The China Maritime Studies conducts short-term research monographs of interest to scholars, policy makers, and analysts.
China Maritime Report No. 35: Beyond Chinese Ferry Tales: The Rise of Deck Cargo Ships in China's Military Activities, 2023
J. Michael Dahm
This report provides a comprehensive assessment of Chinese civilian shipping support to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), examining civil maritime-military activities in 2023. As of 2023 and probably through at least 2030, the PLA’s reserve fleet of civilian ships is probably unable to provide the amphibious landing capabilities or the over-the-shore logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a major cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. However, 2023 activity has demonstrated significant progress toward that end. In addition to the extensive use of civilian ferries, this report identifies the first use of large deck cargo ships to support PLA exercises. While not as capable as large, ocean-going ferries, China’s civil fleet boasts dozens of large deck cargo ships and may provide the PLA with the lift capacity necessary to eventually support a large crossstrait operation. This report also discusses other civil maritime-military activities including “surge lift events,” coordination and synchronization of multi-theater events, floating causeway developments, and the dedicated use of civilian ships for intra-theater military logistics.
Christopher Sharman and Terry Hess
Since 2018, there have been significant changes to People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force training, and these changes have been driven by important revisions to strategic guidance and subsequent directives that focused PLA efforts to enhance its capabilities to operate in the maritime domain. While this guidance is applicable to all services, improving PLAN submarine force capabilities appears to have been of particular interest to senior Chinese leadership. This guidance expanded the PLA’s maritime domain requirements, which demanded that China’s submarine force improve its capabilities to operate independently or along with other PLAN assets at greater distances from coast and in the far seas. This has resulted in submarine training that is more realistic, rigorous, and standardized across the fleet. Though stressful on submarine equipment and crews, these changes to training may ultimately yield a more combat-capable submarine fleet operating throughout the western Pacific.
China Maritime Report No. 33: China's Sea-Based Nuclear Deterrent: Organizational, Operational, and Strategic Implications
David C. Logan
China’s development of a credible sea-based deterrent has important implications for the PLAN, for China’s nuclear strategy, and for U.S.-China strategic stability. For the PLAN, the need to protect the SSBN force may divert resources away from other missions; it may also provide justification for further expansion of the PLAN fleet size. For China’s nuclear strategy and operations, the SSBN force may increase operational and bureaucratic pressures for adopting a more forward-leaning nuclear strategy. For U.S.-China strategic stability, the SSBN force will have complex effects, decreasing risks that Chinese decisionmakers confront use-or-lose escalation pressures, making China less susceptible to U.S. nuclear threats and intimidation and therefore perceiving lower costs to conventional aggression, and potentially introducing escalation risks from conventional-nuclear entanglement to the maritime domain.
China Maritime Report No. 32: The PCH191 Modular Long-Range Rocket Launcher: Reshaping the PLA Army's Role in a Cross-Strait Campaign
With its fielding of the PCH191 multiple rocket launcher (MRL) and its variety of long-range precision munitions, the PLA Army (PLAA) has become arguably the most important contributor of campaign and tactical firepower during a joint island landing campaign against Taiwan. No longer simply the primary source of amphibious and air assault forces, the PLAA is now capable of using its multiple battalions of PCH191 MRLs to support maritime dominance, the joint firepower strike, and ground forces landing on Taiwan’s shores and in depth. The Chinese ordnance industry has developed multiple low-cost rockets, an anti-ship cruise missile, and a tactical missile to be used with the PCH191, as well as its export variant, the AR3, including munitions that can quickly and precisely strike targets in the Taiwan Strait, across the island, and beyond. Recent demonstrations of the PCH191 during PLA training events and Eastern Theater Command response actions to politically charged visits, in addition to the fielding of new reconnaissance assets capable of providing targeting and battle damage assessments to the MRL, make it clear the Army intends to use the system to achieve effects in a future Taiwan crisis that formerly would have been the responsibility of other PLA services.
China Maritime Report No. 31: China's Submarine Industrial Base: State-Led Innovation with Chinese Characteristics
In recent years, China’s naval industries have made tremendous progress supporting the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine force, both through robust commitment to research and development (R&D) and the upgrading of production infrastructure at the country’s three submarine shipyards: Bohai Shipyard, Huludao; Wuchang Shipyard, Wuhan; and Jiangnan Shipyard, Shanghai. Nevertheless, China’s submarine industrial base continues to suffer from surprising weaknesses in propulsion (from marine diesels to fuel cells) and submarine quieting. Closer ties with Russia could provide opportunities for China to overcome these enduring technological limitations by exploiting political and economic levers to gain access to Russia’s remaining undersea technology secrets.
Christopher P. Carlson and Howard Wang
After nearly 50 years since the first Type 091 SSN was commissioned, China is finally on the verge of producing world-class nuclear-powered submarines. This report argues that the propulsion, quieting, sensors, and weapons capabilities of the Type 095 SSGN could approach Russia’s Improved Akula I class SSN. The Type 095 will likely be equipped with a pump jet propulsor, a freefloating horizontal raft, a hybrid propulsion system, and 12-18 vertical launch system tubes able to accommodate anti-ship and land-attack cruise missiles. China’s newest SSBN, the Type 096, will likewise see significant improvements over its predecessor, with the potential to compare favorably to Russia’s Dolgorukiy class SSBN in the areas of propulsion, sensors, and weapons, but more like the Improved Akula I in terms of quieting. If this analysis is correct, the introduction of the Type 095 and Type 096 would have profound implications for U.S. undersea security.
China Maritime Report No. 29: PLAN Mine Countermeasures: Platforms, Training, and Civil-Military Integration
Brian Waidelich and George Pollitt
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has made incremental progress in its mine countermeasures (MCM) program in recent years. The PLAN’s current inventory of about 60 MCM ships and craft includes classes of minehunters and minesweepers mostly commissioned in the past decade as well as unmanned surface vessels (USVs) and remotely operated vehicles with demonstrated explosive neutralization capability. Despite the addition of these advanced MCM platforms and equipment, experts affiliated with the PLAN and China’s mine warfare development laboratory have serious reservations about the PLAN’s current ability to respond to the full range of likely threats posed by naval mines in future contingencies. The PLAN’s MCM forces are currently organized for operations near China’s coastline, but writings by Chinese military and civilian experts contend that to safeguard Beijing’s expanding overseas interests, the PLAN must develop MCM capabilities for operations far beyond the First Island Chain. PLAN and civilian mine warfare experts have proposed various solutions for offsetting perceived shortcomings in the PLAN’s MCM program, including the development of autonomous USVs and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), deployment of modularized MCM mission packages on ships such as destroyers and frigates, and mobilization of civilian assets such as ships and helicopters in support of MCM operations. Although there appears to have been little to no adoption of these proposed solutions to date, the PLAN recognizes MCM as one of its biggest challenges, and one can expect the PLAN to continue making measured progress in its MCM program in the years ahead.
China Maritime Report No. 28: Bitterness Ends, Sweetness Begins: Organizational Changes to the PLAN Submarine Force Since 2015
J. Michael Dahm and Alison Zhao
“Above-the-neck” reforms in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that began in 2015 directed the development of a new joint operational command system that resulted in commensurate changes to PLA Navy submarine force command and control. Additional changes to tactical submarine command and control were driven by the evolution and expansion of PLA Navy surface and airborne capabilities and the introduction of new longer-range submarine weapons. Follow-on “below-theneck” reforms inspired significant organizational change across most of China’s military services. However, the PLA Navy submarine force, for its part, did not reorganize its command structure but instead focused on significant improvements to the composition and quality of its force. Between 2017 and 2023, the PLA Navy submarine force engaged in a notable transformation, shuffling personnel and crews among twenty-six submarines—eleven newly commissioned and fifteen since retired—relocating in-service submarines to ensure an equitable distribution of newer, more capable submarines across the fleet. Observations of infrastructure improvements at PLA Navy submarine bases portend even more changes to submarine force structure in the coming years.
China Maritime Report No. 27: PLA Navy Submarine Leadership - Factors Affecting Operational Performance
The way the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) selects and manages its submarine officers increases the likelihood of human performance errors onboard a PLAN submarine. First, PLAN submarine officers are selected from applicants with among the lowest college entrance examinations of any PLA educational institution, suggesting that PLAN submariners are among the service’s least talented officers. Second, the Party Committee system at the apex of decision-making aboard PLAN submarines may be less agile than other approaches to command, at least in certain circumstances. Lastly, while the policy of embarking flotilla leaders senior to the submarine captain may reduce some of the negative effects associated with the first two conditions, it could lead to reduced performance when senior leaders are not present. If external events during wartime stressed these factors, the likelihood of human-induced error events in the PLAN submarine force could increase substantially.
Lonnie D. Henley
If there is a war over Taiwan, an extended Chinese blockade is likely to determine the outcome. While a blockade might include intercepting ships at sea, the primary focus would be on sealing airfields and ports, particularly on the west coast of Taiwan. China could sustain that type of blockade indefinitely. Penetrating a prolonged blockade and keeping Taiwan alive would require a serious U.S. investment in systems and operational concepts that we currently do not have. Unless we make that investment, we may win the first battle, defeating an attempted landing. But we cannot win the war.
China Maritime Report No. 25: More Chinese Ferry Tales: China's Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021-2022
J. Michael Dahm
This report provides a comprehensive assessment of Chinese civilian shipping support to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), examining civil maritime-military activities from October 2021 through September 2022. As of 2022, the PLA and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are still probably unable to provide significant amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a major cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. However, large volume lift exercises conducted in 2022 suggest 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, a capability that may be leveraged in a military assault on Taiwan. This report also discusses other civil maritime-military activities not previously observed, including the use of civilian vessels and infrastructure to conceal PLA troop movements, operations from austere ports, use of ocean-going vessels to transport PLA forces along inland waterways, and logistics support for China’s South China Sea outposts.
China Maritime Report No. 24: Incubators of Sea Power: Vessel Training Centers and the Modernization of the PLAN Surface Fleet
Ryan D. Martinson
The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building modern surface combatants faster than any other navy in the world. Before these new ships can be deployed, however, their crews must learn how to effectively operate them across the range of missions for which they were designed. In the PLAN, this “basic training” largely occurs at specialized organizations called Vessel Training Centers (VTCs). Since their creation in 1980, VTCs have played a key role in generating combat power for the fleet. But as China’s naval ambitions have grown, the VTCs have been forced to adapt. Since the early 2000s, and especially since 2012, they have faced tremendous pressure to keep pace with the rapid expansion and modernization of the PLAN surface fleet and its growing mission set, improve the standards and quality of vessel training, and uphold the integrity of training evaluations. This report argues that the PLAN’s VTCs have generally risen to the challenge, ensuring that new and recently-repaired ships can quickly reach operational units in a fairly high state of readiness.
Conor M. Kennedy and Daniel Caldwell
When the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first Type 075 class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) in April 2021, it represented an important advance in power projection capability for China’s maritime forces. For the first time, the PLAN had an amphibious warship capable of hosting significant rotary wing forces while acting as the flagship for an amphibious task force. Now with three Type 075 class ships either in or soon to be in service, the PLAN has expanded its amphibious capability even further. The Type 075’s dedicated aviation support capability, ability to conduct wet well operations, and expanded command and control and medical facilities reflect capabilities that previously did not exist within the PLAN amphibious fleet. With the Type 075 LHD, the PLAN clearly intends to bolster its ability to project power from the sea in order to protect China’s overseas interests, but will require time for amphibious task forces to become fully proficient.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believes that logistics support is one of the key determinants of a successful large-scale invasion of Taiwan. Logistics support includes transport, materiel and oil supply, medical care, search and rescue, logistics infrastructure protection, and maintenance of war materiel reserves. Despite the recognized importance of logistics support, it is likely the PLA does not currently possess the requisite logistics capabilities to successfully support a large-scale amphibious landing on Taiwan and a possible protracted conflict involving the United States and allies. Key deficits include a lack of amphibious ships (both military and civilian), transport aircraft, and war reserves. The PLA also continues to face difficulties with landing the requisite logistics supplies during the critical beach assault phase, constructing maritime transfer platforms or temporary wharves to sustain resupply if intact ports are not rapidly captured, establishing a landing base for logistics operations, maintaining the flow of logistics during on-island combat, and establishing strategic war reserves to support the large-scale operation and possibly prolonged conflict. These problem areas might be resolved with several years of sustained effort and complex training.
China Maritime Report No. 21: Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion
Lonnie D. Henley
Most analysts looking at the Chinese military threat to Taiwan conclude that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is incapable of invading the island because it lacks the landing ships to transport adequate quantities of troops and equipment across the Taiwan Strait. This report challenges that conventional wisdom, arguing that the PLA intends to meet these requirements by requisitioning civilian vessels operated by members of China’s maritime militia (海上民兵). Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government and military have taken steps to strengthen the national defense mobilization system to ensure the military has ample quantities of trained militia forces to support a cross-strait invasion. Despite ongoing challenges—including poor data management, inconsistent training quality, and gaps in the regulatory system—and uncertainties associated with foreign-flagged Chinese ships, this concept of operations could prove good enough to enable a large-scale amphibious assault.
Dennis J. Blasko
The PLA Army’s (PLAA) amphibious units would serve as the core of any joint force charged with invading Taiwan. As a result of the 2017 reforms, the PLAA now possesses six amphibious combined arms brigades distributed across three group armies (the 72nd, 73rd, and 74th). During a cross-strait invasion, these brigades would likely receive support from other elements of the group armies to which they belong. This could include fire support, air defense, air transport, aerial fire support, and electronic warfare/cyber-attack.
Cristina L. Garafola
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Airborne Corps would likely play an important role in a cross-strait invasion through operations behind enemy lines. During the landing campaign, the Corps would conduct paradrops or landing operations onto Taiwan, facilitated by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft. Once on island, airborne forces would seize and hold terrain and conduct a variety of operations to support the broader invasion. In recent years, the Corps has reorganized to improve its capability for mechanized maneuver and assault, leveraging the PLAAF’s larger inventories of transport aircraft, particularly the Y-20; improved the sophistication of its training at home; and gleaned insights from abroad via training with foreign militaries. Nevertheless, it is uncertain to what extent the Corps is able to overcome key challenges relevant to a cross-strait campaign. These include ensuring effective integration with similar ground force and marine units; carrying out operations in complex or degraded environments; transcending the Corps’ lack of relevant combat experience; and obtaining adequate air support.
John Chen and Joel Wuthnow
PLA special operations forces (SOF) would likely play important supporting roles in an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Their capabilities and training are geared towards several missions undertaken during the preparatory and main assault phases of the landing, including infiltration via special mission craft and helicopter, reconnaissance and targeting, obstacle clearance, strikes and raids, and extraction missions. While PLA SOF have made progress in recent years, several longstanding challenges could affect their performance in an island landing: integrating advanced special mission equipment for complex and dangerous missions, coordinating their operations with non-SOF supporting and supported forces, and overcoming the Chinese military’s penchant for centralized command. Even if PLA SOF are only partially effective, however, their support to the main assault force could diminish Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from a large-scale invasion.
China Maritime Report No. 17: The PLA Army's New Helicopters: An "Easy Button" for Crossing the Taiwan Strait?
This report examines the potential roles and missions of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new rotary wing capabilities in a cross-strait invasion. Looking specifically at the helicopter units of the PLA Army (PLAA), it discusses two possible scenarios in which these forces could serve as the main thrust in a campaign to seize control of Taiwan. In the first scenario, the PLAA would use nearly all of its rotary wing inventory simultaneously to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses and quickly convince the country’s political leadership to surrender. In a second “unconventional” scenario, the PLAA would risk the destruction of older helicopters in order to launch a sudden attack against the island, thereby achieving the element of surprise while saving its most capable platforms for lengthy follow-on operations to fully subdue the island. Based on analysis of the scale, complexity, and frequency of recent PLAA exercises, this report argues that China is at best a decade away from having the ability to seize Taiwan by either approach.
China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA's Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics
J. Michael Dahm
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long provided indications it will use civilian shipping in direct support of a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. To date, however, there has been little effort to gauge the PLA’s actual ability to leverage China’s commercial fleet in the most challenging part of any such campaign—operations over-the-shore. Drawing from ship tracking data, satellite imagery, media reporting, and the writings of PLA experts, this report analyzes recent military-civil fusion exercises and training to assess current capabilities.
China Maritime Report No. 15: The New Chinese Marine Corps: A "Strategic Dagger" in a Cross-Strait Invasion
Since 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) has undergone significant expansion, growing from two brigades to eight. The major impetus behind these efforts is a desire to build the service arm into an expeditionary force capable of operating in most environments at short notice. However, PLANMC reform has also bolstered its ability to contribute to major campaigns along China’s periphery, including a Taiwan invasion scenario. This report examines the PLANMC’s role in a cross-strait amphibious campaign and analyzes how new additions to the force could be used against Taiwan.
This report examines Chinese views about the military balance of power between China and the United States in the Western Pacific. It argues that while there is no single “Chinese” view on this topic, Chinese analysts tend to agree that 1) the gap between the two militaries has narrowed significantly in recent years, 2) the Chinese military still lags in important ways, and 3) Chinese military inferiority vis-à-vis the U.S. increases the further away it operates from the Mainland. In terms of specific areas of relative strength, the Chinese military has shown the greatest improvements in military hardware, but has farther to go in the area of jointness, training, and other military “software.” Nevertheless, despite continued criticism from senior civilian leaders, training quality has likely improved due to a greater focus on realism, and recent military reforms have, to a degree, improved the prospects for jointness.
Jennifer Rice and Erik Robb
This report traces the origins and development of China’s current naval strategy: “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection.” Near Seas Defense is a regional, defensive concept concerned with ensuring China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. Its primary focus is preparing to fight and win informatized local wars within the first island chain. Far Seas Protection has both peacetime and wartime elements. In peacetime, the Chinese navy is expected to conduct a range of “non-war military operations” such as participating in international peacekeeping, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, evacuating Chinese citizens from danger, and engaging in joint exercises and naval diplomacy. In wartime, the PLAN could be tasked with securing China’s use of strategic sea lanes and striking important nodes and high-value targets in the enemy’s strategic depth. Nears Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection is rooted in the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Mao Zedong.
China Maritime Report No. 12: Sansha City in China's South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control
China established Sansha City in 2012 to administer the bulk of its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Sansha is headquartered on Woody Island. The city’s jurisdiction includes the Paracel Islands, Zhongsha Islands, and Spratly Islands and most of the waters within China’s “ninedash line.” Sansha is responsible for exercising administrative control, implementing military-civil fusion, and carrying out the day-to-day work of rights defense, stability maintenance, environmental protection, and resource development. Since 2012, each level of the Chinese party-state system has worked to develop Sansha, improving the city’s physical infrastructure and transportation, communications, corporate ecosystem, party-state institutions, and rights defense system. In effect, the city’s development has produced a system of normalized administrative control. This system ultimately allows China to govern contested areas of the South China Sea as if they were Chinese territory.
How is China thinking about protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and maritime chokepoints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in times of crisis or conflict? Relying on Chinese policy documents and writings by Chinese security analysts, this report argues that three critical challenges limit the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) ability to project power into the region and defend access to SLOCs and chokepoints, particularly in times of crisis: (1) the PLAN’s relatively modest presence in the region compared to other powers, (2) its limited air defense and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and (3) its limited logistics and sustainment infrastructure in the region.