Amphbious Operations - Early Developments
China conducted its first joint amphibious operation in January 1955 against Yijiangshan Island, about 25 kilometers off the coast of Zhejiang Province. Since that time amphibious training has had an important place in the training of units stationed near the coast. China's successful occupation of the Xisha (Paracel) Islands, which were held by South Vietnamese forces in January 1974, was the most recent example of the PLA's ability to conduct amphibious operations.
In the 1970s China was assesed by the US as having the capability to conduct an amphibious operation involving three infantry divisions, their organic armor, artillery, and those personnel and equipment that would be required during the assault phase of an amphibious operation. In addition to naval amphibious ships and craft, merchant shipping and motorized junks would be used to support the effort.
Every spring China masses amphibious units on their coast facing Taiwan. The Pentagon normally dismisses Chinese amphibious exercises as "routine" though they could provide an opportunity for a standing start "out-of-the-blue" (OOTB) surprise attack. Taiwan has responded by having some warships at sea and some aircraft in the air during Chinese exercises.
In the 20th Century, China's amphibious exercises were mainly designed to intimidate Taiwan. The annual Dongshan drill started in 1996. In these exercises, the emphasis was on crossing the 130km-wide Taiwan Strait and landing on Taiwan itself. But with the new century, the PLA began to address logistical issues, questions of timing, and command and control problems.
Of particular note is the fact that the PLA has been frequently conducting offensive "integrated" (Yitihua) training with a focus on the use of armed forces against Taiwan and blocking the US military intervention. The concepts of integration (yitihua) and seamless operations (feixianxing zuozhan) are defined as tying together the five dimensions of warfare - air, land, sea, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum, integrating sensors with mobile missiles, air, and sea-based forces.
In June 2001 the numbers of Chinese forces massing in the "Liberation No. 1." exercise were three times higher than during previous exercises of this kind. The main goals of the exercises were reported to be practicing "attacking and occupying an outlying Taiwanese island and fighting off an aircraft carrier." The exercise, which lasted for four months, was the biggest since 1996.
China held two large-scale amphibious exercises in 2004 (division to group-army level in size), one of which explicitly dealt with a Taiwan scenario, bringing the total number of amphibious exercises to ten over the previous five years. In June and July 2004 exercises were conducted on Dongshan Island in southeastern Fujian province, just 150 nautical miles west of Taiwan's Penghu Island. The military wargames were aimed at "taking control of the Taiwan Strait", with 18,000 troops and the amphibious landing of a tank brigade. Soldiers deployed on Dongshan Island in mid-May 2004, with tanks and armoured personnel carriers practicing amphibious landings on Jinluan beach.
During July 2004 China conducted exercise "Liberation Number Two", commanded by Chief of General Staff General Liang Guanglie, an expert on amphibious warfare. However, during the 2004 exercise off the Fujian coast, the Chinese military tested its ability to capture the Penghu archipelago not far from Taiwan. This was the first time the chain of 64 islands, lying east of the midway line between Taiwan and the mainland, was the target. Observers sugggested that the People's Liberation Army had adopted a cautious, step-by-step approach in its preparations for a showdown with Taiwan. After the 'Liberation Number One' drill on Dongshan island in 2001, the PLA concluded that it would suffer significant losses if it failed to control Penghu.
In 2004 a computer simulation suggested that it would take China six days to complete the occupation of Taiwan. When this was publicly reported, "authoritative military sources" told Taiwan media that, in fact, Taiwan could hold out for two weeks. The logic behind this view is that Taiwan has to hold out until the US comes to its aid and, given the speed of US military deployment, the longer the better.
Early arriving forces, often involving warships stationed close to the Strait, would be of particular importance in a short conflict over Taiwan. At an expected average speed of 25 knots, over long Pacific Ocean distances, US submarines, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers based in San Diego, CA would take nearly 10 days to reach an area east of Taiwan after setting sail. By contrast, a US warship based in Yokosuka, Japan, would take just under two days, one in Guam would take 2.2 days, and a ship sailing from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii would take more than seven days. The US Departement of Defense reported two amphibious mechanized divisions in the PLA Ground Forces and Marine Brigades in the PLA Navy as of 2012. The PLA’s main amphibious forces are the six group armies (GA) nearest Taiwan, which total as many as 300,000 troops with varying degrees of amphibious equipment and proficiency. The specialized forces are the the 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division of the 1st GA of the Nanjing Military Region, and the 124th Amphibious Mechanized Division of the 42nd GA of the Guangzhou MR.
The PLA is believed to have a number of units which have been trained in amphibious operations. During an amphibious assault, these forces, organized into regiments, would spearhead the landing, conducting beach reconnaissance, clearing obstacles, and making the initial assault.
Over the first decade of the 21st Century, the PLA improved its capability to support operations within its borders and along its periphery. Frequent training in mobility operations; improvements to command, control and coordination; and standardization of warehouse systems have strengthened the PLA’s overall ability to mobilize and support local military operations. Integration of automated logistics systems into PLA command and control systems and civil logistics capabilities into military support systems would further improve the PLA’s logistics capability.
The absence of a true expeditionary logistics capability, however, would limit the PLA’s ability to project and sustain military operations at locations distant from the mainland. First among these limitations is the capability to transport and sustain more than one division of ground troops and equipment by sea or air, according to the US DOD report to Congress on China's military [down from three four decades earlier]. The PLA Navy’s total amphibious lift capacity was estimated in 2009 to be one infantry division of approximately 10,000 troops and equipment at one time. Although the PLA Navy has gained some proficiency with underway replenishment and sustainment of long distance deployments, this capability remains limited by the PLA’s small numbers of support ships.
The PLA’s force projection capabilities would remain limited over the decade up to 2020 as the PLA replaces outdated aircraft and maritime vessels and adjusts operational doctrine to encompass new capabilities. These changes would require tailored logistics equipment and training that would take time and funding to develop. Although foreign-produced or civil sector equipment and maintenance parts may help to fill near-term gaps, continued reliance on non-organic assets would hinder PLA capabilities to sustain large-scale operations.
Amphibious operations would necessarily take place within range of shorebased aircraft and would aim to:
- seize and secure a beachhead on a hostile shore from which large·scale ground operations can be initiated,
- assist the advance of ground forces by attacking the sea flanks of an opposing force,
- seize and secure vilal areas such as islands and straits, and
- conduct raids and reconnaissance.
- Airborne. An amphibious landing may be preceded by, or made simultaneously with, a parachute- or helicopter· borne assault onto or near the beachheads.
- Night. The approach is normally made at night or under other conditions of poor visibility. Amphibious landings are normally made at night or at first light.
- Frontages. Each battalion is allocated one landing point and these are at least 1 kilometer apart.
- Control. Chinese doctrine prescribes a unified command for amphibious operations. The commander of such an operation is usually a senior army commander who is responsible for the execution of the operation. In addition, two subordinate commanders are designated and charged with specific responsibilities during each phase of the operation.
(1) Naval Landing Commander. He is a senior naval officer responsible for embarkalion, movement by sea, and landing ground troops on the hostile shore. During this period of the operation he is in command.
(2) Landing Force Commander. As soon as adequate communication and command facilities have been established ashore, command passes from the naval landing commander to the landing force commander. He is charged with direct command of ground force troops during the preembarkation period, coordination of ground force troops during the assault, and command of tactical operations ashore to seize and secure the beachhead.
- Tactics and Fire Support. The tactics and fire support of an amphibious landing are similar to those employed by both other armies. Coordinated air and naval gunfire provides continuous fire support aimed at neutralizing or destroying enemy defenses. Artillery on nearby land masses may also be integrated into the overall fire plan.
The old-fashioned tactics of the People's Liberation Army, which used a large number of infantry to rush to the beach from a small landing ship or motorboat, are no longer suitable for high-tech combat environments. When landing, the infantry did not receive long-range direct fire support, because the artillery could only strike some of the intended targets, and could not strike time-sensitive targets. The Air Force could not use advanced bombing tactics. In addition, the constant reconnaissance of various reconnaissance equipment over the battlefield space has made it impossible for the PLA to launch a sudden attack on the island of Taiwan. Therefore, the PLA needs new and complicated tactics for amphibious operations.
The first change that occurred was that more tank landing ships were equipped with troops after the 1980s. The People's Liberation Army is transforming from light infantry to mechanized infantry and can begin to take full advantage of the tank landing ship. The tank landing ship can unload amphibious light tanks and amphibious armoured personnel carriers 1 mile off the coast, without having to transport the infantry directly to the beach. In this way, large ships can stay away from enemy artillery. Amphibious light tanks and amphibious armoured personnel carriers also provide maneuvering and fire support for the troops, while greatly reducing the degree of seasickness of the troops.
Due to the increased maritime ferry capacity of amphibious light tanks and amphibious armoured personnel carriers, tank landing ships can be unloaded away from the coast, reducing round-trip time and ensuring faster support and equipment supply to frontline units. According to the experience gained during the landing of Omaha Beach during World War II, the amphibious operations must be fast, the troops of the first echelon cannot be pinned on the beach, and the reinforcements must be able to arrive in time and immediately put into combat operations.
The special forces of the People's Liberation Army can play an important role in the actions before landing, destroying the operations of the inland Taiwan military and conducting real-time reconnaissance. At the same time destroy the road hub and C3I nodes. However, once the special forces operations were discovered, the Taiwanese defenders in the scheduled landing zone were alerted, and the PLA special forces had little chance of survival under the counterattack of the Taiwanese defenders.
According to past experience of amphibious operations, the strong defenders of the fortifications can often survive large-scale bombing. Once the artillery ceases, the defenders may be re-enforced. The PLA's tactical focus will be on increasing the speed of the landing phase rather than improving the firepower. With the support of infantry, the tanks can repel the Taiwan garrison in close-range street fighting. Because Taiwan's beaches are connected with the residential areas of local residents, close-range street fighting can reduce the effectiveness of Taiwan's defenders' long-range firepower and rockets.
According to research by the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences, amphibious tanks and armored vehicles and other airborne equipment play an important role in the amphibious phase. However, in the urban terrain combat phase, amphibious ferry equipment is more suitable to follow behind the wheeled vehicles. Taiwan's highways and roads are developed, and heavy-duty crawler tanks cannot effectively use roads and require more fuel, putting an additional burden on the logistics support system. Tracked tanks should be used for current missions, while lighter and more maneuvering wheeled vehicles should be supported and reconnaissance missions.
High-speed operations require a lot of training and perfect C3I capabilities of the joint forces. These are the development goals of the PLA. In addition, the PLA’s high-speed operations can break through advanced weapons such as the Taiwan’s defenders’ portable anti-tank guided missiles and other precision-guided missiles, as the PLA’s amphibious light tanks and amphibious armored personnel carriers carry only a limited number of smoke bombs and armor.
The PLA's landing forces do not receive the fire support of major surface warships such as destroyers and frigates for two main reasons: First, the amphibious forces need protection, especially for ships with slower speeds and other defense capabilities. Weaker ship. Taking into account the possible offensive actions of the Taiwan military, frigates and destroyers must also be in the operational position to protect the equipment supply and reinforcements safely through the Straits, and respond to the Taiwan military's counterattack. Second, surface warships are only high-value targets, and they are easy to become targets of Taiwan's anti-ship missiles. It is dangerous to carry out onshore support near the coast.
Troops cannot rely on long-range rockets to provide indirect fire support in a tactical environment. The M9 and M11 short-range ballistic missiles are too expensive to be used as tactical support weapons, and they will mainly target large targets.
The PLA’s ground forces also did not receive close air support from the Air Force, a situation that could not be resolved in the next few years. According to various sources, the Air Force’s exercises on the coast are generally separated from the ground forces. The only weapon carried by a plane with a long-range attack in China can only perform air interception missions and cannot perform close air support missions. The main task of the Air Force is to provide a safe passage for the troops during the flight to prevent the Taiwan Air Force from attacking the ground and maritime forces.
The use of civilian vessels in the first phase of crossing the sea and amphibious landing operations can be problematic because of the potential lack of effective protection. Therefore, it is necessary to divide combat operations into different stages, prioritize the use of key resources, seize the right opportunity, and jointly use military and civilian resources. The first phase of landing operations requires timely logistic support to provide accurate and efficient centralized use of military resources such as helicopters and high-speed landing craft to provide support. In the middle or late stages of the landing, a large number of civilian vessels are mobilized, such as the conversion of civilian container vessels into dedicated helicopter carriers. In addition, maritime and air cover weapons are needed to protect all logistics facilities such as airports, ports, command centers, communication center systems, warehouses and arsenals. When the tank landing ship transports the first wave of attack troops, it takes 4 to 5 hours to transport the second wave of troops to the first wave of troops. Therefore, the first wave of amphibious forces to control the port in a timely manner is crucial.
In recent years, the landing ship flotilla of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) has taken the lead in organizing joint landing operation training and drill among the army amphibious force, naval aviation troops, destroyers and frigates, and innovated eight sets of tactics on joint transportation and operation. As various services and arms are integrated in implementing operations, and the troops’ joint combat capacity is effectively enhanced. Under the joint support and cover of the aviation force, air defense force and surface vessels, the transport formation composed of several new-type landing ships successfully broke through the heavy fire blockade of the “Blue Army” and delivered the landing force to a landing point on time in joint training in early April 2011.
A year later a landing ship flotilla under the South China Sea Fleet of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cooperated closely with a marine brigade and an aviation regiment of the PLA Navy and conducted the drill on such subjects as three-dimensional delivery of landing troops and capturing target position. In the waters where the landing ships assembled, the hovercraft carrying landing troops and amphibious assault vehicles left the dock for the beach at a high speed.
A comprehensive and sustained military modernization program has increased the range and sophistication of military options Beijing could employ in a cross-Strait conflict. The PLA still faces limitations in its ability to conduct a full-scale amphibious invasion of Taiwan. As 2011 ended, an improved amphibious assault vehicle had entered service in key PLA units. PRC literature describes different operational concepts for amphibious invasion of Taiwan. The most prominent of these, the Joint Island Landing Campaign, envisions a complex operation relying on coordinated, interlocking campaigns for logistics, air and naval support, and electronic warfare. The objective would be to break through or circumvent shore defenses, establish and build a beachhead, transport personnel and materiel to designated landing sites in the north and south of Taiwan’s western coastline, and launch attacks to seize and occupy key targets and/or the entire island.
The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, the PRC could launch an invasion of small, Taiwan-held islands such as Pratas Reef or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, defended, off-shore island such as Mazu or Jinmen is within the mainland’s capabilities. Such an invasion would demonstrate military capability and political resolve while achieving tangible territorial gain and simultaneously showing some measure of restraint. However, this type of operation involves significant operational and strategic risk. It could galvanize the Taiwan populace and catalyze a strong international reaction.
Operationally, large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated maneuvers a military can execute. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s untested armed forces and invite international condemnation. These stresses, combined with the PRC’s combat force attrition and the complexity of urban warfare and counterinsurgency (assuming a successful landing and breakout), make amphibious invasion of Taiwan a significant political and military risk. Taiwan’s investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease Beijing’s ability to achieve its objectives.
The PLA " ... conducted a joint amphibious exercise in the Eastern Theater in the early fall as well as numerous smaller force-on-force exercises, including an exercise between two newly reformed amphibious mechanized infantry brigades in the Southern Theater."
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