China shows large amphibious hovercrafts and a new 50 ton seaplane will support South China Sea operations

A new Chinese-built seaplane could help seal Beijing’s control over its claims in the South China Sea (SCS), say military specialists on China.

The Jiaolong (Water Dragon) AG600, under construction by China Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA), will be China’s largest operational seaplane.

The aircraft is powered by four turboprop WJ-6 engines and has a range of 5,500 kilometers, which would provide substantial movement within the SCS. In the Spratly Islands, China is currently constructing artificial islands on Hughes Reef, Johnson South Reef and Gaven Reef.

Despite the lack of direct mainland access to Beijing’s strategic claims in the SCS, the aircraft are seen as a boon to solidifying control of the area by China’s military and maritime enforcement agencies for island hopping within the crowded clusters of the 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands in the Spratly Islands archipelago.

“Amphibious planes like the AG600 would be perfect for resupplying the new artificial islands that the Chinese are building in the SCS,” said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The AG600’s maiden flight should be in 2016.

The amphibious aircraft, developed for sea rescue and firefighting missions, can takeoff from land or water and has a maximum takeoff weight of over 50 tons. It is capable of rescuing 50 people at a time on sea rescue missions.

Russia and Japan are the only other countries in the world to have developed large-sized amphibious aircraft, though the AG600 is the largest of the three and has only taken six years to reach this stage since the project was initiated in 2009.

Other large-sized aircraft being developed by China include the C919 narrow-body twin-engine jet airliner and the Y-20 large military transport aircraft.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) featured one of its Zubr-class landing craft air cushion (LCAC aka hovercraft) for the first time in an amphibious landing exercise.

According to IHS Jane’s Fighting Ships , the Zubr-class (Project 1232.2 class, ‘Pomornik’) LCAC is capable of embarking three MBTs or 10 armoured personnel carriers with 230 troops. The vessel, referred to in Chinese media as the ‘Bison hovercraft’, has a top speed of 60 kt and a range of 300 n miles at 55 kt.

IHS Jane’s reported in 2009 that the PLAN was procuring four Zubr-class LCACs from Ukraine – two of which are being built in China – in a deal estimated to be worth USD315 million.

China’s military has doubled the size of its Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division (AMID) from about 30,000 to 60,000 men for a potential conflict in the East and South China seas as well as with Taiwan.

Not everyone is convinced that the doubling of AMIDs will necessarily pose a bigger concern to Taiwan. Former Republic of China Marine Corps colonel, Yi-Jia Shiah, said AMIDs are fundamentally different to marines and that the threat is not as serious as publicized, though increased cooperation between the two units will have to be closely monitored.