DN - Defence Notes

PLA expanding marine corps

13th March 2017 - 11:03 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Hong Kong


China is planning a huge increase in the size of its marine corp, improving the capability of its amphibious and rapid reaction forces.

It could see up to five times the numbers of personnel in the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) marine corps, which China wants to use to secure its maritime interests.

The marine corps is estimated to possess 20,000 troops and this figure could reportedly rise to 100,000.

The South China Morning Post reported that two brigades have already transferred to the marines to augment two brigades already in existence (the 1st and 2nd marine brigades).

One of the new units known to have been transferred to the marine corps is the 77th Motorised Infantry Brigade of the 26th Group Army. Located in Haiyang, Shandong as part of the Northern Theatre Command, it is strategically located on the Yellow Sea across from the Korean Peninsula.

Shephard has not yet identified the fourth brigade already transferred.

Until recently, the marine corps had only 10,000 troops, which was woefully inadequate for the type of 'historic missions' and 'far-seas' operations that China now wants to perform.

The Hong Kong-based newspaper quoted a source stating, 'The PLA marines will be increased to 100,000, consisting of six brigades in the coming future to fulfil new missions of our country.' However, such a figure seems overinflated and unrealistic, especially for a force of just six combat brigades.

The chief reason for this ambitious growth is a widened remit that now includes protecting Chinese interests overseas. As President Xi Jinping pushes his One Belt, One Road initiative, China plans to protect its economic investments and overseas supply lines.

The first place to receive a marine corps contingent is a new 'logistics' base being built at Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. China has not divulged how many personnel will be based there, but some reports have suggested a figure in the 'thousands'.

When equipped with aircraft, helicopters and naval vessels in Djibouti, China could soon have a significant military force on the periphery of the Middle East and with immediate access to Africa.

China has operated a naval anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Aden since 2008, and these rotational deployments routinely carry marine corps troops to respond to such incidents as pirate attacks.

On 9 March, Gen Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of US Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Chinese base in Djibouti would be completed 'later this summer'. Because of its proximity to Camp Lemonnier, Waldhauser said it raised concerns about operational security.

Another likely location for a PLAN marine corps deployment is the newly developing port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which was built with Chinese money and is the culminating point of the strategically important China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that stretches south from Xinjiang Province in China's northwest.

At the same time as it is expanding the marine corps, Xi is slashing the PLA by 300,000 troops. However, the transformation can be achieved by simply converting existing army units into marine corps brigades. Indeed, the PLA ground force already has two amphibious divisions of its own, so it might be logical that these would be earmarked to change service.

The aim of Xi's overall reduction in the size of the PLA is to make it leaner and better suited for modern warfare, rather than an old-fashioned, conventional land war. Previously, the marine units were allocated to operations against Taiwan, a task that will remain a core one as cross-strait relations chill.

With growing tensions in the South China Sea as well, the two original marine brigades are well sited in Guangzhou to perform operations on Chinese- or foreign-claimed islets and reefs.

At the same time, the navy itself is expected to grow by 15% from its current complement of 235,000 personnel. This is logical, as the PLAN is the primary service responsible for overseas operations.

The PLAN will be needed to transport marines and to implement Chinese security operations far from its shores. Four 18,000t Type 071 landing platform docks are already operational, with a fifth under construction and another planned.

The PLAN also has Zubr hovercraft, as well as the smaller indigenous Type 726 (Yuyi class) hovercraft that can operate from such amphibious-support vessels.

In the future China is predicted to build a number of much larger helicopter assault ships in the Type 081 class. They could displace up to 40,000t.

On the sidelines of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing on 5 March, Adm Liu Xiaojiang, a former navy political commissar, said, 'China is a maritime country and as we defend our maritime rights and develop our interests, the status of the navy will be more important.'

Liu added, 'Besides its original missions of a possible war with Taiwan, maritime defence in the East and South China seas, it's also foreseeable that the PLA Navy's mission will expand overseas, including protection of China's national security in the Korean peninsula, the country's maritime lifelines, as well as offshore supply deports like in Djibouti and Gwadar port in Pakistan.'

Existing marine corps brigades are well equipped with amphibious assault vehicles like the ZBD-05/ZTD-05 family (pictured above), but more will obviously be needed for the new brigades.

Last year images emerged of the ZTL-09 8x8 tank destroyer clad in a marine corps camouflage scheme in Sanya on Hainan Island, suggesting that this platform is now being fielded by the service too.

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