Eying Taiwan, China Is Getting Four Giant Hovercraft
But a successful assault could require many more ships
It’s not hard to see why Beijing is spending a reported $300 million on the four Zubr-class hovercraft—two built in Ukraine and two in Guangzhou. Able to speed a distance of 300 miles in six hours while carrying eight armored vehicles or 500 marines apiece, the 187-foot-long Zubrs will help Beijing back up its once-empty threat to invade Taiwan in the event the island nation ever formally declares independence from the mainland.
Apparently owing in part to the Zubr acquisition and other shipbuilding efforts, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, could be capable of invading Taiwan as early as 2020, according to Taipei’s annual defense report, published in October.
To be clear, a major amphibious assault—even one over as short a distance as the 100 miles separating China from Taiwan—is among the most complex, dangerous and resource-intensive military operations possible. “The PLA Navy currently lacks the massive amphibious lift capacity that a large-scale invasion of Taiwan would require,” the Pentagon claimed in its own most recent annual assessment of China’s military.
That’s changing. Since 2007 China has brought into service three Type 071 amphibious assault ships, each 689 feet long and able to carry six short-range landing craft and up to 800 troops. Beijing has also displayed models of an amphibious helicopter carrier that it apparently intends to build.
Between the three Type 071s and four Zubrs, China could, in theory, land nearly the entire front-line strength of a Chinese marine brigade. The U.S. Marine Corps, for its part, needs at least a full brigade just to initially secure a 45-mile-wide beachhead, according to a 2010 slide show by then-Navy undersecretary Bob Work.
In other words, China will soon possess sufficient modern amphibious vessels to haul a barely adequate invasion force, by U.S. standards. But transporting additional marines or army troops at the same time would require China to use older, smaller and slower amphibious ships or civilian cargo vessels pressed into military service.
And additional troops would almost certainly be needed.
America’s own amphibious flotilla, including nearly three dozen modern ships the size of the Type 071s, is scaled to carry two and a half Marine brigades, which Work said “seems about right.” To have the same beach-assault capacity possessed by Washington and the same margin for error during a large-scale attack from the sea, Beijing will need to more than double its amphibious force.
So yes, with the hovercraft in testing or being built plus its other modern assault ships, China could in theory mount an invasion of Taiwan within a few years. But just barely. And with no room for mistakes and zero ability to absorb losses.