The Chinese Navy Tests Commercial Ships as Helicopter Carriers
In a serious naval war the US and China would conscript hundreds of civilian vessels
In a creative—some might say desperate—bid to bolster its amphibious fleet, the U.S. Navy in recent years has been building so-called “expeditionary sea-base ships” that are little more than commercial heavy-load carrier ships with a gray coat of paint and some military radios.
Now the Chinese fleet has demonstrated the same creativity—or desperation. A commercial heavy-load carrier flying a Hong Kong flag recently supported a Chinese naval exercise, functioning as a base for at least two army helicopters.
It’s not hard to imagine the same ship, or vessels like her, also functioning as a base for landing craft. These ships, taken up from trade, could quickly swell a Chinese invasion fleet.
The U.S. Navy ESBs, and the similar expeditionary transfer docks—ESDs—are variants of the Alaska-class crude carrier that General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego builds for the oil industry.
The two ESDs feature extremely low freeboard—that is, height at the waterline—along most of their length. The ships’ low freeboard, combined with their ability to take on water and partially submerge, allows them to float landing craft directly on and off their main deck. The ESBs can’t submerge but, as a bonus, feature a positively huge flight deck.
At 785 feet long and displacing 80,000 tons of water, the ESDs and ESBs are some of the biggest warships in the world. Built to commercial standards, they are slow, unarmored and effectively unarmed. But at a cost of around $500 million apiece, they’re also a cheap way for the Navy to add capacity and flexibility to its amphibious flotilla.
The ESDs and ESBs could become only more important as the Navy weighs scrapping the fire-damaged assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard. NASSCO quickly could add an ESB to its construction schedule.
The Chinese navy apparently has been watching the U.S. Navy experiment with its new sea-base ships. Chinese media recently highlighted a military training exercise involving army Z-8 transport helicopters and Z-19 scouts flying from the deck of Zhen Hua 28, a civilian semi-submersible heavy load carrier.
For decades Beijing’s fleet has rented or borrowed commercial ships as an expedient method of expanding its modest-but-growing amphibious fleet.
In wartime, the Chinese navy quickly could take up from trade scores or even hundreds of useful vessels, much like the Royal Navy famously did during the 1982 Falklands War.
Which is to say, in employing Zhen Hua 28, the Chinese navy isn’t necessarily copying the Americans. But it is noteworthy that both fleets have, at around the same time, discovered the utility of submersible load-carriers.
Zhen Hua is 760 feet long, making her roughly the same size as an ESD or ESB. She spends most of her time sailing around Shanghai, hauling barges, sections of bridges and similar out-size cargo.
During the helicopter exercise, Zhen Hua 28 sported what appeared to be a temporary flight deck that crews must have placed directly atop her usual deck surface. It’s unclear how long it might take to add the deck, but that addition could dictate just how quickly the Chinese navy could take up Zhen Hua 28 for wartime service as a sea-base.
The Chinese fleet is hurriedly building purpose-designed Type 75 assault ships that can support helicopters and landing craft. The Type 75s likely would lead any Chinese invasion of Taiwan or some disputed China Seas island. But look for Zhen Hua 28 to follow close behind.