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Insight: China’s marine corps eyes new missions far from home

27th June 2019 - 08:52 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong

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Expanding from the two brigades it possessed just a few years ago, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) that was established in 1953 is experiencing a marked increase in size and capability as Beijing eyes new missions at home and abroad.

One such mission is protecting China’s military base in Djibouti. The PLA’s first overseas base was established in the Horn of Africa on 1 August 2017. A company of marines are stationed there, and the US estimates they have 15 wheeled AFVs. Such platforms are better suited for land movements rather than amphibious operations, but they do give the PLA a limited expeditionary capability in that part of the world.

Marines also provide shipboard contingents for Chinese rotational anti-piracy task forces in the Gulf of Aden.

Taiwan is still the main ‘strategic direction’ for the PLA, however, and the PLANMC is postured to threaten the democratically governed nation and its outlying islands with an amphibious invasion.

Nevertheless, the US military’s official assessment is as follows: ‘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, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better-defended island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.’

Apart from Taiwan, other strategic directions for China’s military include the East China Sea and South China Sea, and the PLANMC has an eye on all these hotspots, including responsibility for defending military outposts on the Paracel and Spratly Islands.

One important source commenting on the PLANMC is the Pentagon’s report for the US Congress entitled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019’. It assessed: ‘Ultimately, the PLANMC will be capable of operating from land, sea and air as the PLA’s global military force, but this goal will likely not be realised by China’s stated goal to complete PLA reforms by 2020.’

As previously mentioned, the PLANMC consisted of two brigades amounting to approximately 10,000 troops until recently. Yet the Pentagon’s 2019 report predicted: ‘By 2020 the PLANMC will consist of seven brigades, may have more than 30,000 personnel, and it will expand its mission to include expeditionary operations beyond China’s borders.’

Henry Boyd, research fellow for Defence and Military Analysis at the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), confirmed to Shephard that there are currently six marine combat brigades.

The two original formations were the 1st and 2nd Marine Brigades stationed in Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province in southern China. They have been streamlined with a brigade-level headquarters commanding newly restructured combined arms battalions that comprise both amphibious mechanised and light mechanised units.

Four new marine brigades have been created. For example, the 3rd Marine Brigade is located in Jieyang, Guangdong Province. Boyd noted that satellite imagery showed extensive construction taking place there in 2017-18. The 4th Marine Brigade, a former coastal defence unit that converted to this role, is in Jinjiang, Fujian Province.

The 5th and 6th Marine Brigades are both in northeast China, with the 5th in Laoshan in Qingdao. The IISS academic believes this formation also converted from a coastal defence unit. The 6th is garrisoned at Yantai, Wendeng and Haiyang in northern Shandong, where it was previously the army’s 77th Motorised Infantry Brigade.

While the PLANMC has grown from two regular combat brigades to six, they are not all yet fully combat ready. The Pentagon report acknowledged that ‘only the original two brigades are fully mission-capable’ and that ‘there is no evidence to indicate the new brigades are manned, trained and equipped to perform expeditionary missions yet’.

Also, as part of its expanded remit, the corps has received its own headquarters located near Chaozhou in Guangdong Province, even though the PLANMC remains under the navy’s overall umbrella. Nevertheless, the corps, presently commanded by Maj Gen Kong Jun, is now responsible for its own manning, training and equipping.

It appears that marine units are not subordinate to the naval theatre commands in which they are situated. Instead, these widely dispersed units are directly under the authority of this Marine Corps Headquarters.

It is interesting that the PLA Ground Force retained its existing amphibious units. It might have seemed logical for these amphibious units to be transferred to the PLANMC, but it is possible that institutional resistance from the ground force prevented this from happening. As China’s strategic focus shifts farther afield, the ground force is in danger of becoming irrelevant in comparison to the navy and air force, and it probably fought hard to keep its amphibious role.

The PLA Ground Force possesses the following amphibious units: the 5th and 124th Combined Arms Brigades (both based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang) within the 72nd Group Army; and the 14th Combined Arms Brigade (Changtai, Fujian) and 91st Combined Arms Brigade (Zhangzhou, Fujian) of the 73rd Group Army. These are all in the Eastern Theatre Command, whose primary responsibility is a Taiwan contingency.

In addition, there are the 1st Combined Arms Brigade (Huizhou, Guangdong) and 125th Combined Arms Brigade (Baoan, Guangdong), which are amphibious units of the 74th Group Army in the Southern Theatre Command.

By refusing to transfer army amphibious units to the PLANMC, the military leadership has demonstrated that it is prepared to endure a long transition to forging a stronger and more capable marine corps.

Similarly, it will take time to fully equip its new marine brigades with equipment such as ZBD05 amphibious assault vehicles, ZTD05 assault vehicles, PLZ07 self-propelled howitzers, and ZBL09 and ZTL11 8x8 vehicles. The Pentagon concluded that ‘China lacks a sufficient inventory of wheeled armoured vehicles to support multiple PLANMC expeditionary deployments adequately.’

Indeed, the DoD concluded that the PLANMC 'is employing new equipment to perform an expeditionary mission, but the equipment is not arriving in sufficient numbers to meet the 2020 goal.'

Another authoritative source of research on China’s military is Dennis Blasko, a former American defence attaché in Beijing. Blasko estimates that up to 20,000 army personnel transferred into the PLANMC to bring it to a total of 40,000 personnel distributed across eight brigades.

The brigades he mentions include the six aforementioned combat brigades, as well as a special operations force (SOF) unit and aviation brigade. In an article penned earlier this year for The Jamestown Foundation, Blasko noted that the SOF brigade was formed from a nucleus of the PLAN’s existing SOF Regiment on Hainan Island. It could have 1,000 personnel and is probably ‘the most combat ready’ of all PLANMC units at the moment.

Blasko also claimed that ‘the core of a shipborne aviation (helicopter) brigade’ has been added to the PLANMC order of battle as well. He believes this Marine Shipborne Aviation Brigade is being built from elements taken from all three PLAN independent air regiments. Currently it has ‘considerably less than a full contingent of aircraft compared to an army aviation brigade’, but Blasko predicted it could eventually number 70+ aircraft.

The Pentagon’s China military report said an aviation brigade ‘could provide an organic helicopter transport and attack capability, increasing its amphibious and expeditionary warfare capabilities’. It predicts that the marine corps would need approximately 120 attack and medium-lift helicopters. The addition of rotary-winged platforms would allow some, if not all, brigades to have units trained in air assault.

Although the PLAN is investing in amphibious warfare vessels, these are not yet available in sufficient numbers, and this represents a restricting factor for the PLANMC. The eighth 20,000t Type 071 landing platform dock was recently launched, and the first Type 075 landing helicopter dock displacing some 35,000-40,000t is currently under construction.

In summing up recent changes in the PLANMC, Blasko wrote: ‘The expanded marine corps, supported by navy long-range sealift, likely will become the core of the PLA’s future expeditionary force. Training that began in 2014 further indicates that the eventual objective for the marine corps is to be capable of conducting operations in many types of terrain and climates – ranging beyond the PLANMC’s former, and continuing, focus on islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

‘The manner by which the force has expanded, however, suggests that the PLA leadership was not motivated by an immediate need for a larger amphibious capability; rather, it appears to be consistent with several new missions undertaken by the Chinese military over the past decade that have provided impetus for the addition of new marine units.’

Chinese-style quick-reaction marine expeditionary units – of which the USMC has seven – could well be envisioned by Beijing, but a lot of equipping, training and doctrinal experimentation will need to come first.

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