According to recent videos released by Chinese state agency CCTV, an aviation brigade of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF) conducted drills displaying their capabilities to use commercial ships for military purposes.
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The video shows the Z-19 and Z-8 helicopters landing and taking off from a commercial semi-submersible heavy-lift ship’s deck, marked with three operating spots. The Z-19 is a light reconnaissance and attack helicopter developed by Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation. The Z-8 is a heavy transport helicopter, used in logistics and other utility duties.
The video showed that the crew performed aircraft refueling using conventional fuel bowser lorries on the ship and re-arming the Z-19 with missiles. These capabilities would give the aviation brigade of the PLAGF effective mobile maintenance and refueling hub for the aircraft during a conflict.
According to Janes, the video was edited to conceal the name of the ship involved, but Rod Lee, Director of Research at the China Aerospace Studies Institute (CASI) of the US Air Force’s Air University, identified it as Zhen Hua 28, which is registered in Hong Kong and operated by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries (ZPMC). The ship is 232 m long with a beam of 42 m and a gross tonnage of over 40,000 tonnes.
It was known using online ship data that the ship had arrived at the Yellow Sea port of Lianyungang on 5 August and sailed for the exercise on 8 August, with the work required to configure the temporary flight deck undertaken during the period alongside.
The exercise demonstrates China’s increasing capabilities and innovative tactics used by the People’s Liberation Army to flex its muscles at sea, showing that even commercial semi-submersible heavy lift ships could be used as small helicopter carriers.
Commercial ships can act as a disguise for being a forward maintenance base and will enhance the tactical options available to commanders in the field.