Photos of what appears to be possibly a mobile sea basing platform and logistics node, similar to US designs, have made their way around China’s internet recently. Such a capability would be an incredibly logical addition to China’s amphibious forces, especially considering their ongoing extra-territorial ambitions.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is building a pocket fleet of roll-on-roll-off sea bases, called mobile landing platforms, that that work as piers for huge cargo ships on one side and a staging area and mini seaport for beach landing craft and hovercraft on the other. A vertical airlift focused mobile landing platform is also being fielded for helicopter focused support duties. These unique ships are seen as a critical component of the Pentagon’s strategic ‘pivot towards the Pacific.’
This new strategic outlook requires new capabilities that will allow US forces to overcome the vastness of the Pacific theater and the logistical issues that go along with it. China’s prevailing area denial and anti-access military strategy, and the need for American forces to be able to execute highly dispersed operations to negate that strategy, is another reason to justify these new forward deployed floating sea bases. Currently, five semi-submersible landing platforms are on the Pentagon’s wish list, with three either operational or in some stage of construction.
China on the other hand, would not necessarily need such a system for extremely long-range expeditionary warfare like the US does, but they could use such a capability to fortify and defend their extra-territorial claims in the South China Sea and in the East China Sea.
China has already invested heavily in amphibious capabilities, including hovercraft like America’s LCAC. In fact, they’ve also gone to great lengths to procure the largest of such weapon systems in the world, the Soviet-era and truly massive Zubr Class.
China’s non-amphibious naval and Coast Guard capabilities are also rapidly expanding. Adding a semi-submersible mobile landing platform and sea base to the Chinese Navy’s inventory provides a logistical nexus for the various services’ material and personnel to be conveyed to hard-to-reach spots, like small islands and low-depth littoral areas.
The only major discrepancy between what appears to be China’s version of a mobile landing platform, and America’s similar concept, is size. The Montford Point-class of MLPs is larger than China’s version, with a length of 785 feet, 25,000 feet of deck space and an 80,000-ton displacement, when loaded with hovercraft, cargo and fuel. China’s version appears to be about a third smaller dimensionally, and are probably much smaller in overall displacement, and you can see even better picture of it here.
The only other explanation for the Chinese design photographed and seen in satellite photos would be a semi-submersible ship transport, although the ship’s additional accouterments, nor the rumors surrounding it, would support that usage. A dual-role capability is also possible, although China has plenty of non-military sources for dry movement of large ships. There’s also said to be a logistics support vessel class being developed that will accompany this new landing platform.
Jane’s reports that one has already been built with another under construction.
But the real focus should be on China’s island building campaign in the South China Sea, which is truly monumental in size.
Once these islands are operational and filled with personnel, defenses, and, in some cases, full-on air bases, being able to adequately supply them will be a huge undertaking. A mobile landing platform and hovercrafts’ unique heavy-hauling capabilities to shallow harbors and beaches are the ideal pair to support such a logistics train over the long haul. Doing so will also save China from building many complex amphibious assault ships for such a basic mission set, and even these ships cannot provide the flexibility or persistence that a mobile landing platform can.
Which is not to say that a mobile landing platform like the one shown could not be used during offensive operations against Taiwan, or even to occupy or assault islands in the East China Sea that continue to be the source of a major differences between China and Japan. Yet sustained logistics are something China needs very soon to support its man-made island empire in the South China Sea. This ship, and possibly a few more like it, working as a giant logistics hub that can interface between huge cargo vessels and smaller hovercraft and landing ships that can bring material ashore, is an enticing and possibly an all-but-essential capability for China to acquire.
With that in mind, I don’t think this one ship will be the last Chinese Navy example of a mobile landing platform. Quite the contrary, actually. China is incredibly good at taking plays out of its near-peer competitors’ playbooks, and the mobile landing platform play could end up being more essential to Chinese maritime strategy than to America’s.
Photos and sources Sina.com/Jane’s/Google Earth
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.