About 3,000 troops belonging to the People's Liberation Army Navy Marines (PLANM) were deployed together with their heavy equipment and vehicles to a training base in Inner Mongolia for winter warfare training, state media reported in late February.
It was the first time a PLANM brigade had been dispatched to a northern military region for training, having previously been stationed and trained in the southern provinces.
The PLANM consists of three brigades: two amphibious assault formations and a third that is largely used for garrison rotations in the South China Sea (SCS) islands. Traditionally the marine brigades have been trained to conduct assaults on the small reefs and islands in the disputed SCS and not used as regular land-based infantry (unlike the US Marine Corps). This exercise therefore is highly unusual but sets a useful precedent.
Images broadcast by state media showed the marines (possibly from the 164th Marine Brigade ), embarking on transports along with their vehicles, which included the Type 05 family of amphibious assault vehicles. This includes an IFV variant with a 30 mm cannon known as the ZBD-05, an assault gun variant with a 105 mm gun (known as the ZTD-05), and a 122 mm self-propelled howitzer (SPH) variant called the PLZ-07B, which mates the chassis of the ZBD-05 with the turret from the Type 07 (also known as the PLZ-07) SPH.
In recent years these have replaced the older amphibious vehicles such as the Type 63/63C light amphibious tank (based on the Soviet PT-76, later upgraded with a 105 mm turret) and Type 86B IFV (BMP-1 mod) families. The new vehicles provide the marines with organic fire support as well as full and uniform amphibious capabilities across mechanised infantry and armoured battalions.
The decision to move the marines from their tropical bases in southern China to the -13 C0 temperatures of the Zhurihe Combined Tactics Training Base in Inner Mongolia is likely to have been based on a desire to improve the marines' mission package, moving away from limited and small scale actions in the SCS to more complex operations that might call for integration with the rest of the PLA.
The training objectives at Zhurige appeared to be quite comprehensive, with the cold weather testing of the vehicles a priority along with training for rapid deployment and urban combat. These suggest that the marine brigade is being assessed for its capacity to operate outside its comfort zone, something that is very much in line with the new rigorous training regime that has been put into place by the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping.
For the time being however, the PLANM brigades are not ready to be deployed as light infantry in the US model. They do not possess organic air assets (with the exception of a few helicopters) and compared to PLA regular units they have limited artillery capabilities. From a kit angle they are still very equipped to be the spear point of amphibious assaults, with regular forces taking over afterwards.
However, training such as this recent exercise will likely pave the way for more interoperability exercises with the rest of the PLA. At Zhurihe the marines likely came up against the PLA's first dedicated opposing force (OPFOR) brigade, which was formed in January 2013 and would have tested the marines' abilities to fight a conventional battle against a mechanised foe on open terrain.
It is unlikely that the marines will relinquish their more specialised roles, such as frogmen and amphibious reconnaissance however, but increased integration into a larger operational doctrine will only complement China's amphibious capabilities in the future.