The People's Liberation Army's (PLA's) ground forces recently began trials of a new small multirole support ship, which along with the PLA Navy's (PLAN's) testing of its new Zubr-class hovercraft, suggest the development of a growing capability to contest disputed islands in the East and South China Seas.
The PLA has long maintained a fleet of of medium-sized, flat-bottomed landing and assault ships to supplement the larger ships of the PLA Navy. The new ship, which resembles a smaller version of Russian's new 5,000-ton Project 11711 Ivan Gren assault ship, is designed for open-ocean transit. The designation for the estimated 2,000+ ton-displacement PLA ship has not been disclosed.
While Chinese sources indicate that the new ship's primary purpose is training, its design suggests it could support opposed landing and mine-laying missions: two roles that would be part of actions against islands and reefs in the East and South China Seas.
The ship features bow and stern ramps that allow for roll-on/roll-off operations. However, the front ramp may only allow for light vehicles and the bow will not allow for beach deployment. An aft flat deck is configured for helicopter or vertical unmanned aerial vehicle (VTUAV) operations, but there are no hangar facilities. It also has four turrets for twin 23 mm cannon.
When images of the ship under construction by Dalian Songliao Shipyard first appeared in August 2013 many analysts thought it was a new export design. Later images showing PLA troops participating in a launching ceremony undermined this, as did a May 2011 article on the website of Dalian Songliao Shipyard noting the award of a contract in December 2010 for a new "comprehensive training ship" for the PLA.
While the PLAN's larger landing platform dock (LPD) or landing ship tank (LST) vessels could also perform combat or training support roles for PLA forces, this new smaller multirole ship for the PLA Army likely follows on from its large investment in special operations forces. Some units, such as the 155th Special Operations Brigade, have been 'mechanised' with new armed jeep and 8x8 wheeled all-terrain vehicles that would be ideal for this ship.
In terms of the Zubr-class (Project 1232.2 class, 'Pomornik') hovercraft, four craft have been acquired, two of which are being built in China. Images posted on Chinese military forums in early December indicate the first, delivered in April, could be undertaking trials.