Analysts say at least two new hulls of Chinese-owned giant Zubr-class hovercraft have recently appeared in social media imagery, putting the PLA’s total now at a minimum of six vessels. China previously had bought two of these Soviet-era vessels directly from Ukraine, and these were delivered by 2014. China then built two copies of these, with the PLA taking delivery in 2018. From then on production appeared to have stopped, so it is significant that China now seems to have restarted construction on a fleet of these vessels.
The Zubr hovercraft is an impressive machine. With a length of 57 meters and a width of 22.3 meters, it dwarves the biggest hovercraft used by the U.S. military, the LCAC (Landing Craft, Air Cushion). Whereas the LCAC has an open cargo deck surrounded by its engines, pilot house and propeller fans, the Zubr’s cargo deck is covered by a top deck that forms the base of a large central control tower plus several gun and missile mounts, as well as three huge pusher propellers that tower over the rear of the machine.
Each Zubr hovercraft has a crew of 31 and can carry up to ten BTR-82A APCs, or three main battle tanks, or 500 troops, or some combination of these units. It can travel up to 483 kilometers at a sustained speed of 55 knots (101 kilometers per hour). Given that Taiwan’s western coastline is only around 170 kilometers from China, the Zubr’s long range means it could easily reach the Taiwan coastline at high speed after other ships had taken the brunt of an assault. It could then race over submersed rocks and sand bars to deliver beachhead teams on less accessible beaches, before re-inflating and returning to China to pick up a second wave of invaders.
The Zubr hovercraft is also unique in that it is bristling with weapons. Each one is armed with two Fasta-4M surface-to-air missile launchers which are each loaded with four Igla-M missiles, which are roughly equivalent to the U.S.’s shoulder-fired Stinger missile. For close-in air defense and beach suppression, the Zubr is armed with two AK-630M gatling guns, each of which has six 30-millimeter barrels. These hovercraft also feature two Ogon 22-round 140-millimeter rocket launchers for suppressing beach defenses. Some models of the Zubr have also been fitted with missile pods that can fire multiple anti-ship missiles.
So, the Zubr is a huge vessel that’s designed to transport a large force of combined arms at high speed over long distances, while also being able to deliver those forces to beaches in a way that only a hovercraft can. In addition, it has defensive weapons as well as offensive weapons that can suppress beach defenses while it unloads troops and vehicles.
Like all other hovercraft, however, the Zubr is sensitive to the condition of the ocean — especially wave and wind intensity. Hovercraft get slowed down considerably if the wind speed picks up and waves grow higher.
It is generally believed that a hovercraft won’t set off most types of sea mines as it travels over them, so defenders would mostly depend on anti-ship missiles to stop them. Anti-ship missiles are among the few weapons — apart from vertically falling artillery shells — that can punch a hole through the layers of the Zubr deep enough to puncture its air-cushion structure. Only when this air-cushion structure is punctured will the hovercraft lose the ability to float and start to sink.
From close to shore, beach defenders could also fire smaller anti-armor weapons like Javelin missiles to punch holes into its top deck and pump shrapnel into its cargo deck, but that type of damage is unlikely to sink or stop the behemoth completely. Using a horizontally firing light artillery piece to put one well-placed shell in the pilot house might stop it cold, as it would remove the enemy’s ability to steer the craft.
During a theoretical invasion, China would be expected to field the Zubr hovercraft in conjunction with its Type 076 hovercraft. The Type 076 is around the same size as the LCAC and can carry one tank, or four APCs, or troops. Unlike the Zubr, the Type 076 needs to be transported to the landing site by special navy ships with well decks at the rear that open below the waterline, allowing hovercraft and landing craft to slip into the ocean without falling over. The Type 076 is therefore earmarked to take a ride on China’s Type 071 amphibious transport dock and on China’s Type 075 amphibious-landing helicopter dock, which looks like a small aircraft carrier and features a 226-meter-long flight deck for helicopters.
China is currently in the process of building a fourth of these Type 075 helicopter carriers with well decks. Combined with the slow but sure increase in its number of Zubr-class hovercraft, this seems to underscore persistent efforts by China to modernize and expand its naval amphibious assault capability.