area with great interest and responding with their own disruptive ideas.