Tag Archives: Amphibious Operations

Civilian Shipping: Ferrying the People’s Liberation Army Ashore

By Michael Dahm and Conor M. Kennedy

The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has been increasing its ability to use civilian roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries to move troops and equipment ashore in amphibious landing operations. In August 2020, the PLA conducted a cross-sea mobility evolution using RO-RO ferries. Exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (东部运投—2020A) was unique in that it discharged military vehicles from RO-RO ferries directly onto a beach using a modular floating pier. Commercial satellite imagery of a PLA amphibious exercise area in late-summer 2021 revealed that the PLA may have developed an improved floating pier system to support amphibious operations.  These capabilities, components of what the U.S. Navy calls “joint logistics over-the-shore (JLOTS),” allows the PLA to use civilian vessels to move large amounts of military equipment into unimproved amphibious landing areas without port infrastructure. A Chinese mobile pier system like those observed in these exercises may have particular application for the PLA in an invasion of Taiwan. 

The PLA has been using civilian transportation capabilities for military mobility for many years, moving military forces and equipment up and down the Chinese coast. RO-RO ferries provide significant capacity to move armor and other rolling stock. Recent PLA innovations are enabling greater roles for civilian ferries to move forces ashore. For example, some Chinese civilian ferries have been retrofitted with capabilities to deploy amphibious armored vehicles at-sea, essentially making them auxiliary amphibious landing ships. This is likely meant to compensate for the apparent shortage in PLA amphibious lift required to conduct a cross-strait landing. The PLA appear to be learning from their American counterparts with solutions for moving forces and supplies ashore in the absence of port infrastructure. This article explores a novel floating pier system that may provide a solution to some of the PLA’s amphibious lift shortcomings.

What the Chinese call an “offshore mobile debarkation platform” (海上机动卸载平台) was spotted in commercial satellite imagery along the fishing wharves of the Lanshan District in Rizhao City, China in September 2020. A PLA 2007 patent application for a similar system indicates sections include “square” or intermediate pontoon modules (方形模块), bow-stern modules (首尾模块), ramp modules (坡道模块), powered modules (推进模块), cargo ferries (货运渡船) and lighters (驳船) as well as warping tugs (绞滩拖船) to maneuver the different sections. The floating pier system was developed by engineers at the PLA Military Transportation University in Tianjin.

Chinese modular floating pier system in port Lanshan, China, September 27, 2020 (Google Earth, Image © Maxar Technologies 2021)

The Chinese system looks very similar to the U.S. Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS), produced by the Fincantieri Marine Group.  The INLS is used principally by U.S. Navy Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships. The system appears to have the same types of interchangeable modules as the U.S. floating causeway system. The U.S. system is used for off-loading MPF ships miles off-shore and then floating equipment and cargo to the beach. Alternatively, the INLS can be employed as a floating pier as shown in the images below from Exercise JLOTS 2008 off Camp Pendleton, California.

 USNS Pililaau (T-AKR 304) with INLS in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC2 Caracci)
 INLS employed as temporary pier in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC3 Morales)

China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee ordered development of an offshore mobile debarkation platform for the PLA in 2001. The system was one of the major focus areas under “Project 019” (019工程), an effort to resolve issues of vehicle and materiel lightering when port infrastructure is unavailable or degraded by “blue forces.” A team of engineers at the PLA’s Military Transportation University worked for over a decade to overcome the engineering challenges associated with the system, especially as they related to connections between the modules and shallow water propulsion. Chinese media reports indicate the system has been used in exercises since 2012, but trials likely began earlier.

The offshore mobile debarkation system was featured in news coverage of a 2014 Guangzhou Military Region (GZMR) exercise. This was reportedly the first time the PLA used a civilian, militia-operated RO-RO ferry to embark and offload a PLA unit using the system.  The 2014 exercise took place in the southern port city of Zhanjiang where an unidentified PLA mechanized infantry company (机械化步兵连) was loaded onto the Nan Fang 6, a commercial RO-RO ferry that normally provides service between the mainland and Hainan Island.  As part of the exercise scenario, the ferry was told its destination terminal had been damaged and was ordered to offload over the beach. According to the news report, the PLA dispatched and assembled a “sectional causeway” (拼装式栈桥) system to a beach landing area. Warping tugs were shown assembling five pontoon units, extending the floating causeway approximately 600 feet from the shore.

Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system assembled in 2014 exercise in Zhanjiang, China (CCTV)

Interestingly, a semi-submersible barge, often used in port construction projects, was placed at the end of the causeway to act as the pier head. With a ramp leading to the causeway, the semi-submersible barge could raise or lower its height above the water to accommodate different size RO-RO vessels.

Semi-submersible barge used with offshore mobile debarkation system in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

After the RO-RO ferry docked with the semi-submersible barge, PLA equipment and troops immediately began to stream out of the ship. Reporters stated that the sectional causeway was assembled in just under an hour, a boast that seems somewhat implausible. The GZMR military transportation department director told reporters the floating causeway fixed “a number of bottlenecks in carrying out maritime projection with civilian ships.” There have been few other publicized training events using this system since the 2014 exercise. Prototypes of this system may have seen improvements by PLA engineers over the years, but its basic concept of operation appears to have remained the same.

Civilian ferry off-loading armored vehicles to beach in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

A Chinese television report on the August 2020 PLA exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A shows army equipment being loaded onto civilian ships in the port of Lianyungang. Footage showed the port’s container cranes loading trucks and other military cargo into the 322 foot general cargo ship Sheng Tai. At the nearby ferry terminal, PLA armored and wheeled vehicles were loaded aboard the Sheng Sheng 1, a 394 foot, 10,000 ton RO-RO ferry as well as the much larger Bohai Baozhu (Bohai Pearl) a 535 foot, 24,000 ton RO-RO ferry. Like most newer Chinese-flagged ferries, the Bohai Baozhu was built to national defense specifications for carrying military equipment.  The Bohai Baozhu is owned by the Bohai Ferry Group (渤海轮渡股份有限公司), which operates eleven RO-RO ferries in the Bohai Gulf. The company’s ships have been organized into the “Eighth Transport Dadui” (海运八大队), part of the PLA’s strategic projection support ship fleet (战略投送支援船队). The Sheng Sheng 1 is seen briefly at the end of the television report offloading tanks onto the semi-submersible barge and onto the offshore mobile debarkation system.  The Sheng Sheng 1 was also seen in the July 14, 2020 high-resolution Planet Labs SkySat image, below, preparing to back into the same semi-submersible barge attached to the floating pier.

Civilian ferry Sheng Sheng 1 off-loading tanks onto semi-submersible barge and offshore mobile debarkation system in the 2020 exercise (CCTV)
Sheng Sheng 1 maneuvering for a stern docking with the semi-submersible barge and floating pier (Includes content sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc., Powered by Planet – SkySat Image © Planet Labs 2021)

A soon-to-be published paper presented at a recent conference on PLA amphibious operations hosted by the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute provides a comprehensive account of the 2020 exercise. Two dozen commercial ships, tugs, and military landing craft took part in the large-scale operation led by the PLA’s Joint Logistics Support Force. According to ship automatic identification system (AIS) tracks, RO-RO ferries and cargo vessels sailed from the embarkation port of Lianyungang 24 nautical miles north to Lanshan. According to Chinese media reports, just as in the 2014 Zhanjiang exercise, a major component of the exercise involved ferries off-loading using a semi-submersible barge and a floating pier.  Civilian ferries like the Bohai Baozhu and the Sheng Sheng 1 made several trips between Lianyungang and Lanshan, apparently transporting military equipment in each run before then returning to civilian ferry service across the Bohai Gulf. 

Typical tracks of exercise ships during Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (Supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence, www.marinetraffic.com)

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system is large enough to be seen in lower resolution Planet Labs commercial satellite imagery acquired between June and August 2020.  The Lanshan beach area imaged is just north of the fishing wharf where the pier modules were imaged in September 2020.  The floating pier was set up and taken down several times over two months, each time with the semi-submersible barge attached or close by off-shore. The temporary piers in the Planet Labs images correspond to the lengths of the system seen in the much higher-resolution Google Earth/Maxar image – approximately 1200 feet for the green pontoon sections and 720 feet for the grey pontoon sections. The shorter floating pier was used throughout the course of the exercise for landing craft that were off-loading cargo ships and other ferries farther off-shore. Planet Labs imagery indicates the modular system remained in Lanshan until November 2020. Its current location is unknown.

Offshore mobile debarkation system moved to several locations during the 2020 exercise (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

In late-August and early-September 2021, a new modular pier system was spotted in commercial satellite imagery at a known PLA amphibious training area in Dacheng Bay, China near the southern end of the Taiwan Strait.  This improved system bears a closer resemblance to the U.S. Navy INLS.  It is much more substantial and longer than the older floating pier, extending approximately 1475 feet from the shore. According to AIS tracks, two Bohai Ferry Group ships, the Boahai Mazhu and the Bohai Cuizhu visited the Dacheng Bay amphibious training area on September 4, 2021, probably to off-load dozens of ten-man assault boats in support of an amphibious raid. One significant indicator of floating pier operations in the exercise area was the presence of the same semi-submersible barge that was used in the summer 2020 exercise, the Sanhanggong 8, operated by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).  The new floating pier system, the semi-submersible barge and an unidentified temporary pier may be seen in the low-resolution satellite image, below. Analysis of this exercise and its use of civilian shipping is on-going.

New-type modular floating pier observed at PLA’s Dacheng Bay amphibious training area in September 2021 (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

Beyond the media reports of the 2014 exercise and the 2020/2021 exercises, there is little open-source reporting available on the PLA’s use of these sectional causeways. It is interesting to note that in each example, the system was deployed in relatively sheltered areas with calm waters. The original Chinese patent for the system indicates it can operate in sea state 3 (wave heights up to 4 feet), which is identical to the advertised operating limit of the U.S. Navy INLS.

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system, while not as striking as the Chinese Navy’s newest amphibious assault ships, may have greater implications for how the PLA projects power over-the-shore, especially in a cross-strait amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Any large-scale landing by PLA Navy amphibious assault ships will require significant maritime lift for second echelon forces and logistics. This modular pier system may allow China’s substantial fleet of large civilian RO-RO ships to offload combat troops and equipment directly onto Taiwan’s beaches. Proficiency with this system and other JLOTS capabilities will be a critical capability in a cross-strait invasion if the PLA is unable seize Taiwan’s port infrastructure intact.      

Michael Dahm is a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. His research focuses on foreign military technologies and operational concepts.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate at the U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. His research focuses on Chinese military development and maritime strategy.

The analyses and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Naval War College, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) or APL sponsors. Commercial satellite images are sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc. and Planet Labs, Inc. and are published under license from Planet Labs, which retains copyrights to the original, underlying images. This work has also been supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence (www.marinetraffic.com).

Featured Image: An amphibious infantry fighting vehicle attached to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps launches anti-tank missiles during a maritime live-fire training exercise in mid July, 2021. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Liu Yuxiang)

Real Time Strategy 2 – HALO

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The RTS crew discusses HALO – everything from the technology to whether or not Master Chief receives a military housing allowance.

“Real Time Strategy,” is a discussion on the lessons and non-lessons of the simulations we use to both learn and entertain in the realm of military strategy, tactics, and history.

DOWNLOAD: HALO

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The Rapid Growth of the Algerian Navy

The Algerian Navy has been on a buying frenzy in recent years, amassing a significant maritime force. In September 2014, representing the culmination of a longer term procurement project, Italy’s Orizzonte Sistemi Navali (OSN) delivered Algeria’s new flagship, an 8,800-tonne amphibious assault ship called the Kalaat Beni-Abbes. But newer projects than OSN’s are currently underway. A shipyard in Saint Petersburg, Russia is building two new Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines for Algeria, while two MEKO A200-class frigates, three F-22P Zulfiquar-class frigates, and two Tigr-class corvettes are being produced for service in the Algerian National Navy at shipyards ranging from Kiel to Karachi.

z classThis vastly outpaces the procurement projects of Algeria’s neighbours. In 1993, Algeria and Tunisia successfully resolved their maritime boundary dispute and have since launched several joint energy exploration projects. Tunisia’s 2010-2011 revolution and concerns in Algeria that the uprising might bring an Islamist regime to power created some uncertainty, but the bilateral relationship remains on the whole quite positive. Although the nearby Strait of Gibraltar has seen some heightened tension between British and Spanish maritime forces, Algeria is not a party to any of these confrontations. In this context, the aggressive expansion of the Algerian National Navy must be rather confusing.

However, it is possible that Algeria is preparing for a significant counter-piracy role. NATO’s Operation Unified Protector devastated the Libyan Navy. Currently, that country’s maritime forces consist of one Koni-class frigate, one Natya-class minesweeper, and two Polnocny-C landing ships. NATO air strikes in May 2011 totally destroyed Libya’s naval bases at Sirte, Khoms, and Tripoli. While the maritime forces loyal to the Libyan government are small in number and poorly equipped, rebels continue to hold a few ports in Libya’s east, though most were freed in a series of offensives during the summer and autumn of 2014. Earlier, in March 2014, one rebel militia succeeded in loading an oil tanker in defiance of the Libyan authorities, prompting the ouster of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

If the Libyan authorities are struggling to secure their own ports, it is conceivable that rebel groups in the country’s eastern regions could engage in piracy in future years. Such a situation would jeopardize Algeria’s economic growth as it seeks to become a major energy exporter to Europe and Asia. In March 2014, Algerian officials announced plans to increase oil and natural gas production by 13% to 220 million metric tonnes of oil equivalent in two years. The resulting increase in tanker traffic on North Africa’s coast would present plenty of prime targets for Libyan pirates.

Yet it remains unclear whether it is indeed a counter-piracy role that is envisioned for the Algerian National Navy. Algeria is not officially cooperating with Operation Active Endeavour, which is NATO’s counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation force in the Mediterranean Sea, though five ships assigned to the NATO Mine Counter-Measures Group did make a port visit to Algiers in September 2014 prior to joining Active Endeavour. In order to avoid conflict from emerging between Algeria and Libya over the security of international shipping routes, it may be necessary for NATO officials to aggressively pursue a closer relationship with both countries.

Through the Mediterranean Dialogue, NATO established an Individual Cooperation Program (ICP) with Israel in 2006, which allows for Israeli participation in Operation Active Endeavour and other mutually beneficial initiatives. Other ICPs were completed with Egypt in 2007 and Jordan in 2009. Securing ICPs with Algeria and Libya, however, will be an uphill battle; Algeria has participated in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue since 2000 but Libya has yet to even respond to a 2012 invitation to join. Nonetheless, it is still an effort worth attempting as it may help to avoid much hardship and conflict in the future. For now, Algeria seems to be bracing for impact.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at Atlantic Council of Canada.

Naval Build-Up in the Philippines

Like many of its regional peers, the Philippines is in the midst of a defense buildup, motivated in no small part by China’s assertive moves in the western Philippine Sea and the resource-rich Spratly islands. 
              
The donation this week of two Balikpapan-class Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) from Australia was the most recent boost to Philippines defense efforts. 
        
The LCH donation is particularly timely, as it complements the upcoming pair of Strategic Sealift Vessels (SSV), being built by PT PAL Indonesia. Based on the Indonesian navy’s successful Makassar-class Landing Platform Dock (LPD), the 8,600-ton amphibious lift ships can transit to remote areas and serve as a mobile base for helicopters and smaller landing craft. As evidenced during Typhoon Haiyan, the dearth of such assets hampered the Philippine government’s aid response to the hardest-hit parts of the country. 
          
As gifts stand, the donation of ex-HMAS Tarakan and Brunei is particularly generous – the Royal Australian Navy will hand them over fully refurbished with new safety and navigation components, plus spare parts packages. Manila is considering purchasing the three remaining LCHs as well. 
       
While the media focus of Manila’s defense acquisitions under the Capability Upgrade Program has been centered on big-ticket items to restore basic conventional force capabilities, there have been other, quieter acquisitions that directly support war-fighting and maritime domain awareness (MDA). 
         
Notably, the service signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014 with the Philippine National Oil Company to transfer three retired 2,500 ton petroleum tank ships. This acquisition would enable fuel replenishment at sea and increase on-station time for high-endurance assets like the patrol frigates Ramon Alcaraz and Gregorio Del Pilar, both formerly U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class cutters.  
Another low-profile capability is the National Coast Watch Center program—a surveillance system designed to monitor oceanic traffic in the western Philippine Sea.
              
As expected, details of this national intelligence capability are closely held, but much of it is likely based on the successful implementation of the earlier Coast Watch South program. With heavy U.S. assistance, the Philippines created a network of monitoring stations combining radar, maritime surveillance and radio/data networks that provides a real-time strategic and tactical “picture” of oceanic traffic in the Southern Philippines—the so-called Sulawesi Sea Triangle. That area is a hotbed of illicit trafficking by sea and a favored logistical trail for transnational insurgent forces that prowl the region. When completed in 2015, the west-facing Coast Watch chain will monitor the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), extending 200 nm into the contested Spratly Islands group. In the future, additional monitoring chains will cover the Northern and Eastern facing portions of the country as well. 
           
The most recent, visible and well-publicized modernization program has been the integration of the multipurpose helicopter program with the patrol frigate force. Five Augusta-Westland A109s twin-engine helicopters equipped with forward-looking infrared have been delivered to the fleet to replace long-retired BO-105s. From an operational perspective, the navy has made quick strides to integrating the air asset with ships of the line. The AW109s had a maiden deployment on board Ramon Alcaraz during the Australian multinational military exercise Kakadu 2014, approximately eight months after receiving the first helicopters. 
          
Out of all the projects to restore capabilities, the navy is still awaiting final determination of its premier acquisition – the multi-role frigate. The Philippines wants to buy two units to serve as major and modern combatants of the patrol frigate force. While the negotiations have been stymied by a complex two-phase process, a list of qualified bidders has emerged, including well-known Spanish shipbuilder Navantia and several South Korean firms, among others. A winning bid was to be selected in late 2014, but the acquisition process reportedly has been complicated by efforts to separate the tracks of selecting a ship from the embedded weapon systems. This may have to do with current challenges of the Philippines not being easily cleared for purchases of regional-balance changing weapons, such as a long-range surface-to-surface missile, with which this ship class is normally equipped.  
          
The Armed Forces of the Philippines has benefited under President Benigno Aquino III’s administration. To date, multiple modernization programs have either reached significant acquisition stages or have been completed entirely during his tenure. 
         
However, as the new paint smell wears off for the navy, the historical challenges that have haunted its past acquisitions and programs loom. It is critical that the next presidential administration continue to support the acquisitions, as well as the services, both politically and fiscally. The navy needs to ensure that internal expertise among the ranks to maintain their newly acquired equipment is present and sustainable. Above all, operating effectively and efficiently at sea continues to be the primary objective. The nation’s seafaring history and ties to the maritime culture give impetus to the current goals of ensuring territorial integrity and establishing a credible defense. Given the relatively rapid pace of modernization, the Philippine navy is well on the road to restoring the capabilities necessary to meet those demands. 
                               
Armando J. Heredia is a civilian observer of naval affairs. He is an IT Risk and Information Security practitioner based in New England, with a background in the defense and financial services industries. He is a regular contributor to the Center for International Maritime Security’s NextWar blog.  
                             
This article can be found here in its original form on the USNI website and was republished by permission.