Fear of invasion in China grows with new photos of battles

China’s flashy displays of warplanes and warships circling Taiwan have more to do with propaganda than practicality. But the quiet practicality of preparing civilian car ferries for war shows that Beijing is serious about an invasion.

For months, international military analysts have been making the connections.

The commercial roll-on roll-off car ferries in China are huge. They have also shown a strange tendency to abandon their routes and linger on major assault drills on the People’s Liberation Army beachhead.

Why?

An Aug. 31 Maxar Techonolgies satellite image released by the US Naval Institute shows one of these civilian ships with its stern in the water with several “swimming” tanks behind it. On the nearby beach, a line of amphibious armored vehicles stands ready to take part in the training exercise.

Analyst Tom Shugart told USNI News he had identified the commercial ferry as the Bo Hai Heng Tong. This is a 15,000 ton roll-on roll-off freighter and ferry. It was more than 1500 km from its regular route in the Bohai Sea.

And it was only one of seven comparable civilian ferries that took part in the war games.

Combined, the ships pose a significant invasion threat, as each ship carries three times more than comparable US Navy San Antonio-class purpose-built landing pad docks (LPDs).

“AN LHA or LPD spends a lot of cubic feet” [on] Marines who can operate at sea for weeks or months. That’s a lot of wasted space if you’re just taking a quick trip across the strait,” added Shugart.

‘Military-civil merger’

In the row over the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan earlier this year, China showed its combat capabilities clearly.

Planes swarmed through the sky. Warships plowed the oceans. Troops and tanks rushed to the practice beaches.

But silently and in the background, three large commercial ferries strangely drifted off course to aid these maneuvers.

Now we know why.

Although they were not featured in the propaganda display, they were required to produce it. Their inherent military capability was brought into play.

The PLA’s special troop transport power is unexpectedly small. Although it is growing fast.

Last year, the first of its Type 075 helicopter attack ships was launched. Two more are not far from commissioning.

But these, and their smaller cousins ​​of amphibious assault ships, are simply too few in number to deploy enough troops and tanks to capture Taiwan’s well-defended beaches.

The lack of this capacity has often been used to claim that Taiwan is safe. For now.

But what if China already has a full military capacity for sea transport ready?

Would that put Taiwan at immediate risk from Chairman Xi’s stated goal of completing the “unfinished business” of the Communist Party’s 1949 Civil War and assimilating the last outpost of the Republic of China?

Bargain hunters?

US Naval War College Maritime Studies instructor Conor Kennedy published a study last year with the Jamestown Foundation warning of the ferry threat.

Roll-On, Roll-Off (RO-RO) ships were invented by the British Navy after the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk proved that vehicles needed to be loaded as quickly as possible. Their solution was to put a retractable ramp on the bow and/or stern of a freighter so they could drive up and down.

The idea was quickly adopted by ferry companies around the world to transport trucks and cars on unabridged waterways.

What makes a military amphibious assault ship different from a commercial RO-RO is the ramp’s ability to be opened at sea. This allows everything from small boats and hovercraft to landing craft and swim tanks to slide back and forth between the ship and the sea.

Kennedy pointed out that large new Chinese RO-RO ships have strengthened their ramps beyond simple civilian needs. Images showed the girders and hydraulic systems needed to absorb lateral forces caused by interaction with waves. And this would make it possible to drop the ramp directly into the water to load and unload vehicles.

The first evidence of their use in military operations came in 2020 when the 15,000-ton civilian ferry Bang Chui Dao was spotted during a PLA attack on the beach. Usually, it carries 1200 passengers with 825 square meters of parking spaces. Although participation was not directly observed, Chinese footage from the event showed landing vehicles being launched from a previously unseen ramp style.

If it was the Bang Chui Dao, Kennedy says the RO-RO could have carried as many as 50 amphibious assault vehicles — enough for an entire mechanized infantry battalion. And he adds that some 62 other Chinese commercial ferries may also have been modified for similar military use.

China’s state-controlled CCTV7 media service showed another commercial RO-RO ferry, the Zhong Hua Fu Zing, with battle tanks filling the 20,000-square-meter vehicle space. The video was later removed.

This massive ship would likely be part of a second wave of assault troops, delivering its non-swimming tanks directly to a captured dock or beach.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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