Experts dismiss PLA Navy's landing craft from Ukraine as giant toys

Ukrainian-built hovercraft may be too fast or too big for operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan, say foreign military experts

Zubr-class Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)
Zubr-class Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC)

China's purchase of four of the world's largest military hovercraft, the Zubr-class Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), from Ukraine for US$3.15 million might have shocked neighbouring countries, but military experts have dismissed them as "giant toys".

Defence ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng confirmed at a press briefing late last month that Beijing had imported an LCAC for the People's Liberation Army Navy.

Geng did not say which fleet would be the first to put the giant Zubr into service, but Xinhua reported that the first LCAC had reached Guangzhou on May 24, raising speculation that it might join the South Sea Fleet, which is responsible for operations in the South China Sea, amid simmering territorial tensions between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines.

But former Taiwanese defence minister Wu Shih-wen, who patrolled the South China Sea when he was a naval officer between the 1960s and 1980s, said LCACs were not suitable for use in the South China Sea.

"All the islands involved in the territorial disputes between Beijing, Taipei and other Southeast Asian countries are tiny islets, with some even smaller than a ship," he said.

The Tokyo-based Diplomat Magazine said the Zubr is nearly four storeys high with a displacement of 555 tonnes, a range of 300 nautical miles and a top speed of 63 knots. It can remain at sea for five days and has a payload capacity of about 150 tonnes, more than twice that of the LCACs in service in the American and Japanese navies.

Its four compartments can accommodate 10 armoured vehicles and 140 troops, or more than 350 soldiers without armour.

Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said that because of their range and speed limitations, the LCACs would be capable only of playing an important role in amphibious operations against Taiwan and the Diaoyu Islands, with other potential theatres too far away.

"But the Zubr deal was made in 2009, one year after the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou was elected as the self-rule island's president," Wong said.

The Zubr was incapable of making a round trip to the Diaoyus, claimed by both Beijing and Tokyo. "The Diaoyus are more than 200 nautical miles from the mainland, but the maximum range of LCACs is just 300 nautical miles, meaning the giant landing ship would need a refuelling ship to follow it."

Japan's air and sea capabilities were stronger than the PLA's, Wong added, and an LCAC approaching the Diaoyus would present a big target that could easily be sunk by Japan.

Wang said the Zubr's top speed of 63 knots and its hovering would stir up large waves and would make it difficult for the PLA's most advanced frigates, capable of between 45 and 60 knots, to stay close to it.

"None of the PLA Navy's military ships could catch up with the Zubr, but compared with a fighter jet, it's much slower," Wong said. "It means the Zubr could be left to fight alone at sea because no one could protect it."

China Radio International said the second LCAC would be built by Feodosiya Shipbuilding in Ukraine, and a second pair of vessels would be built in Chinese shipyards under the supervision of Ukrainian technicians.

Professor Arthur Ding Shu-fan, secretary general of the Taipei-based Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, said the Zubr could become a training platform for the PLA Navy during island landing drills.

"The practical utility of LCACs, especially the large Zubr, is limited, although it could help perfect the fighting capability of the PLA's marines," he said, adding that the first Zubr could be used as a training platform like China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. "As a new weapon, it will take time for the PLA Navy to come up with a new mode of operation to let the Zubr integrate into their system too."

Shanghai-based naval expert Ni Lexiong said military means were not China's first choice to solve territorial disputes in the East and South China seas, but the Zubr deal could pose a "military threat" to countries involved in territorial disputes with Beijing. "I think we will not have too many LCACs due to their limited utility … but as a rising maritime power, China needs LCACs like the Zubr to perfect its naval arsenal," he said.

SCMP

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