China Builds Modern Marine Corps Force

April 2006
By James C. Bussert

Missions seem ambiguous, but preparations for opposed combat landings are not.

The People’s Republic of China has developed a marine corps for maritime and amphibious operations. However, instead of being designed to invade Taiwan as expected by many Western experts, China’s marine corps appears to have been created for South Sea expansion. A major upgrading of weapons, structure and support is making the Chinese marines an increasingly viable threat to nearby islands.

A unique People’s Liberation Army (PLA) marine corps likely has existed for only 25 years, rather than the 40 or 50 years believed by some scholars. Although China has claimed the existence of marines as a threat to invade Taiwan since the 1950s, these forces probably did not exist before 1980 other than as sailors and soldiers being trained in amphibious landings. Even today, China’s marines still lack the personnel and naval assets to overcome the challenges of an opposed landing against a prepared Taiwan defensive shoreline.

In addition, China has other Taiwan strategies that for its goals are better than launching an opposed amphibious landing. Covert economic isolation by submarines and/or mines is one such approach. China does not want to destroy Taiwan and its infrastructure with intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) in the Fujian area of the Taiwan Straits.

But, eschewing the use of marines against Taiwan does not limit the modernization effort China is putting into its amphibious forces. Landing craft and other technologies purloined from the West in the early years of the People’s Republic have given way to modern gear and indigenous designs. And, what may have been an ad hoc collection of forces has been replaced by a dedicated corps that continues to grow in size and effectiveness.

Estimates of the dates when China’s marine corps originated as a part of the PLA navy (PLAN) differ as greatly as the estimates of its size. The earliest date claimed is September 1950, which is the same time the navy was founded. The 1953 issue of Jane’s Fighting Ships was the first to have a Communist China entry, and it listed navy manning at 25,000 and credited marines with 28,000 men. This marine-force level remained at 28,000 through the book’s 1975 issue, although the navy increased to 170,000 men during that period. By 1989 the marine force had dropped to only 3,000 men with an increase to 25,000 in wartime. The 1992 publication showed a 25 percent reduction in navy manning to 260,000 men, but marines doubled to 6,000 men. The latest 2005 edition of Jane’s reports a 340,000-man navy.

Later historical milestones offer a more credible picture of Chinese marine manning numbers. For example, some sources claim that the marine corps was disbanded in 1957 or even 1977 because of budget cuts and was re-established in 1980. No PLAN marine corps is shown in a declassified 1979 U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) handbook organization chart of Chinese forces. Several important Chinese marine milestones occurred in 1980, including the formal establishment of the 1st Marine Brigade in Hainan of 6,000 men and a major new construction program of large amphibious ships.

Most revealing, the PLAN marine corps celebrated its 25th birthday in 2005. This is strong evidence that there was no real marine corps in China prior to 1980.

In addition to the 1980 Hainan brigade, a second marine brigade of 6,000 men was established in the Guangzhou military region in 1990. The PLA has a new light mechanized division—number 127—that specializes in amphibious landings, and it was a notable unit in Sino-Soviet joint landings that took place in 2005.

Criteria for identifying any nation’s marine corps should include unit emblems or badges and a unique marine uniform. All PLAN “marines” had worn navy jumpers, kapok life jackets and flat hats or PLA quilted uniforms and caps in all landings or other duties from 1950 up to the mid-1990s. A marine officer reportedly designed a unique marine camouflage pattern for marine personnel and equipment that appeared in 1994.

Also, the definition of “marines” means a force of officers and men who are full-time marines and not sailors or soldiers rotated or temporarily assigned as marines. It must be an independent organization with its own command chain. China did have amphibious training facilities in the 1950s and 1960s, but the amphibious troops wore sailor jumpers and flat hats or PLA caps and uniforms—hardly the hallmark of a full-time force.

The structure of today’s PLAN marine brigade has three levels. At the top is the brigade headquarters, which receives instructions on missions from a command center in Beijing or the South Fleet Headquarters. The brigade is divided into four areas of responsibility: command, political for party control, logistics for support and supply, and equipment. Each of these communicates with its five battalion commands and the regiment. Those battalions are infantry, the marine troops who number about 750; special operations, which are similar to U.S. Navy frogmen; air defense missile; engineer/chemical-biological; and communications/electronic warfare. A second organization level is the armor regiment, which controls its own organic battalions. Directly under the regiment are two tank battalions and three mechanized infantry battalions. In total, there are about 6,000 marines in each of the two South Fleet battalions.

Many Westerners believe that PLAN marines’ main purpose is related to invading Taiwan, but if that were true, these marines should have been based in the East Fleet in Fujian on the Taiwan Straits. In fact both marine brigades are in the southernmost area of the South Fleet. The expansion of China’s areas of control has been in the direction of the South China Sea for more than 30 years.

Chinese amphibious landings on offshore Nationalist China islands in 1950 showed no signs of trained marines or equipment, although the PLAN had many U.S.-built landing craft that were left behind in 1949 by the fleeing Nationalist forces. PLA army soldiers in sampans and civilian small craft waded ashore and captured Kwangsi, Lingkao and Chou Shan islands.

The PLA 4th Field Army invaded Hainan in April 1949, reinforced by the 15th Army Group in April 1950 with open small boats and civilian craft. Hainan was evacuated as indefensible by Nationalist forces in April 1950. The 40th Field Army declared the liberation of Hainan in July 1950.

Chinese troops were repulsed with heavy losses from Matsu and Quemoy in August and September of 1958. Again these were PLA soldiers and small craft with no support or air cover.

In 1974 China invaded the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. A PLA battalion was supported by 42 warships and two submarines, and they defeated the Vietnamese navy. The only documented use of a landing craft was in the fight for Duncan Island. MiG fighters from Hainan Island, two armed trawlers and four torpedo boats also participated. There has been a marine garrison on Woody Island in the Paracels and on a few reefs in the Spratly Islands for several years.

In 1988, China fought Vietnamese troops and warships in sea battles to seize the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Again, the landing ship tank (LST) and landing ship medium (LSM) amphibious vessels were used only for carrying supplies to support garrison troops after the occupation.

Chinese marines landed on uninhabited Da Lac coral reef in the Spratly Islands 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) south of Hainan in July 1992. China occupied Mischief Reef deep inside Philippine waters in 1995.

China tried to intimidate public voting in the 1996 Taiwan presidential election by launching IRBMs to impact off the island’s major seaport. This was followed by a highly publicized joint service amphibious landing in March at Fujian. Although it was claimed that PLAN marines were landing from amphibious ships, these forces actually were PLA 31st Army Infantry Division troops. Three of these divisions had been trained in amphibious landing operations.

The recent highly publicized 2005 Russia-China joint amphibious landings used the number 1 and number 124 amphibious mechanized divisions from the 1st and 42nd Army groups. The existence of new PLA amphibious divisions is puzzling, and their use rather than marines in these high-visibility exercises is even more puzzling.

An examination of Chinese marine corps photograph opportunity pictures from 1950 up to 2005 shows a sharp contrast among “marines” disembarking from landing craft along with amphibious tanks. This also shows differences in how all actual combat landings were conducted during that period.

China has employed a variety of amphibious landing craft. Among the U.S. landing craft it captured from fleeing Nationalist forces in 1949 were 26 LSTs, 14 LSMs and 200 landing craft mechanized (LCMs). Russia supplied about 30 more U.S. Lend Lease landing craft utility (LCUs) and LCMs, which originally were provided for a planned Soviet Pacific fleet invasion of Kyushu in 1945.

The first phase of PLAN amphibious craft from 1948 to 1961 consisted of foreign LCU, LCM, LSM and LST assets. The second phase featured PLAN building 30 Yuqin LCMs starting in 1962, followed later by 235 Yuchai and 23 Yunnan LCMs. These were all in the 30- to 65-ton range and mainly copies of World War II examples.

The third phase, which started in 1979, was the design and production of large amphibious craft, beginning with 4,100-ton Yukan LSTs. The following year, China built versatile Qingsha 2,150-ton transports. Although not specifically marine vessels, the conversion in 1980 of two Qingsha 2,100-ton troop transports to hospital ships shows that China planned on handling troop casualties from contested island invasions in the South Sea. The same year, production of 1,460-ton Yudao LSMs began. Obviously, 1980 was the time when amphibious construction attained very important priority in the PLAN construction goals. An improved and larger 4,800-ton series of Yuting LSTs began production in the 1990s.

The first hovercraft prototype was Dagu-A launched in 1979. A large 61-ton Jingsah II model appeared in 1994. Imagery of exercises since 1998 shows several small diesel-powered hovercraft exiting LSTs for the beaches with a dozen troops in each.

Marines worldwide desire naval shore bombardment units to cover their landing areas. Two recent PLAN vessels now serve this mission, and this shows a serious intent for opposed combat landings. One is the 053H FFG 516, which replaced a single-barrel 100-millimeter gun with two twin 100-millimeter mounts. It also features three general purpose, untrainable ballistic rocket launchers installed in place of two twin CSSN-2 surface-to-surface missile (SSM) launchers. The other ship is one of the four high-speed catamaran hulls 2208-2212 with four stealth shaped anti-ship SSM launchers. The four hulls were built at Quixin and Guangzhou shipyards in 2004, and number 2208 has been photographed in marine color paint. The use of high-speed catamaran missile boats, nicknamed “China Cats,” for specific marine landing support is unique among all navies.

Chinese marines traditionally have not received new arms upgrades before the PLA. In 2005, marine missile air defense battalions and a few high-technology elite units received the newest shoulder-launched QW-1 surface-to-air missile (SAM), replacing the HY-5A SAMs used for several decades.

Marine brigades never have had heavy artillery in their inventory. This changed in 2005 when marine armor battalions were upgraded with 152-millimeter and 122-millimeter self-propelled artillery. PLA copies of Soviet BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles, called Type 86, also have been added to marine units. Type 92 infantry fighting vehicles with new laser rangefinders along with Type 63A amphibious tanks have been added as well. This means that marine brigades are equipped comparably to PLA heavy motorized army groups.

Marines need good communications systems, but photographs of PLAN marines in exercises show no manpack tactical radios being carried or in use. The only antennas seen are 10-foot whip antennas on their Type 63A amphibious tanks and Type 63/89 armored personnel carriers.

Many command and control links are based on equipment known to have been used by the PLA 20 years ago, which relied heavily on copied Soviet designs. Starting at the brigade level, the B-611 portable communication switchboard has 10 lines to link to the regiment and battalions. A version copied from the Soviet vehicle-mounted R-4011 very high frequency (VHF) radio relay equipment passes orders down to battalions. The armored regiment 3-megahertz (MHz) to 5-MHz high frequency (HF) A-222 transceiver links to its armored battalions, which in turn relay this information to lower levels.

A battalion uses 40-MHz to 50-MHz VHF Type 883 transceiver equipment. Many different frequencies and transceivers are assigned to generic battalion groups. Tank battalions use the A-220 in 20 MHz to 23 MHz, which is in the HF band. Artillery battalions use A-211 transceivers at 28 MHz to 35 MHz in both the HF and VHF bands. Infantry battalions use A-130B transceivers in the 35-MHz to 46-MHz VHF band. On the beach, 75-watt Type 601 radio transmitters use the 2-MHz to 12-MHz HF band, and vehicle Type 148 receivers cover the 1-MHz to 15-MHz band. Platoons use manpack Type 139 receivers to link to their battalions.

PLAN marines also are likely to use newer PLA communication equipment. HF manpack radios include a 20-watt BTC-20A model with 10 channels as well as the BT-DO3 5-watt frequency-hopping single sideband (SSB) transceiver. A VHF frequency hopping PRC-2188 backpack and 50-watt model PRC-189 tank and armored-personnel-carrier-mounted transceiver also are used. Most radios can be matched with different antennas to extend range, and they can be vehicle mounted or carried by marines. For example, the HF model XD-D9V transceiver has a 20-kilometer range with a 2.4-meter whip antenna, a 150-kilometer range with a 12-meter antenna, and a 300-kilometer range with a 44-meter antenna. Modern fixed ground-based/vehicle staff equipment includes the 400-watt  JF-441 HF transmitter and several HF SSB transceivers for short, medium or long ranges.

It is very possible that modern, new broadband technology radios have been sold to China by Western countries or that the technology has been stolen and copied, but open literature has no details on this.

James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface-ship antisubmarine fire control systems.

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