Chinese Ro-Ro ferries and potential military implications

 25. 11. 2023      Category: Naval forces

China is heavily investing in the civilian Roll-on/Roll-off (Ro-Ro) ships for purely commercial purposes. However, in recent years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) explores the possibility to use those vessels for military purposes and potential invasion of Taiwan. 

Picture: Chinese Ro-Ro ferries and potential military implications | CCTV
Picture: Chinese Ro-Ro ferries and potential military implications | CCTV

Chinese car manufacturers see surge in demand for their cars, especially electric cars. They need to increase transport capacity to be able to ship those cars. However, there are only less than 100 Ro-Ro ships owned by Chinese companies. Moreover, those ships are only capable of regional transport. According to China Power project, there are large orders from both foreign buyers and Chinese companies. Of 198 Ro-Ro ships ordered from 2023 to 2026, 76 are ordered by Chinese companies. 

Although the PLA has regional and global ambitions, according to the Pentagon, it lacks the transport and landing capabilities. Especially regarding the Taiwan invasion, the PLA will need to heavily invest in large and medium transport capabilities such as Ro-Ro ships. PLAN could use those ships during potential invasion of main Taiwan island as a backbone for cross-strait logistics operations. 

In recent years, the PLAN conducted many exercises involving civilian Ro-Ro ships that are considered integral part of PLA logistics system by many PLA authors and scholars. For instance, in 2020, PLAN conducted large-scale exercise aimed at civil-military fusion in the Eastern Theater Command. Six Ro-Ro ships from the Bohai Ferry Group took part in this exercise along other PLAN ships. In 2021 and 2022, PLAN continued with large-scale exercises involving civilian Ro-Ro ships. In April 2022, PLAN conducted exercises with ten Ro-Ro ships. In August 2022, PLAN conducted exercise using civilian infrastructure to conceal the movement of troops and equipment. In five weeks-long exercise in summer 2022, PLAN tasked twelve Ro-Ro and other civilian ships to transport more than 8500 pieces of military equipment and more than 55 000 troops across eleven Chinese ports. The PLAN also conducted exercises to directly support amphibious efforts in September 2022. Compared to exercise during previous year, more Ro-Ro ships were deployed, and PLAN conducted offshore launches of armored vehicles. 

The deployment of Ro-Ro ships constitutes a challenge for two main reasons. First, Ro-Ro ships assigned to the PLAN must be identified and distinguished from purely civilian Ro-Ro ships. Otherwise, it could give the PLA and advantage in potential concealment of transported troops and equipment.  

Second, RoRo ships provide the PLA with large transport capacity both regionally and globally. The PLA could use RoRo ships not only for the support of potential Taiwan invasion, but military operations in the South China Sea, logistics operations in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

On the other hand, there are also few challenges that PLAN will face with deployment of the civilian RoRo ships. Not all RoRo ships are built for the military purposes and thus it requires additional improvements and adjustments for military equipment transport. Additionally, all civilian RoRo ships are large slowly moving potential targets for anti-ship missile which means RoRo ships need additional defense (i.e., other warships or installed defense systems). In potential Taiwan invasion scenario, it is highly likely that Taiwanese anti-ship missiles will be used primarily against RoRo ships assigned to the PLAN and other landing ships in the Taiwan Strait or on the Eastern side of Taiwan main island. On the other hand, it is questionable how many anti-ship missiles Taiwanese armed forces could actually deploy against RoRo ships. They also need to engage aircraft carriers and other PLAN surface combatants.

It is likely that PLAN will deploy civilian RoRo ships in any potential scenarios of use of force. PLA authors and scholars consider RoRo ships an integral part of any PLAN operations and the PLAN actively deploys RoRo ships during various exercises.  Thus, increased orders and accelerated construction of those ships could indicate potential preparations for armed conflict.

 Author: Jan Feryna