South China Sea: China Debuts Helicopter with ‘Amphibious’ Role

A U.S. CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter maneuvers under the gray sky during a joint military exercise called Philippines-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX) in Ternate, Cavite province, southern Philippines, Friday, Sept. 20, 2013. Philippine officials recently said they will soon begin negotiations with the United States on a larger American military …
Aaron Favila/AP Photo

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) recently debuted its latest transport helicopter, the Z-8L, capable of transporting an all-terrain assault vehicle.

The Z-8L is expected to enter service with PLA aerial assault troops “and to play a major role in multiple scenarios including amphibious assault missions,” military analysts told the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) newspaper Global Times on Tuesday.

The domestically developed Z-8L is the first helicopter of its type in the 15 ton-class in China. The helicopter “will be commissioned into the PLA’s aerial assault forces to enhance the troops’ comprehensive transport and overall combat capability,” according to the report.

“In addition to operating in a wide range of terrains including plains, valleys, and plateaus, the Z-8L can also join cross-sea amphibious assault missions when paired up with amphibious landing and assault ships,” an anonymous Chinese “military expert” told the newspaper.

According to the CCP mouthpiece, China’s PLA has in recent years attached increasing importance to “helicopters and vertical landing tactics in its amphibious landing missions. It has launched two Type 075 amphibious assault ships, also known as helicopter carriers, since 2019.”

Last week, state-run China Central Television (CCTV) reported that the PLA 71st Group Army recently conducted drills involving multiple types of helicopters in the Yellow Sea, located between China and the Korean Peninsula. The helicopters practiced deck-landing training on a semi-submersible vessel, fuel and ammunition replenishment, and emergency repair on a civilian semi-submersible ship.

“According to the training scenario, after the multi-type helicopters flied [sic] to the target island, the transport helicopter selected a site for landing with the attack helicopter on alert overhead. Then the transport helicopter carried the mocked wounded soldiers to a civilian semi-submersible vessel for a replenishment-at-sea,” China Military Online, the PLA’s official English news website, reported.

The Global Times quoted “Beijing-based naval expert” Li Jie as saying that the large decks of semi-submersible ships may serve as “temporary helicopter carriers, landing decks, and maintenance centers.”

“In a potential major mission on large islands or reefs, they can be deployed to become maritime relay platforms to extend the combat radius of helicopters,” Li explained.

The PLA’s debut of its new helicopter comes as China’s military says it will hold “three separate naval exercises and live-fire drills simultaneously this week, with one of them covering parts of the South China Sea disputed between China, Taiwan, and Vietnam,” Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Monday.

On Friday, the Maritime Safety Administration of Hainan — China’s southernmost island province located east of Vietnam in the South China Sea — announced that a military exercise would be held in an area near Vietnam’s Paracel Islands from August 24-29. The notice “warned outside vessels to steer five nautical miles clear of the drill area but otherwise gave no details,” according to RFA.

The Paracel Islands are a disputed island chain located southeast of Hainan and east of Vietnam in the north of the South China Sea. Beijing illegally claims the archipelago and has established a military base on the Paracels’ largest islet, Woody Island. The boundaries of the PLA exercises slated for this week include Woody Island and the waters northeast of the Paracels near Pratas Atoll, claimed by Taiwan, according to the report.

RFA said it had viewed recent satellite imagery revealing “some of China’s aircraft and warships that may have been positioned in the South China Sea ahead of time, either to participate in the exercise or to provide supplies to China’s disparate outposts.”

“Four fighter jets and multiple military transport aircraft were stationed at Woody Island, a prime staging area for China’s military operations in the South China Sea, on August 17, and one fighter jet and what appears to be a military transport aircraft remained there on August 22,” RFA reported.

“What appears to be a Y-8 military transport aircraft is at Fiery Cross Reef, another Chinese base in the [Philippines’] Spratly Islands south of the Paracels, as of Monday, after what looked to be a Type 904 supply ship stopped by last Friday,” according to the report.

China’s PLA has conducted an increasing number of exercises in or near the South China Sea recently. According to RFA, the tempo of the military drills “is rising this week, with three exercises around the same time. Live-fire drills began off the coast of Qingdao [on the shore of China’s Yellow Sea coast] on Saturday and are set to end on Wednesday, and China is also currently in the middle of an exercise in Bohai Bay [located in the innermost gulf of the Yellow Sea] that began last Friday and runs until this Friday.”

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