A 22,000-tonne landing helicopter dock (LHD) under development in China has sparked alarm in defense circles in Taiwan, with some analysts saying the ship could cause a “strategic shift” in the Taiwan Strait.
The design, first unveiled by state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Co (CSIC, 中國船舶重工集團公司) — the country’s largest shipbuilding conglomerate — at the Defense and Security 2012 exhibition in Bangkok in early March, is believed to be the Type 081 LHD that defense enthusiasts have been expecting for years.
According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, CSIC confirmed the existence of a Type 081 program in 2007, but at the time it refused to disclose further details. The design phase of the vessel was reportedly completed in 2006, with engineering design beginning soon afterwards.
The 211m long LHD will be capable of carrying an impressive eight helicopters on deck, with hangar space for four more, or for hovercraft. It will also have capacity to accommodate 1,068 marines and will be equipped with phased-array radar, four short-range air-defense launchers and anti-submarine warfare capability.
Its operational range is expected to be 7,000 nautical miles (13,000km), with an endurance of up to 30 days at sea.
The Type 081 was reportedly inspired by the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship operated by the French Navy. Some analysts have also pointed to similarities with the 18,000-tonne Hyuga-class helicopter carrier used by the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force since 2009.
Defense analysts say CSIC is fully capable of building the LHD, especially following the experience gained by Chinese shipbuilders with three 20,000-tonne Type 071 Yuzhao-class amphibious transport docks, the last of which was launched in September, with a fourth rumored to be on the way. Despite having a similar displacement to the Type 081, the Type 071 can only accommodate two Z-8 heavy transport helicopters.
Assuming that the timeframe for construction of the Type 081 is similar to that for the Type 071, the first Type 081 could be launched as early as 2014. China’s first Type 071 was launched in December 2006, two years after the model was first unveiled.
Some reports indicate that the People’s Liberation Army Navy might be seeking to acquire as many as three Type 081s for its operations.
The Chinese government has yet to confirm whether CSIC has begun construction of the Type 081.
Given its ability to carry various types of helicopters — Z-8 and Z-9 transport and Z-10 attack helicopters, among others — a large number of marines and landing craft, analysts are saying that the Type 081 would greatly enhance the Chinese navy’s ability to launch humanitarian operations as well as project force beyond its shores, a reflection of the strategic choices made by the Chinese navy in recent years.
It would also play a key, possibly game-changing role in any amphibious assault on Taiwan or against other adversaries in the South China Sea.