Satellite imagery shows China using civilian ferries in sea assault drills

Recent large-scale Chinese exercises simulating a possible invasion of Taiwan included one notable element: civilian ferries. These were placed offshore and used to launch and recover amphibious assault vehicles. In total, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) used seven ferries in its exercises.

The use of civilian ferries to reinforce military amphibious warfare vessels is not a new idea and they have been spotted in Chinese exercises for years. However, until now it was generally believed that they would only be used to bring in additional forces after a military assault; recent footage confirmed that ZTD-05 VN-16 amphibious armored vehicles were launched directly from the ferries.

Chinese amphibious assault vehicles during training (China MoD)

While analysts had previously noted that these ships were leaving their regular routes at the end of August, it was not until the end of September that Maxar Technologies released satellite images dated August 31 of the ferries participating in the Chinese exercises. Center for a New American Security defense analyst Tom Shugart took a closer look at the footage and identified the seven ferries as Bo Hai Cui Zhu, Bo Hai Heng Tong, Bo Hai Jin Zhu, Bo Hai Jing Zhu , Bo Hai Ma Zhu, Bo Hai Yu Zhu and Bo Hai Zuan Zhu.

These ships offer extremely impressive transport capacities. The RoRo ferry Bo Hai Heng Tong alone has a parking lane 2.6 kilometers long and 3 meters wide. According to Shugart, that’s about three times the capacity of a San Antonio-class amphibious warfare ship. US military ships have to use a lot of space to support marines for weeks at sea when these civilian ferries would only have a much more limited military mission – to ferry forces across the Taiwan Strait quickly.

USS San Antonio (LPD-17) (US Navy)

China has long relied on civilian ships to augment its military forces in a wide range of contexts. Probably the most famous element of this is the “maritime militia” that China uses to defend its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea through hybrid warfare.