The U.S. Navy–Marine Corps team has maintained dominance in the western Pacific since the defeat of Japan in World War II, but a new power’s star is rising. For years, China has been steadily building up its navy, but recently it has renewed focus on its marine corps and embarked on a bold plan to increase its size and capabilities. To buttress the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China seeks to create a marine corps that can project power far from China and far ashore, in any clime and place.
The sudden growth of the PLAN Marine Corps (PLANMC) is striking. While the Chinese state has approved the reduction of its army by 300,000 soldiers, it plans to grow its marine corps by 400 percent, from 20,000 marines to more than 100,000, and the People’s Liberation Army amphibious units will be folded into the PLANMC.1 This is a major shift in Chinese strategic planning, toward a force that can “protect arterial maritime trade routes and enforce its growing overseas interests,” according to government officials.2
If recent military actions are an indication, those “overseas interests” may be far-flung. In 2014, some 3,000 Chinese marines conducted cold-weather training in Inner Mongolia—the first time they had operated that far north.3 In 2016, Chinese marines made a similar deployment far inland, thousands of kilometers westward to Xinjiang province for more cold-weather training.4 These exercises suggest the PLANMC, typically employed in the South China Sea littorals for amphibious operations, has charted a new course. According to one source, they likely represent a desire to move the service “from limited and small scale actions in the SCS [South China Sea] to more complex operations” and evaluate “its capacity to operate out of its comfort zone.5
Recent PLANMC drills have not been confined to China’s borders, nor have they been unilateral. During the 2015 Joint Sea I naval exercises, Chinese and Russian warships practiced interoperability in the Mediterranean. Later that year, as part of Joint Sea II, Chinese marines trained with Russian marines near Vladivostok, practicing amphibious landings and vertical envelopment from the sea. Roughly a company-sized force of Chinese marines from the amphibious landing ships Changbaishan and Yunwushan came ashore in 20 amphibious assault vehicles. Simultaneously, about a platoon of Chinese marines inserted ashore, fast-roping to the ground from helicopters. “For the first time, we shipped tanks and armored vehicles, and landed soldiers directly into an overseas drill after a long range voyage,” explained a Chinese spokesman. “This type of dry landing . . . meets both our tactical demands and requirements for real-battle landing.”6
During the 2016 Joint Sea exercises, a Russian and Chinese task force operated in the South China Sea, with another company-sized force of Chinese marines charging ashore in armored amphibious vehicles and helicopters.7 Joint Sea 2017 took place in the Baltic Sea, a clear demonstration of China’s long-range ambitions.8
A Buildup of Force
Though these actions signal an interest in power projection from the sea, China’s capabilities are still narrow. In both the 2015 and 2016 Joint Sea exercises the PLANMC put only a company-size force ashore. However, the PLAN already is working to remedy shortfalls. In 2017, construction began on the flat-decked Type 075 landing helicopter dock, China’s largest amphibious ship to date. Measuring close to 800 feet and displacing 40,000 tons, the Type 075 will be able to embark 900 marines, some 30 helicopters, and around 12 amphibious fighting vehicles that can be launched from its well deck.9 Expected to be ready for service in 2020, the ship is similar in size and design to the U.S. Navy Wasp-class LHDs.
The Type 075 undoubtedly will be employed in concert with Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships, “which are similar in concept to the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio-class vessels. The vessels can haul an entire battalion of PLAN marines, their equipment and ship-to-shore connectors—including air-cushioned landing craft, 20 armored vehicles and four helicopters.”10 China currently has six Type 071s afloat, the most recent commissioned in January 2019, and more under construction.11 To extend the operational reach of these amphibious platforms, the PLAN has no less than ten replenishment ships capable of resupplying its naval forces at sea and is building more.12
In addition to helicopters, to get assault troops ashore, the PLANMC uses Type 05 amphibious assault vehicles:
This includes an IFV [infantry fighting vehicle] variant with a 30 mm cannon known as the ZBD-05, an assault gun variant with a 105 mm gun (known as the ZTD-05), and a 122 mm self-propelled howitzer (SPH) variant called the PLZ-07B, . . . The new vehicles provide the marines with organic fire support as well as full and uniform amphibious capabilities across mechanised infantry and armoured battalions.13
The primary purpose of the Type 05 is to gain a foothold on a hostile shore. It may be aided by a variant of the 8x8 wheeled VP10 amphibious armored personnel carrier, which is similar to the U.S. Army’s Stryker combat vehicle and the U.S. Marine Corps’ LAV-25. One with what appears to be a 105-mm cannon was sighted in September 2018 in the trademark blue camouflage paint of the PLANMC.14
Similar to the VP-10 is the Norinco ZTL-11, “a 20- to 25-ton, 105 mm assault vehicle” and the “infantry fighting vehicle version of the ZBL-09 (called the ZBD-09). Both vehicles are amphibious, and the ZTL-11 can fire Norinco’s 2.5-mile-range gun-fired guided antitank missile.”15 These vehicles would be used to push inland once a foothold ashore was established. They are not heavily armored, however, and could run into trouble if they encountered prepared enemy defenses or heavier equipment.
For rapid and mobile fire support once ashore, the PLANMC may have acquired the PLL-09 self-propelled gun. Images posted online in March 2018 show a “25-ton, 122-mm howitzer-armed PLL-09 in PLANMC colors. . . . Its 122 mm cannon can fire shells up to 11 miles, or as far as 20 miles with base-bleed ammunition. Norinco also markets a laser-guided 122 mm shell, indicating that the PLANMC’s PLL-09s could have a ‘precision strike’ capability.”16
For mobile and armored direct fire support and shock effect, military ground forces employ tanks. Another image posted online in July 2018 shows a ZTQ-15 light tank in the blue digital camouflage pattern, indicating the PLANMC has added tanks to its arsenal. Weighing around 35 tons, the ZTQ-15 mounts a 105-mm cannon said to be able to fire an armor-piercing, fin-stabilized, discarding sabot (APFSDS) round that can penetrate “up to 500 mm of rolled homogenous armor.”17
The ZTQ-15 is not amphibious, however, and would require a ship-to-shore connector to bring it ashore.18 For this, the PLANMC has two types of air-cushion landing craft (LCAC): the 726 class and the Zubr class. “A Zubr can carry up to three main battle tanks or 10 armored vehicles, or 500 Marines. With a top speed of 63 knots and a range of 300 nautical miles, the Zubr-class LCACs allow the PLA Marines a greater element of surprise than does the PLAN’s 726-class LCACs (similar in size to the U.S. Navy LCAC), which can carry one main battle tank or 80 Marines.”19 Regardless of which it uses, the PLANMC has the capability to rapidly offload tanks and heavy equipment to support an amphibious offensive inland.
New Hardware, New Role
The new hardware fielded by both the PLAN and the PLANMC suggests they are attempting to replicate the U.S. Navy–Marine Corps team’s amphibious ready group and expeditionary strike group.20 The amphibious landings and vertical envelopments demonstrated during both Joint Sea 2015 and 2016 are a page right out of U.S. Marine Corps doctrine. In addition, the locations and physical environments of recent drills suggest the PLANMC is honing a force that can operate—like its U.S. counterpart—“in the snows of far off northern lands and in sunny tropic scenes.” “They study what the Americans have done very carefully and it’s the mirror image effect,” notes Leszek Buzynski of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.21
These developments represent a massive shift in the role and purpose of the PLANMC. As Gary Li, a security analyst based in Beijing, commented in 2016, the PLANMC “never really had a strategic role, as force projection wasn’t something the PLA was willing, or able, to think about even ten years ago.”22 But much has changed. Not only is China thinking about global power projection, it increasingly is building capabilities to pursue it.
Retired U.S. Navy Captain James Fanell told Congress in May 2018 that when this buildup is complete, the PLAN/PLANMC team will be capable of “effectively posing threats not just in the South China Sea, but globally as well.”23 According to Vassily Kashin of the Center for Comprehensive European International Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, “These will not be limited actions carried out by several warships and special forces units but operations that will involve large forces, including the landing of troops in countries located thousands of kilometers from China. These are preparations for the use of forces numbering thousands of men in any area of the world.”24
Confronting the Threat
It is only a matter of time before the U.S Navy–Marine Corps team faces a serious near-peer competitor with formidable amphibious capabilities. The only option is to confront this threat to the stability of the western Pacific region head-on—the sooner, the better.
First, the U.S Navy–Marine Corps team must modernize its equipment, taking it to the cutting edge. State-of-the art technology and gear are the forefront of deterrence. A military that knows it is behind its adversaries is less likely to challenge them. Therefore, the United States must continue to lead the world in the fields of naval and amphibious warfare. It must stay ahead to prevent conflict, and if deterrence fails, it must be ahead to survive and win.
Second, the Navy and Marine Corps must increasingly integrate to build the proficiency and combined strength of both services. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Navy has grown accustomed to having almost no competition on the high seas. In addition, the United States has been conducting combat operations far inland, with little naval integration, for almost two decades. For much of this time the Marine Corps has served as another land army. Both services have been focused on their own programs and evolved in different directions. Proficiency in joint operations understandably has atrophied. It is time to build that muscle back, and to do so, the Navy and Marine Corps need to redouble their efforts at working together at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels and minimizing the seams in between.
Third, the Navy–Marine Corps team must increase cooperation with Pacific Rim navies and marine forces to foster relationships, improve interoperability, and demonstrate U.S. commitment to the region. The United States is not alone in its concerns about China; both U.S. partners and nonaligned states are watching that nation’s actions with a wary eye. The United States must be prepared to take advantage of shared interests and welcome new states into common defense of the rules-based order.
The United States maintains several powerful and historic partnerships in the region that have stood the tests of time. It must not neglect these allies or forget the sacrifices and investments, by all parties, that have brought the world to where it is today. It must continue to work with these allies and make investments to prepare for tomorrow. The effects of increased military cooperation between the United States and other countries in the region will yield a result greater than the sum of its parts.
Finally, the Navy–Marine Corps team must conduct more and larger amphibious operations to demonstrate its key strengths. Specifically, it must exercise its ability to deploy at least Marine expeditionary brigade–size and even Marine expeditionary force–size contingents in the region. One of the key measures of influence will be the ability to quickly project and sustain large numbers of troops and equipment ashore from the sea. It is not enough simply to build a fleet of amphibious ships. Years of practice and development of a cohesive doctrine that codifies these efforts are required to project power effectively. Unlike China, the United States already has the physical means to project power ashore from the sea, as well as a doctrine written from the experiences of decades of operations to do it effectively. The Navy–Marine Corps team needs to get back in the business of dispatching large amphibious forces ashore, larger than the current Marine expeditionary units (MEUs). China will have MEUs of its own soon.
It may be many years before the PLAN/PLANMC team reaches peer status with the United States, but every year that passes gets them closer. Though it is doubtful they will surpass U.S. capabilities, they well may surpass U.S. capacity in numbers of ships and battle groups.
Despite this, the U.S. Navy–Marine Corps team still will hold some significant advantages, particularly in the realms of doctrine, organization, and allies. It has the benefit of history in this arena. It is the team that successfully prosecuted the island-hopping campaign in the last great Pacific war. These valuable experiences, learned through blood, form its doctrine and way of war. Using the equipment in the current inventory while developing new tools and refining new methods to employ them, the team must exercise and reapply these lessons and become proficient at large-scale naval and amphibious warfare once again. In this fashion it can deter the rising red star in the western Pacific.
1. Jamie Seidel, “China to Boost Marine Corps by 400pc to Enforce Growing World Influence,” News Corp Australia Network, 15 March 2017, and Rick Fisher, “China’s Marines Prepare for Power Projection,” Epoch Times, 2 January 2019.
2. Seidel, “China to Boost Marine Corps.”
3. Kerry Herschelman, “Chinese Marines Get First Taste of Cold Weather Training,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 11 March 2014.
4. Michael Martina and Greg Torode, “Chinese Marines’ Desert Operations Point to Long Range Ambitions,” Reuters, 14 January 2016.
5. Herschelman, “Chinese Marines Get First Taste of Cold Weather Training.”
6. Sam LaGrone, “China, Russia Land 400 Marines in First Joint Pacific Amphibious Exercise,” USNI News, 26 August 2015.
7. Jeffrey Lin and P. W. Singer, “The Chinese-Russian South China Sea Naval Exercises: What Happened and Why Did It Matter?” Popular Science, 21 September 2016.
8. Magnus Nordenman, “China and Russia’s Joint Sea 2017 Baltic Naval Exercise Highlight a New Normal in Europe,” USNI News, 5 July 2017.
9. Christopher Diamond, “China’s Navy Is Building Its Biggest Amphibious Assault Vessel Ever,” Defense News, 5 April 2017, and Kerry Gershaneck, “China’s Amphibious Ambitions Emerge in South China Sea,” Asia Times, 31 May 2018.
10. Dave Majumdar, “China’s New Amphibious Assault Ship: A Big Waste of Time?” National Interest, 31 March 2017.
11. Andrew Tate, “PLA Commissions Amphibious Assault Ship, Destroyer,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 15 January 2019.
12. Defense Intelligence Agency, “China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win,” November 2018, 71.
13. Herschelman, “Chinese Marines Get First Taste of Cold Weather Training.”
14. Fisher, “China’s Marines Prepare for Power Projection.”
17. “ZTQ-15 Light Tank,” military-today.com.
18. Fisher, “China’s Marines Prepare for Power Projection.”
19. Gershaneck, “China’s Amphibious Ambitions Emerge in South China Sea.”
20. Grant Newsham, “Can China Copy the U.S. Marine Corps?” National Interest, 29 January 2016.
21. Martina and Torode, “Chinese Marines’ Desert Operations Point to Long Range Ambitions.”
22. Martina and Torode.
23. Gershaneck, “China’s Amphibious Ambitions Emerge in South China Sea.”
24. Vassily Kashin, “China’s Power Projection Potential,” Russia in Global Affairs, 30 March 2016.