Mind the Gap, Part 2: The Cross-Strait Potential of China’s Civilian Shipping Has Grown
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles on China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off ferries and the role they could play in an invasion of Taiwan. The first article was published in August 2021.
The Chang Da Long is a model of civil-military integration. Built in 2012 as a vehicle carrier, the ship has already demonstrated its ability to carry cars in its commercial capacity and tanks when participating in Chinese military exercises. This, presumably, is what its builders meant when they described it as having a “military heart” with a “civilian shell.”
In August 2021, I discussed how China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off car ferries and vehicle carriers could significantly enhance its ability to launch an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Having updated the numbers and looked more closely at how they translate into military potential, I believe the capacity of China’s civilian fleet is considerably greater and more threatening than it appeared at that time.
With tensions around Taiwan rising and Russia’s attack against Ukraine on everyone’s mind, analysts continue to debate whether China has — or at least thinks it has — the ability to successfully invade Taiwan. As I argued before, civilian ferries represent an underappreciated source of cross-strait sealift. This challenges the comforting assumption that the Chinese military is constrained by a lack of sufficient traditional amphibious assault ships.
In the past year, the size of China’s civilian ferry and vehicle carrier fleets has grown, and my research has identified additional civilian vessels that could be used for an amphibious invasion. Moreover, given how well-suited China’s roll-on/roll-off vessels are to the task of delivering personnel and vehicles across the Taiwan Strait, they could prove more effective militarily than many imagine. As a result, Washington should work with Taipei now to develop the survivable sea denial forces and rules of engagement that would be necessary to interdict an invasion fleet that exploits the full potential of China’s military-civil fusion.
Updating the Numbers
As with last year’s analysis, I conducted a survey of large, oceangoing Chinese- and Hong Kong-owned or flagged roll-on/roll-off ferries and vehicle carriers, using publicly-available Automatic Information System data. I counted only vessels in active use — those either broadcasting data in real time or having done so within the previous few weeks. Last year, I estimated that China’s roll-on/roll-off ferries totaled roughly 750,000 displacement tons, and its vehicle carriers about 425,000 tons. In all, this represents 1.1 million-plus tons of potential transport capacity. This was more than three times the tonnage of the Chinese navy’s entire fleet of traditional amphibious assault ships, which was about 370,000 tons. I also estimated that Hong Kong-owned or flagged vehicle carriers, if available to the Chinese military, could potentially add another 370,000 tons, for a total of 1.5 million tons of civilian shipping.
When I repeated my analysis this year, I identified roughly 2.4 million tons of potential transport capacity. As shown in this table, there are significant increases in every category of vessel. However, the vast majority of the increase was due not to new Chinese ship construction, but instead to finding vessels that weren’t captured in last year’s survey. In terms of actual new construction, China’s fleets added four new ferries totaling about 56,000 tons, and three new vehicle carriers totaling about 55,000 tons. The most dramatic change was in Hong Kong-owned/flagged vehicle carriers, which showed an increase of 575,000 tons. This represents vessels that were already in service but were not captured in my 2021 data. The Chinese navy’s traditional amphibious assault ship fleet has grown as well in the last year. With the commissioning of a second 40,000-ton Type 075 assault ship in late 2021, and the commissioning of a third either complete or imminent, I estimate this fleet has now grown to roughly 450,000 tons.
From Tonnage to Military Potential
Beyond the sheer additional tonnage of China’s roll-on/roll-off fleets, the nature of these commercial vessels could make them exceptionally well-suited for supporting a cross-strait invasion. This can be seen clearly when they are compared to longer-range expeditionary amphibious assault vessels of a similar size. For example, the U.S. Navy’s San Antonio-class (LPD 17) amphibious transport is purpose-built for expeditionary amphibious operations, can launch helicopters, hovercraft, and landing craft, and can transport a landing force of up to 800 U.S. marines at sea for months at a time. Weighing in at 24,900 displacement tons, it has about 25,000 square feet of vehicle storage, and costs roughly $1.5 billion to procure. For comparison, consider the Chinese ferry Zhong Hua Fu Xing, delivered in 2019 to the Bo Hai Ferry Company, which is organized as the Eighth Transport Group of the Chinese maritime militia’s strategic support ship fleet. At about 23,000 displacement tons, this ferry is slightly smaller than the San Antonio class. But, being optimized for shorter-term point-to-point operations, it can carry more than 1,300 passengers and boasts almost 65,000 square feet of vehicle storage, more than 2.5 times the San Antonio class. Its apparent procurement cost was 420 million Chinese yuan in 2019, or about $70 million in today’s U.S. dollars — less than one-twentieth the cost of a San Antonio-class ship. The comparison with China’s vehicle carriers is even more dramatic. Just one of those vessels — which have taken part in military exercises before — contains over 280,000 square feet of vehicle storage, more than 10 times as much as a San Antonio-class amphibious transport.
More important than the capacity of individual ships is the total capacity of China’s ferries and vehicles to help deliver Chinese forces en masse to Taiwan’s shores. Starting with the survey data discussed above, and using sample Chinese ferries and vehicle carriers for which specific capacity data exists, I estimated the total square footage of vehicles and cargo they could deliver. Applying guidance from a U.S. publication that governs amphibious operations, and using sealift requirement data available for similar-sized U.S. units adjusted for assessed differences in Chinese unit structure, I was able to estimate roughly how much sealift capacity would be required to transport various People’s Liberation Army Ground Force units. China would utilize many different types of maneuver brigades, but as a standard unit of measure I settled on the army’s largest and heaviest brigade: the heavy Combined Arms Brigade, which consists of more than 5,000 troops and is roughly equivalent to a U.S. Army Armored Brigade Combat Team. To check the quality of my estimations, I looked at the abovementioned Chang Da Long vehicle carrier’s performance in previous military exercises. Able to easily load heavy armor like main battle tanks, it is said to be able to deliver two full mechanized infantry battalions at a time. This fits with my estimation that the ship could deliver 1.9 heavy combined-arms battalions.
In the first wave of an assault the Chinese navy’s traditional amphibious assault ships could deliver roughly one heavy brigade’s worth of equipment (though likely spread over a larger number of lighter amphibious brigades) and about 21,000 troops. This pales in comparison to the capacity of its civilian fleet. For my calculations, I considered only those ferries owned by companies that are either — like the Bo Hai Ferry Company — known to be organized as maritime militia strategic support fleets, or whose ships have taken part in previous military exercises. These ferries could deliver more than two additional heavy brigades’ worth of equipment, with amphibious vehicles delivered directly to the beach with modified ramps, while other vehicles could be delivered via temporary beach causeways or captured ports. If temporary piers or captured ports were available for China’s military-associated vehicle carriers, they could deliver at least five more heavy brigades’ worth of equipment. When combined with the Chinese navy’s sealift capacity, this means that China could deliver more than eight heavy brigades-worth of equipment, and about 60,000 troops, in the first sealift wave. And this would be in addition to those forces that could be delivered by airdrop, helicopter, or via surreptitious infiltration in the weeks or months leading up to an invasion.
Just as important as the size of a first wave would be the ability of China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off vessels and amphibious assault ships to continue to deliver vehicles and troops. Here is where China’s civilian vessels could truly shine, given that their commercial purpose is to quickly load and deliver cargo. Based on what I consider to be realistic assumptions about transit speed, distance, turnaround times, and maintenance availability, I estimate that China’s military-associated roll-on/roll-off vessels could deliver more than 2,000,000 square feet of vehicles per day — more than four heavy brigades’ worth of equipment. Over time, this roll-on/roll-off civilian shipping alone could deliver seven full Group Armies with their associated brigades — likely more than 300,000 troops and their vehicles — in about 10 days.
There are a number of reasons that some readers and analysts are likely to discount the feasibility of using civilian shipping in the manner and at the scale described above. First, some are likely to question the survivability or defensibility of civilian vessels in a high-intensity conflict when compared to dedicated amphibious assault ships. Such an assessment, however, overlooks the fact that even naval amphibious assault vessels have quite limited self-defense capability. As an example, the Department of Defense’s own director of operational test and evaluation assessed that the defenses of the San Antonio-class ships discussed above “did not demonstrate adequate capability to defend the ship against the threats it is likely to encounter.” The Chinese military is well aware that amphibious assault shipping, whether painted navy gray or some other color, is vulnerable and as such must be defended. This is why the People’s Liberation Army has long been fixated with seizing what it calls the “Three Dominances” — information dominance, air dominance, and sea dominance — as the first step in a landing campaign.
For those who wonder if China’s civilian shipping can really carry armored vehicles, or might be particularly vulnerable to battle damage, there is little cause for comfort. China’s ferries have been built to defense standards as dual-purpose vessels for at least a decade, with additional legislation in recent years further ensuring this. These vessels are routinely used to carry Chinese main battle tanks, and when used for combat operations will have additional life-saving and fire-fighting facilities at hand.
Finally, some analysts are likely to point out that China will face other challenges, such as port loading, conducting logistics over the shore, or a lack of joint warfighting effectiveness. That may be true. My point is that sealift capacity may not be the limiting factor many assume. This is all the more reason for Washington to focus on other factors that might still preclude a cross-strait invasion.
As retired intelligence analyst Lonnie Henley stated, “the [Chinese military] does not regard civilian shipping as a stopgap measure until more [People’s Liberation Army Navy] amphibious shipping can be built, but as a central feature of its preferred approach.” China appears to have recently completed its largest exercise yet using civilian ferries and vehicle carriers — one that employed half of the vessels owned by China’s largest ferry operator. By my calculations, the ships involved in this single exercise could have delivered over 80 percent of a Chinese heavy brigade’s equipment, as well as more than 10,000 personnel.
All this means that China could have the ability to conduct a successful invasion sooner than many would like to think. In response, Taiwan and its partners should take urgent action to deploy, at scale and in a survivable manner, the numbers of advanced anti-ship missiles and mines that will be required to stop dozens of landing ships — of all flavors — even if those ships are surrounded and screened by hundreds of escort ships and decoy vessels. Both the Taiwanese and American intelligence communities should start watching China’s key civilian shipping in the same way they watch its naval vessels. Planners in Taipei and Washington should also decide in advance at what point they would be willing to start shooting at these ostensibly civilian targets. The Chinese military has an explicit goal of disrupting command and control well before an invasion commences, making that time a poor one for nuanced discussions of rules of engagement. China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off vessel fleet enhances the immediacy and the complexity of the invasion threat facing Taiwan. Washington should start preparing now to counter it.
Retired Capt. Thomas Shugart, U.S. Navy, is a former submarine warfare officer, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the founder of Archer Strategic Consulting.
Image: Wikimedia Commons