Thursday, November 24, 2005

PLAN Troop Transport

In the comments of an earlier post, reader Dylan questioned my assertion that the PLAN could transport only one division to Taiwan.
How old are your estimates of PLA power projection capabilities? In the last two years PLAN has doubled its amphibious lift. PLAAF will double its airlift next year with new Il-76s. In addition, PLA has been doing far more serious and disciplined work on taking up ships and aircraft from trade for lift capacity enhancement. The "million man swin" is exactly as you described it - a concept of the past not the present or near future.

I like to answer one assertion at a time and thus will save the growing PLA Air Force (PLAAF) for another post and focus on the rapidly increasing ability of the PLA Navy (PLAN) to project forces to Taiwan.

I commented that the PLAN only had the capability to transport one division (10-15,000 troops with gear) across the Taiwan Strait. This has long been conventional wisdom in the PLA-watching community, but Dylan is wise to challenge such conventional wisdom in light of the fast-paced growth of the People's Liberation Army, especially the Navy component thereof.

China Commission Report
The most recent, although not necessarily the most authoritative, source on the subject is the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which, in its 2005 report, stated:
[D]uring the period 2001 through 2005, China built 23 new amphibious assault ships capable of ferrying tanks, armored vehicles, and troops across the 100-mile-wide strait to Taiwan. Nearly all the PLAN’s inventory of U.S.-built, World War II-vintage landing ships has been replaced by similar numbers of domestically-produced vessels. These new, larger, and more specialized vessels, combined with the new Dayun-class supply ships, will form the basis of a more modern and expanded amphibious fleet. [PDF, 123]

The Commission cited as its source this article, but the report never offers an estimate for the number of troops the PLAN can transport and thus we must look to the article. The article offers additional information. Here is the entire paragraph to offer context:
During the period 2001 through 2005, China moved ahead with one of the most ambitious military buildups in the world - including building 23 new amphibious assault ships that could ferry tanks, armored vehicles and troops across the 100 miles to Taiwan. Nearly all of the PLAN's inventory of US-built, World War II-vintage landing ships have been replaced by similar numbers of domestically-produced vessels. These new, larger, and more specialized vessels, combined with the new Dayun-class supply ships, will form the basis of a more modern and expanded fleet. Shortcomings in long-range lift, logistics, and air support, however, hinders China's ability to project amphibious forces.

At this point, you have probably noticed two things:
  • The report plagiarized the Global Security article wholesale.

  • They deleted the last sentence of the paragraph, thus offering information about the rapid build-up but not a comprehensive assessment of the PLAN's ability to invade Taiwan. Wouldn't want any objectivity getting in the way, I guess.

The article continues:
The PLAN's amphibious fleet provides sealift sufficient to transport approximately one infantry division, although it has yet to conduct training exercises on this scale. The PLAN also has hundreds of smaller landing craft, barges, and troop transports, all of which could be used together with fishing boats, trawlers, and civilian merchant ships to augment the naval amphibious fleet. While in principle large numbers of troops could be transported by such expedient means, in practice such a "human wave" assault would be a high-risk undertaking, particularly in the absence of rehearsed air and sea cover. [emphasis added]

I have already addressed the notion that the PLAN can utilize fishing boats to augment its invasion force to any significant degree here and thus will spare you a recap.

Pentagon Report
If an August article from Global Security isn't credible enough, or you just wanted a second opinion, fear not. Last July, the Pentagon released its annual report "The Military Power of the People’s Republic of China," which I analyzed in detail here. That report attributes to the PLAN "40 medium and heavy amphibious lift vessels" in the text of the report and further clarifies in the appendix that China has 20 tank landing ships and 23 medium landing ships (PDF, 4, 44). It never uses the ship count to quantify the PLAN's troop transport capability, a deficiency for which I criticized the report at the time of its publication.

There are numerous other defense publications that estimate the PLAN's ability to transport ground forces to Taiwan, but none of them that I am familiar with are recent enough to be helpful if PLAN troop transport capabilities are advancing as quickly as some people believe. Anyone who has additional 2005 sources, please post a link in the comments.