China Reportedly Converted Civilian Ferries for Military Assault Operations

Amid growing tensions with Taiwan, China has reportedly converted civilian ferries for use in military amphibious assault operations. 

According to a new report in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, since 2019, the roll-on/roll-off ferry Bang Chui Dao has been fitted with a modified ramp capable of launching and recovering amphibious armored vehicles while offshore. 

This means that the ship can launch and recover vehicles without port facilities. This is different from typical roll-on/roll-off vessels, which have straight hydraulic ramps for vehicles to drive on or off while ships are in port. 

According to the Jamestown Foundation’s report – published by Conor Kennedy, an instructor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute – the modified ramp is “driven directly by two large hydraulic cylinders and two support arms.” 

“When conducting launch and recovery, these are connected between the top of the hydraulic mounting assemblies on the inner ramp and the top of the freight deck threshold to provide the strength and leverage required to deploy the ramp into the water and withstand sea action,” the report reads. 

It continues: “the support arms also act as preventers at maximum extension, while the ramp is kept rigid by the hydraulic cylinders. A longer outer ramp flap has also been added, controlled by another set of hydraulic cylinders mounted on the underside or backside of the ramp. These help to provide strength at the end of the outer ramp and may also allow for further articulation to help vehicles get on the inner ramp.” 

Indeed, exercises with civilian RO/RO ferries aren’t uncommon in China. The Bang Chui Dao took part in training exercises in August of 2020, and more exercises continued this year.  

China’s relatively modest high-end amphibious assault capabilities have been viewed as a key impediment to its ability to invade Taiwan. The conversion of more civilian ferries with the modified ramp would ultimately improve the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to surge its amphibious forces in a contingency, per Defense News.

The report identified 63 vessels that could potentially be converted. 

“If successful, the nation “could potentially increase its [cross-Taiwan Strait] sealift capacity immensely, removing one of the major obstacles to [an] invasion of Taiwan,” Thomas Shugart, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said.