Is This Giant Soviet Era Hovercraft China's New Access Weapon Of Choice?
Whether it be the massive Typhoon Class ballistic submarines, or the menacing Kirov Class Battle Cruisers, the USSR of the 1980s tended to prefer their military hardware massive. When it comes to hovercraft, the Zubr Class landing craft air cushion (LCAC) is no different, and it is now being reborn as China's ultimate access weapon.
Compared to the already gargantuan US Navy LCAC, the Zubr Class just dwarfs it. Fully loaded the US Navy LCAC displaces about 180 tons, while the Zubr Class displaces three times that amount. This hovering fortress can hit speeds up to 60kts in sea-state four and below, and can handle 5 degree grades and up to three and a half foot obstacles with relative ease. She can carry three tanks inside of her cavernous cargo hold, while the US Navy's LCAC can only carry one. In other cargo configurations, the giant Zubr Class can transport up 500 people, or about 375 fully equipped troops, eight armored personnel carriers, or ten multi-purpose wheeled military vehicles.
Designed and built the 1980s to be a much larger and more potent follow-on to the Aist Class LCAC already in service, the Zubr Class took the whole landing craft concept to an extraordinary new level. Measuring 187 feet long by 84 feet wide, and sitting on a pontoon-like central hull that was specially designed not to detonate magnetic sea mines via the use of an active magnetic signature control system and alloy armor, she currently holds the title of as the biggest hovercraft in the world.
The Zubr Class' hull is separated into three sections laterally. The central section being a cavernous 4500 square foot (same size as a 747's interior floor-space) cargo bay used for transporting vehicles, material and passengers, that is accessible via ramps both fore and aft. The outboard sections have living spaces for the hovercraft's crew, as well as troop compartments, along with machine rooms that house the ship's powerful environmental control systems and auxiliary power units.
During the Zubr's design process, special care was taken to make the quarters for the ship's crew more livable than on past hovercraft and large landing craft. A similar goal was exercised in the design of the mammoth Typhoon Class SSBNs and Kirov Class Battle Cruisers of the same era. The crew's living areas are said to be relatively spacious, and a set of elaborate sound and vibration proofing techniques were used to isolate these areas from the normal shipboard environment. A large environmental control system was also built into the design for operations in hot environments and the ship can be sealed with positive, filtered air pressure while operating in situations where nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) weapons are present.
The big Zubr Classes are crewed by four officers and between 25 and 35 sailors depending on the mission. The ships are powered by no less than five Kuznetsov NK-12 gas turbines, the same that fly on the Tu-95 Bear, with each putting out close to 12,000hp. Two of the engines are used to inflate the massive hovercraft's skirt, the other three propel the ship forward and back, and are attached to variable pitch propellers mounted in massive shrouded nacelles.
The whole craft is lightly armored to survive hits from small arms and shrapnel and carries a formidable defensive armament, which includes a pair of 30mm AK-630 Close In Weapon Systems capable of shredding incoming missiles, aircraft or fast-attack boats.
'Strela-3' point air defense missiles are fitted in a 16 round turret launcher, or in an older configuration, a pair of manually aimed Stela-2 'Grail' missiles are fitted in launchers with four missiles available.
A pair of 140mm 'Ogon' rocket launchers, with 22 rounds each, and another 88 rounds in reserve, are placed in swiveling turrets towards the front of the hull. These brutal weapons can shower a beach with explosive incendiary warheads just before the Zubr Class comes ashore. In an alternative configuration, the Ogon launchers are replaced by a retractable 122mm rocket system.
The Zubr Class, with its sea-skimming ability, was also designed as a mine layer, and they can lay out close to one hundred naval mines, and they can even mine beaches with anti-personnel mines. Finally, these intimidating beasts carry various forms of physical (chaff cannons) and electronic countermeasures (jamming equipment) aimed at defeating anti-ship missiles and radar targeting.
Aside from their huge size, most interesting thing about the highly unique Zubr Class is their limited export success. Currently, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and China operate these beasts. When Greece ordered their quartet of Zubr Class LCACs in the late 1990s, getting a lightly used one first from Russia first in 2001. It was the first Russian-built ship to be operated by a NATO member. Then, in 2009, it was announced that China would be the second export customer of the Zubr Class, ordering four of the boats from Ukraine for $350M. The first two being built under Chinese supervision on the Crimea Peninsula in then Ukraine, with the second pair being built under license in China.
In early March of this year, the still not finished second Zubr Class being built for China in Crimea was shipped ahead of schedule as China was worried it would be seized or destroyed by Russia following their invasion of the Peninsula, or that it would deteriorate while China negotiated its release.
The first Chinese Zubr Class built in Ukraine was badly damaged during an accident in 2011, and it now it seems that China is looking to put the type in serial production for itself with some indigenous improvements, including a state of the art self defense system.
Now that China has basically licensed the ability to build Zubr Class derivatives, they will undoubtedly be marketing them on the international arms export market to customers looking for heavy littoral warfare and beach landing capabilities.
Greece on the other hand has had less than an acceptable experience with their Zubr Class hovercraft, with reliability and lack of spare parts being the major issues, which is nothing new when it comes to Russia's heavy weapons exports. This, combined with Greece's economic turmoil and the hovercraft's unpredictably high operating costs have resulted in two of their four Zubr Class vessels being put into early retirement, with the remaining two are now mainly used mainly by special forces units.
Even though a dozen and a half Zubr Class ships were ordered since the beginning of the program, far less than half that number are in active service today (2 China, 2 Greece, 2 Russia, 1 Ukraine), although this number will surely increase now that China is putting the type into production.
The strategic relevance of the Zubr Class for China is no secret, with a 300 mile range fully loaded, a massive cargo carrying ability, and high-speed, the giant hovercraft are well suited for amphibious operations against Taiwan and other smaller islands, namely those that are highly disputed with Japan, known as the Senkaku Islands, as well as those that are disputed in the South China Sea with Vietnam, Indonesia and The Philippines.
The Zubr Class hovercraft would make a continuous Chinese occupation of the Senkaku Islands possible as they currently have no large port facilities or landing strips, and such a plan could be executed very quickly with a flotilla of these unique high-speed ships. The Zubr Class could make it from the Chinese mainland to these uninhabited islands in well under four hours, and much time less if they were forward deployed with a support flotilla.
If these hovercraft were based in the center of the South China Sea, they could strike anywhere that rings the Gulf of Tonkin within hours. Most notably, the Zubr Class is almost perfectly suited for an invasion of Taiwan, as it could make quick trips across the strait in less than two hours, delivering troops, material and heavy armor for which to create a beachhead and then sustain it.
So what the Zubr Class offers the Chinese Navy is a unique access and striking capability that is perfectly fitted to the territorial claims that China has clearly made. The ability to travel long distances at high speed with a large cargo load, and to be able to access almost any landmass without any prevailing infrastructure to convey that cargo, is a capability that no watercraft but the Zubr Class can offer. The sheer speed at which such an "raid and hold" operation can be executed by the Zubr Class would leave other regional powers with very little time to respond, especially concerning the unique accessibility and distance issues that the Pacific is well known for.
Although many will debate whether China would actually make such a move against any of these potential foes, a banner was recently spotted draped across the latest advanced Zubr Class under construction at a well known Chinese shipyard and it may be an ominous hint as to China's true future intentions for these gargantuan and expensive hovercraft. It simply reads: Reuniting the Motherland"