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Amphbious Operations

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.

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 PLAs 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 PLAs 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 PLAs logistics capability.

The absence of a true expeditionary logistics capability, however, would limit the PLAs 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 Navys 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 PLAs small numbers of support ships.

The PLAs 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 largescale 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.
A division conducting an amphibious operation is divided into two echelons: an assauh echo cIon, consisting of two reinforced regiments, and a support echelon, consisting of the remainder of the division's forces.

  • 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. Frontages are similar to those for the attack described in section H of this chapter. 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.

In recent years, the landing ship flotilla of the Navy of the Chinese Peoples 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 Peoples 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 Taiwans 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 mainlands 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 Chinas untested armed forces and invite international condemnation. These stresses, combined with the PRCs 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. Taiwans investments to harden infrastructure and strengthen defensive capabilities could also decrease Beijings ability to achieve its objectives.

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