China’s new ship for a drone-powered Taiwan invasion – Asia Times

China's new ship for a drone-powered Taiwan invasion - Asia Times

The Type 076 amphibious assault ship, a vessel that could be crucial in any conflict with the United States over Taiwan, is being built by China’s People’s Liberation Army ( PLA-N).

The Warzone reported late last month that the warship could be able to carry both aircraft and assault forces as well as uncrewed combat air vehicles (UCAVs ) and other fixed-wing drones.

Built at the Hudong- Zhonghua factory in Shanghai, the vehicle marks a major step forth in China’s marine architecture by bridging the gap between the country’s largest marine warship, the Type 075, and its most sophisticated aircraft carrier, the Fujian.

The Model 076 is about 864 feet long and 141 feet wide, with a broader flight board than its predecessors. It might also have electrostatic catapults and arresting equipment, which suggests that there is a focus on a drone-centric marine approach.

The Type 076 aligns with the PLA- N’s efforts to enhance its maritime strike capabilities, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ( ISR ) operations, and traditional amphibious assaults. Around October 2023, the boat’s construction began, underscoring China’s strong shipbuilding capacity and desire to work naval power beyond its borders.

According to the Warzone review, the Model 076 demonstrates China’s commitment to keeping a formidable appearance in troubled areas like Taiwan and the South China Sea.

China’s sealift abilities may not be adequate for a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan, which may be due to significant capacity spaces. The Type 076’s design appears to be a part of its efforts to address those shortcomings.

During an initial war landing on Taiwan, the PLA-N’s amphibious assault ships, according to Asia Times, could carry roughly the amount of gear equivalent to one large brigade and 21, 000 troops.

But, Taiwan would have some 1, 200 tank waiting, more than the PLA’s ability to perform a second, coordinated aquatic landing with fewer than half that amount.

A simulated Chinese amphibious invasion is being resisted by Taiwanese soldiers. Image: X Screengrab

The PLA may plan to deploy 300, 000 to 400, 000 troops to quickly capture Taiwan after a decapitation strike, which would aim to eliminate Taiwan’s civilian and military leadership.

However, to ensure a three-to-one or five-to-one numerical advantage over Taiwan’s defending forces, the PLA may need to send upwards of 2 million troops to Taiwan, including police and paramilitary personnel, to ensure a three-to-one or five-to-one numerical advantage.

China’s strategy for repurposing civilian ferries to make up for its sealift capacity gaps would face significant challenges, given both the institutional capacity of China’s merchant marine to adopt a wartime posture and the survivability of civilian ferries.

China may consider incorporating a drone carrier concept in its Type 076 amphibious assault ship in light of ongoing debates about the usefulness of aircraft carriers in future conflicts given their increasing vulnerabilities.

In May 2024, Asia Times reported that drone carriers offer comparable power projection advantages to conventional aircraft carriers by enabling unmanned aerial operations far beyond their borders, extending their tactical, operational, and strategic options.

Unmanned systems are a safer and more affordable option than manned aircraft, making them suitable for a number of difficult missions, such as ISR and light attack operations both on land and sea. Middle-income nations can increase their airpower capabilities far and near without the need for land bases by using drone carriers as a cost-effective and practical option.

States may increase their unmanned aerial capabilities in low-intensity conflict areas to aid allies and avert adversaries who have weak air defenses. Unmanned aircraft will not be a game-changer in military affairs until unmanned aircraft can surpass them in air quality. In environments with strong air defense systems and electronic warfare capabilities, drones face significant limitations.

In a Taiwan conflict, China likely plans to use drone swarms from land and sea to overwhelm the island’s air defenses. This approach would serve as a prelude to more extensive air and missile attacks, which could eventually lead to a potential amphibious assault.

Instead of concentrating on a few large, potentially vulnerable supercarriers, China might experiment with the “lightning carrier” concept to spread naval aviation capability over more ships.

In December 2023, Asia Times noted that lightning carriers can carry about 20 fighter jets, fewer than the 50 jets on supercarriers. These light carriers are made to be more adaptable and affordable.

As a light carrier, the Type 076 may have significant operational flexibility. Its deck has the ability to fly rotary-wing aircraft and send troops ashore in an invasion of Taiwan, as well as house drones and the FC- 31 stealth fighter.

Moreover, China’s massive shipbuilding capacity may lend itself to building more of these ships, which can disperse capability over several such vessels, thereby increasing survivability.

However, in February 2024, the South China Morning Post (SCMP ) noted that the FC- 31 stealth fighter, China’s take on the US F- 35, is not yet in PLA service.

In comparing the two aircraft, SCMP says the F- 35 may have a lower top speed than the FC- 31, reaching Mach 1.6 compared to the FC- 31’s Mach 1.8, but the F- 35 is believed to have a greater combat range of 1, 240 kilometers compared to the FC- 31’s 1, 207 kilometers.

Asia Times reported in January 2024 that China has been steadily raising the size and quality of the PLA Marine Corps ( PLA-MC), increasing its number from two to eight combined arms brigades, regarding the ground component of the PLA’s amphibious assault forces.

The PLA- MC would be significant in a potential attack on Taiwan, but it would act as a support force rather than the main invader because the PLA Ground Force ( PLA- GF ) has specialized amphibious assault units for a similar mission.

The PLA- MC has six battalions to support an invasion, but its small size and limited experience in expeditionary missions restrain it.

a simulating Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Image: Facebook

However, China’s emerging light carrier and carrier fleet faces numerous tactical and operational difficulties as a result of their small air wings, vulnerability to enemy forces, and limited value in comparison to land-based airfields.

The tiny air wings of China’s light carriers also pose an “offense- defense” dilemma. While adding more aircraft to a fleet may make it vulnerable to a retaliatory air attack, adding more aircraft to fleet air defense reduces attack power.

China’s light carriers are also as vulnerable as their larger counterparts to US and allied anti- ship missiles, submarines and aircraft.

Although their static positions limit China’s combat aircraft’s operational range, these limitations may also limit the strategic value of these light carriers in comparison to land-based airfields with much larger capacity, defensibility, and survivability.

However, China’s naval and air bases in Hainan, the South China Sea, and perhaps a recently upgraded base in its ally Cambodia could make up for the capacity gaps in its light carrier fleet.