What China can learn about using its ‘mini-carrier strike groups’ from watching US Navy operations

Navy aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt
US Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the South China Sea, April 9, 2021.

  • A combination of vessel types has military observers speculating about how China can better deploy ships and aircraft.
  • Beijing has launched just two of its six planned aircraft carrier strike groups, but other ships could help fill the gap.
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As the world’s two biggest naval fleets engage in the Indo-Pacific region, China’s People’s Liberation Army can observe and learn from the United States Navy in adapting future tactical combined operations, according to defence analysts.

They said the operators of China’s Type 075 amphibious assault vessels could examine the US deployment of an amphibious-ready group (ARG) to the South China Sea, which was led by the USS Makin Island landing helicopter dock (LHD) and joined the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group on April 9 for exercises.

The USS Makin Island is a 40,000-tonne Wasp-class amphibious assault ship able to carry a detachment of Marine F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters. The LHD and two San Antonio-class landing platform dock (LPD) amphibious transport ships – the USS Somerset and USS San Diego – as well as several helicopter and assault craft units form the Makin Island ARG.

“The displacement size and functions of the Wasp-class LHD are similar to the PLA’s Type 075 LHD, while the San Antonio-class transport docks are similar to China’s Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD),” Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said.

Navy amphibious transport dock USS Somerset
US Navy amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset in the Bay of Bengal, April 7, 2021.

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the PLA would learn from the experiences of its American counterpart in turning its LHD and LPD into mini-aircraft carrier strike groups, an effective cost-saving measure.

“The US has studied how to operate their ARG in a more feasible and efficient way,” Li said.

“For China, the key mission of their Type 075 and Type 071 will be defending the country’s territorial sovereignty in the East and South China seas, as well as overseas interests, meaning the ARG combination is a better option than aircraft carrier strike groups.”

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong said deploying both LHDs and LPDs indicated the US Navy’s capacity for tactical manoeuvres and joint cooperation on the high seas.

“The combination of LHD and LPD is an integrated expeditionary strike group, which is worth the PLA learning from if they are going to better deploy their Type 075 and Type 071 amphibious warships,” Wong said.

The Yimeng Shan, a Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship
The Yimeng Shan, a Chinese navy Type 071 amphibious transport dock ship.

Beijing plans to own at least six aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035, but so far it just launched two. The third is expected to be completed later this year.

China has launched three Type 075 LHDs, which were designed to each carry up to 30 attack helicopters and armoured vehicles, and eight smaller Type 071 LPDs with the displacement of 25,000 tonnes.

The Type 075 is the world’s third largest amphibious assault vessel behind the USS Wasp and America classes. It is bigger than Japan’s Izumo class and France’s Mistral class.

However, Song said that in addition to the amphibious ships, the most powerful weapon of the Makin Island ARG were the F-35B squadrons and detachments of multi-role helicopters suited to different types of sea warfare missions.

“The most challenging problem of the PLA is a lack of new-generation fixed-wing carrier-based aircraft like the F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter jets,” Song said.

“The F-35B helps the USS Marines grab air supremacy in both ARG operations, making its function like that of the mini-carrier strike groups … that means the US Navy owns nearly 20 carrier strike groups around the world.”

Type 075 (rendering)
A rendering of a Chinese Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

To solve the current shortcomings, Song suggested the PLA install a catapult on the deck of the Type 075 LHD to upgrade the platform and allow it to operate the country’s carrier-based J-15 fighter jet.

The US Navy was reported to have tested the idea of smaller carriers, which would reduce the range, speed and capacity of its US$13 billion nuclear-powered supercarriers known as CVNs, but cost half as much or even less, Forbes reported in December.

The ARG operation could be seen as testing a mini-carrier option, an exercise China could learn from, Song and Li said.

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