South China Sea: Can PLA learn from US Navy tactics with mini-carrier strike group?

Minnie Chan, South China Morning Post

Posted at Apr 13 2021 10:03 AM

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sails through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa on their way to the Pacific in this handout photo taken by Japan Self-Defense Forces and released by the Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan on April 4, 2021.  Joint Staff Office of the Defense Ministry of Japan via Reuters/ Handout

As the world's two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China's People's Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defense analysts.

They said the operators of China's Type 075 amphibious assault vessels could examine the US deployment of an amphibious-ready group (ARG) to the South China Sea which was led by the USS Makin Island landing helicopter dock (LHD) and joined the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group on April 9 for exercises.

This US Navy photo shows the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) leading a formation of US and Republic of Singapore navy ships during a photo exercise in the South China Sea. Anthony J. Rivera, Navy Office of Information via AFP

The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-ton Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships - the USS Somerset and USS San Diego - as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.

"The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA's Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China's Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD)," Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.

"The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way," Li said.

"For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country's territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups."

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy's capacity for tactical maneuvers and joint cooperation on the high seas.

"The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships," Wong said.

Beijing plans to own at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, but so far it just launched two. The third is expected to be completed later this year.

China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armored vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tons.

The Type 075 is the world's third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan's Izumo class and France's Mistral class.

However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.

"The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets," Song said.

"The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups ... that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world."

To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country's carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.

The US navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.

The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.

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