The PLA is practicing some sneaky new tactics in exercises aimed at using modified civilian ferries and ships to deliver tanks, trucks and troops to Taiwanese beaches and ports during an invasion
The U.S. Navy’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) recently released a new study that used commercial satellite imagery and ship tracking data together with media reporting and other open-source material to analyze China’s buildup of its ability to transport military units to Taiwan during a hypothetical invasion. The study specifically focused on the capabilities of the PLA to use civilian ships, especially roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries, to provide heavy lift capacity during such an invasion.
This new study is the latest update of an ongoing project to track developments in China’s plan to use civilian ships in conjunction with military amphibious landing ships during a war. The report looked at 38 events that occurred between October 2021 and September 2022 and involved civilian ships practicing invasion tactics in conjunction with China’s military.
One new tactic that was practiced was the use of large ocean-going RO-RO ferries to move what looked like PLA units up the Yangtze River to the inland port of Nanjing. Another novel development was when the PLA practiced using port infrastructure like large warehouses and makeshift tunnels to camouflage and conceal military movements to move units from civilian ports via civilian shipping. During that exercise the PLA parked hundreds of war machines inside large warehouses, where they were not detectable by optical or infrared sensors used by observation satellites. The PLA also built temporary tunnels made of tarpaulin sheets to hide the war machines as they later moved between warehouses and to waiting RO-RO ferries.
In several of the observed events, civilian RO-RO ships operated from relatively austere ports without the use of tugboats or substantial port infrastructure to load and unload military equipment. At least one of the cargo ships used what seemed like a flexible side ramp that could move up and down as the tide rises and falls in relation to the dock. Other cargo ships used their own on-board heavy-lift cranes to load and unload war machines. Some ships showed they can load and unload on infrastructure as basic as a harbor wall or a simple quay.
The exercises also demonstrated significant increases in the volume of lift created by civilian shipping, compared to observations over the previous year. From July to August 2022, 12 ferries and cargo ships conducted 82 transits between 11 Chinese ports in a five-week-long lift exercise that saw the movement of large volumes of troops and military vehicles. The event saw the transportation of what could have been more than 8,500 military vehicles and 58,000 troops, which would be the equivalent of a group army consisting of six PLA Army combined arms brigades and six supporting brigades.
That July to August 2022 event and another event in September appeared to focus on transporting non-amphibious units of heavy combined arms. These units would likely be delivered after a successful seizure of beaches and ports and would constitute follow-on, second echelon forces in a cross-Strait invasion.
Analysts also observed that the PLA practiced using a floating causeway system that seemed to be a notable improvement over the system used during the preceding year. The system uses a large semi-submersible barge as an anchor point for a 40 percent longer causeway that consists of modules that are assembled in situ. The 650-meter-long floating causeway would allow the barge to dock far out in deeper water, where the large RO-RO ferries would then dock on the barge and disgorge their tanks and trucks on to the barge. The vehicles would then drive from the barge to the beach via the floating causeway.
The report shows that multiple large civilian RO-RO ferries, cargo ships and self-propelled barges were diverted from their normal activities to practice the above-mentioned military transport operations over large distances between Chinese ports and beaches.
Analysts say the observations show that the Chinese military and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are still probably unable to provide significant amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics needed in austere or challenging environments. However, the latest large-volume lift exercises show that the PLA has made significant progress in the use of civilian vessels for the large-scale lift of PLA troops and equipment into undefended ports — which would be a crucial capability in a military assault on Taiwan.
CCTV image from CMSI report.