In a creative—some might say desperate—bid to bolster its amphibious fleet, the U.S. Navy in recent years has been building so-called “expeditionary sea-base ships” that are little more than commercial heavy-load carrier ships with a gray coat of paint and some military radios.
Now the Chinese fleet has demonstrated the same creativity—or desperation. A commercial heavy-load carrier flying a Hong Kong flag recently supported a Chinese naval exercise, functioning as a base for at least two army helicopters.
It’s not hard to imagine the same ship or vessels like her, also functioning as a base for landing craft. These ships, taken up from trade, could quickly swell a Chinese invasion fleet.
The U.S. Navy ESBs, and the similar expeditionary transfer docks—ESDs—are variants of the Alaska-class crude carrier that General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego builds for the oil industry.
The two ESDs feature extremely low freeboard—that is, height at the waterline—along most of their length. The ships’ low freeboard, combined with their ability to take on water and partially submerge, allows them to float landing craft directly on and off their main deck. The ESBs can’t submerge but, as a bonus, feature a positively huge flight deck.
At 785 feet long and displacing 80,000 tons of water, the ESDs and ESBs are some of the biggest warships in the world. Built to commercial standards, they are slow, unarmored, and effectively unarmed. But at a cost of around $500 million apiece, they’re also a cheap way for the Navy to add capacity and flexibility to its amphibious flotilla.