China

China’s marines, and how they compare with those in the west

How the PLA Navy Marine Corps is evolving, and how it compares to the USMC and Royal Marines.

When learning about China’s marine corps, it is worth remembering the term Duō gōngnéng xìng (多功能性.)

This is the Chinese word for ‘versatility’, and versatile is certainly something the PLANMC (People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps) is aiming to be.

Until fairly recently, it was a force of just two brigades with an overall size of 12,000 personnel, comparable in size to the Royal Marines, which has 8,000, with reserves. However, since 2017, the PLANMC has expanded from two brigades to eight, with the aim of eventually having 100,000 personnel. This would make it more comparable to the US Marine corps, which has 186,000 full-time marines.

This metamorphosis is occurring because the PLANMC’s mission is changing along with China’s overall military strategy, which is evolving towards one of protecting trade networks and interests overseas.

Whereas it was once a primarily amphibious force, the PLANMC is now expanding and adapting so that it will be able to operate in varied environments and in multiple situations, in the littoral domain as well as further inland. Since 2014, Chinese marines have conducted cold weather training in inner Mongolia and Xinjiang province, as well as joint training with Russian forces in the Mediterranean and Baltic.

What follows is a look at the current state of China’s marine corps, as well as a brief examination of how it compares to its British and American counterparts.

Individual weapons

While the average Royal Marine carries an L-85A2 assault rifle, and American marines now have M27s, the Chinese use a bullpup rifle that looks closer to the French FAMAS.

However, looks can be deceiving because, as Guns and Ammo point out, China’s main assault rifle, the Qing Bu-Qiang Zi-Dong 1995 Si (or just QBZ 95), is not really a copy so much as the end result of years of Chinese experimentation with weapon design.

Just as the L-85 is part of the SA80 family of weapons, the QBZ 95 is the primary weapon in a series, with a number of closely related variants.

Like the L-85, its range is about 400 metres and it takes a 30-round clip, though with cartridges of 5.8mm rather than 5.56, and it has a rate of automatic fire of 650 rounds a minute. Where it differs is in weight, being considerably lighter than the L-85’s 5 kilograms, at just 3.25 kilos.

It is also short, being just 24 inches in length.

Some reports point out that this, combined with its light weight, makes it ideal for an infantry force that operates out of many vehicles, as China’s mechanised marine infantry largely do.

Chinese marine during Rim of the Pacific exercise 2016 DVIDS
A Chinese marine with a QBZ 95 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

On the downside, it has also been reported that the recoil dampener reduces accuracy, but that this might not matter so much in an overwhelmingly large Chinese military with multitudes of troops all firing their weapons.

Reports have also drawn attention to the other main problem with the weapon: the fact that its small size means it is difficult or impossible to upgrade it with multiple add-ons like night sights, scopes, flashlights etc.

Continuing this theme, the QBZ 191, China’s next generation assault rifle has also been under the military media spotlight. This weapon more closely resembles the American or M-16 or M-27 assault rifles, and will therefore have the length and space for additional equipment to be stuck on when required.

However, most of the available pictures of China’s marines indicate that the QBZ 95 is still in use with them.

Vehicles

While the Royal Marines have their Vikings and the USMC their Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs), Chinese marines use a family of vehicles dubbed the Typoe-05. These are designed to help get them ashore and then support them on the ground.

The Type 05 looks a little bit like an enclosed Higgins boat that the Western Allies used to get onto the beaches of Normandy during D-Day. Though, this ‘Chinese Higgins Boat’ has tracks, guns, and propellers that can reputedly send it through the water at an impressive 45 kilometres an hour.

The basic Type-05 model is the ZBD-05, which is armed with a 30mm cannon and can carry eight marines and a crew of three.

Heavier variants are the ZTD-05, which has a 105mm gun, and the PLZ-07B, which is a 122mm self-propelled howitzer.

The ZBD-05, the main version of the Type 05 amphibious vehicle used by China’s marines, the PLANMC (Picture: Alamy F13G5T).
The ZBD-05, the main version of the Type 05 amphibious vehicle used by China’s marines, the PLANMC (Picture: Alamy F13G5T).

These vehicles are examined by Captain Michael A Hanson at the US Naval Institute in his article 'China's Marine Corps Is on the Rise'. Captain Hanson says the PLANMC may also have additional amphibious support in the form of wheeled vehicles known as the VP-10 and the ZTL-11. He reports that a VP-10 was even sighted in 2018 painted up in the PLANMC’s distinctive blue square camouflage colour scheme.

Both these vehicles look a bit like Boxers and have 105mm guns. If they were used by China’s marines, they might give additional support in pushing inland during an invasion (of, for instance, Taiwan.) Hanson also notes, however, that the VP-10 and ZTL-11 are not very well armoured and would have trouble against strong defences.

Chinese marines may also have at their disposal the PLL-09 self-propelled gun, which has a 122mm cannon, and one that may even have a version with a precision strike laser guided shell. And there has even been a light tank called the ZTQ-15 sighted in PLANMC colours, again making Chinese marines a bit more like the USMC, which had its own tanks up until early 2021.

The marines are also supported by the PLAN (Peope’s Liberation Army Navy.) As Conor Kennedy reports for the US Naval War College, as of October 2021 the PLAN has commissioned its first Type 075 LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) and has two more on the way. According to Hanson, these huge vessels are 800 feet long, displace 40,000 tons of water and can carry 900 marines (i.e. essentially an entire battalion’s worth) as well as 30 helicopters and 12 amphibious fighting vehicles.

The PLAN also has a number of Type 071 amphibious transport dock vessels, which displace 25,000 tons of water and can carry 600 to 800 marines.

The PLANMC’s helicopter force, meanwhile, is less well developed, and will be touched on below.

Size and structure

As of late 2021, the PLANMC is partway between its old structure of two brigades and 12,000 personnel and its planned reformation into a giant maritime expeditionary force containing 100,000 personnel.

There are six main brigades of 6,000 marines, with two supporting brigades, one aviation and one of special operations forces.

Chinese marines seen during Rim of the Pacific Exercise 2016 DVIDS
Chinese marines taking part in Exercise Rim of the Pacific in 2016 (Picture: US Department of Defense).

This force is not as large as it looks on paper, however, since, as of late 2021, only three of the main brigades would be ready to participate in any major operation (such as an invasion of Taiwan.)

As Conor Kennedy explains in his report ‘China Maritime Report No. 15: The New Chinese Marine Corps: A "Strategic Dagger" in a Cross-Strait Invasion’, this would equate to six amphibious mechanised infantry battalions (the primary marine units.) Though in future, Kennedy notes that this could swell to 12 battalions, with an additional 12 supporting battalions (six light mechanised and six air assault) for a total of 24.

The USMC has 24 full-time marine infantry battalions. However, it also has various other aviation and logistical support units, so while the PLANMC is catching up in terms of size, it is still quite a way from being directly comparable to the US Marine Corps.

Chinese marines doing a steeplechase contest in Qingdao in 2019 (Picture: T6A9F2).
Chinese marines doing a steeplechase contest in Qingdao in 2019 (Picture: T6A9F2).

However, in many ways the PLANMC is becoming more like the USMC in its increasing versatility and self-sufficiency, which of course it needs to if it is to fulfil its intended role of what has been called near defence as well as far protection (i.e. of trade routes, overseas interests.)

The US Marine Corps achieves power projection by being able to form into variously sized MAGTFs (Marine Air-Ground Task Forces), which consist of infantry, logistical and aviation support elements, all backed up by the powerful US Navy.

In the Chinese case, Kennedy points out that although the 7th Aviation Brigade uses Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters, and may also use Z-10s and Z-20s in future, this is still a weak area for the PLANMC. Although it is likely to improve in time, at present, the PLANMC’s aviation brigade may not even have received all its required aircraft.

Its strength seems to lie in the large number of fast-moving Type 05 amphibious vehicles, profiled above. In fact, they are an integral part of the makeup of each brigade’s two amphibious combined arms battalions.

Kennedy’s breakdown of these units shows the degree to which China’s marine corps is working towards becoming increasingly versatile, with each company having support from 14 Type-05 (ZBD-05 and ZTD-05) vehicles, for 56 per battalion and 112 per brigade:

4 mechanised infantry companies, each with 14 Type-05 (ZBD-05 and ZTD-05) amphibous vehicles

1 firepower company

1 reconnaissance platoon

An air defence element

An artillery element

An engineer element

A repair team

Chinese marines participating in a shooting contest in 2019 Alamy T6A9ER
Chinese marines participating in a shooting contest in 2019 (Picture: Alamy T6A9ER).

Still not a full invasion force

Kennedy’s paper examines the structure of the PLANMC with particular attention being paid to its use in a potential invasion of Taiwan. Somewhat counterintuitively from Western perspective, the increasingly large versatile Chinese marine corps would not, in fact, be the main invasion force.

In fact, the move by the PLANMC towards it being a more versatile force is the main reason for this lack of independence. The People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) would use its own amphibious units to attack the main landing sites, while the now less specialised and more-well-rounded PLANMC would use its wider remit to perform supporting roles.

As Kennedy explains:

“Supported by combined precision information and firepower offensive capabilities, (PLANMC) forces will conduct rapid precision maneuver to strike weak areas throughout an adversary’s depth to exploit gaps, outflank them, and divide their defensive system. This is meant to paralyze the enemy, increase operational effects, and reduce friendly exposure on the ground.”

According to the report, they would likely be used for pre-invasion reconnaissance (of beaches), mine clearance and obstacle destruction, and possibly even feint attacks designed to draw attention away from the centre of an intended larger incursion.

Special operations forces

As for special forces, the “Jiaolong” Commandos were transferred from the PLAN to the PLANMC and make up the 3,000-strong Special Operations Brigade, based on the island of Hainan off the very southern tip of China.

In a Business Insider article entitled 'How China's special forces stack up against the US's special operators', Stavros Atlamazoglou points out that the remit of Chinese special operations forces is narrower than their western counterparts. They focus on direct action, counterterrorism and special reconnaissance without having wider roles in mentoring foreign allied troops, or in hostage rescue.

They also do not have the same level of maritime or aviation support (i.e. insertion platforms) as those in the US or UK, though this is being addressed with additional aviation units.

In this way, Chinese marine special operations forces may improve their capabilities in tandem with the marine corps as a whole.

This is very much in line with what Kennedy says about the PLANMC likely taking on more roles in an attempted invasion of Taiwan as its personnel continue to improve their capabilities.

Chinese marines taking part in a drill with the PLAN in southern China in 2016 Alamy 2EWJRWF
Chinese marines taking part in a drill with the PLAN in southern China in 2016 (Picture: Alamy 2EWJRWF).