Should Taiwan be sweating?
According to media reports China will double the number of its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Divisions (AMID) from two to four. Initially, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fielded two AMIDs, one stationed in Guangzhou, the other in the Nanjing Military Region, with a total number of about 30,000 men. Now total manpower in the AMIDs will be around 52,000 – 60,000. These new amphibious forces are meant to complement the roughly 20,000 strong elite PLA Marine Corps in future conflicts over the East and South China seas as well as Taiwan, although the PLA Marine Corps and the AMIDs still lack a joint command system.
In comparison to the PLA Marine Corps, the AMIDs are mostly suitable for conventional large-scale amphibious assaults, such as would occur in a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. However, as a report by the U.S. Department of Defense on military and security developments in China notes: “Large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complicated and difficult military operations the PLA might pursue in a cross Strait contingency. Success would depend upon air and sea superiority, rapid buildup and sustainment of supplies on shore, and uninterrupted support. An attempt to invade Taiwan would strain China’s armed forces and invite international intervention …. China does not appear to be building the conventional amphibious lift required to support such a campaign.”
The report continues:
“The PLA is capable of accomplishing various amphibious operations short of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. With few overt military preparations beyond routine training, China could launch an invasion of small Taiwan-held islands in the South China Sea such as Pratas or Itu Aba. A PLA invasion of a medium-sized, better defended offshore island such as Matsu or Jinmen is within China’s capabilities.”
Thus, for now Taiwan appears to have little to fear from this nascent force. China simply cannot transport the AMIDs across the Taiwan Strait. Each of the four divisions is equipped with up to 300 armored and amphibious transport vehicles – the majority of which are of the ZBD05/ZLT05 type. However, these amphibious vehicles cannot traverse large stretches of water by themselves. Consequently, China will have to rely on its fleet of amphibious warfare ships such as the new Type 071 (Yuzhao-class) transports of which it is currently building two, with three completed and six more planned.
According to open source information, the Type 071 ships can carry between 15-20 armored vehicles and 500 -800 troops (some reports also indicate that China is building an even bigger class of amphibious assault ships). China also operates older and smaller landing ships of the Type 072II-class landing ships, as well as the even older Type 072-class landing vessels. All of these ships combined would currently not be able to transport and re-supply a single AMID along with support elements across waters. (A Taiwanese military intelligence assessment quoted in the 2010 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress appears to have been wrong.)
It should be noted that the capability to transport a large conventional force is not required for the majority of China’s naval operations. However, in the special case of a full-scale conventional invasion of Taiwan, where there will be only a small time window before China would face massive retaliation by the United States, this capability may very well be required. By Franz-Stefan Gady for The Diplomat