China’s Newest Amphibious Assault Ship Aims To ‘Match’ US Aircraft Carriers Equipped With F-35 Jets

In another major challenge to the US, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been working on a new class of warships capable of carrying attack helicopters and potentially VTOL combat aircraft in the future.

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VTOL stands for vertical take-off and landing and refers to aircraft that can take off, hover, and land vertically. The F35B fighter jet is the best example of a fighter jet with VTOL capabilities.

Recently, a photo emerged on social media showing the second vessel of this class expected to be commissioned soon. These are the Chinese fleet’s new Type-075 Landing Helicopter Docks, literally “aircraft carriers” compared to the American Wasp-class by many experts.

File:F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan).PNG - Wikimedia Commons
File Image:F-35B Joint Strike Fighter

A total of three vessels are expected in this class, with one already commissioned named Hainan, and the second soon to be commissioned as Guangxi.

The Type 075 is significant in many ways for the PLA Navy. While the Chinese carrier does not carry fixed-wing aircraft, it can carry a host of rotorcraft – the Z-8, the Z-20, attack helicopters like Z-10 and Z-19, and rotorcraft UAVs that can create a combat potential akin to the American F-35B, according to Chinese military experts.

While this claim is highly surprising as the idea of helicopters providing a combat air potential for an amphibious assault unit equivalent to a fixed-wing fighter jet is highly improbable.

The fixed-wing combat aircraft can deliver more variety and quantity of payloads with precision at enemy encampments and assets, while the idea of a helicopter dropping a heavy bomb and escaping quickly from the anti-aircraft fire is certainly too ideological to be true.

Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD)

Also referred to as Amphibious Assault Ships, these vessels have their importance in amphibious warfare to transport troops, equipment, and aerial firepower to bolster an attack from the sea.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy commissions its first Type 075 amphibious assault ship at a naval base in Sanya, South China’s Hainan Province on April 23, 2021. The vessel is named the Hainan and has been given the hull number 31. Photo: Screenshot from China Central Television

Such ships have a flat deck to carry attack and transport helicopters and even V/STOL (Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing) fixed-wing combat aircraft like Harrier and the 5th-generation F-35B.

With the potential to serve as a ‘baby aircraft carrier’, its role, however, is fundamentally different from aircraft carriers. But with the line now being blurred, LHDs have become a cheaper and effective alternative for countries looking to expand their naval dominance.

For example, the US Navy’s America-class Amphibious Assault Ships can carry upto 20 F-35B Lightning II multirole fighter aircraft, capable of providing enough firepower and air cover for any combat mission.

China remains far behind in fully developing, manufacturing, and deploying a 5th-generation V/STOL fixed-wing combat aircraft.

Nevertheless, the Type 075 class vessels are bigger than the French Mistral-class and Australian Canberra-class, second only to US Navy’s America and Wasp-class. To compare, India’s newest full-fledged aircraft carrier INS Vikrant also has a similar displacement to the Type 075, exceeding by only a few thousand tonnes.

The vessels are being constructed at Hudong–Zhonghua Shipbuilding Co. Ltd, and are expected to play a major role in the expansion of Chinese military assertion in the Eastern Pacific and beyond, especially when it comes to Taiwan. Beijing has already issued multiple warnings to the island nation over ‘reunification’ with mainland China.

Notably, China is also building a successor “Type 076” landing helicopter dock, based heavily on Type 075, expected to have and operate unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) which would be complemented by an electromagnetic catapult launch system (EMALS)- allowing to carry better payload than conventional ski-jump counterparts.

China’s CH-4 UAV – Wikimedia Commons

This would probably be the world’s first attempt to make a carrier for fixed-wing UCAVs, which comes with its own advantages. First, it requires less maintenance and takes up less space. Secondly, they might prove more efficient than their manned counterparts.

Plan for this type of investment comes after China has emerged as a world leader in the manufacture and usage of drones, fielding more classes of UAVs/UCAVs than any other nation – ranging from smaller swarm drones to ‘Sharp Sword‘ stealth drones to Wing Loong – inspired from American Predator-B drones. It had also revealed the new WZ-8 high-speed reconnaissance drone.

The expansion of the Chinese surface fleet has been a major concern for the United States and regional competitors like India, Australia, Japan, and South Korea.

The increasing naval assertion on the alleged nine-dash line, creation of artificial islands and military bases at the Paracel, and airspace violation of Taiwan has created a volatile situation that could escalate at very short notice.