• Naval spotters in Taiwan have discovered a new Zubr-class assault hovercraft in Chinese Navy service.
  • Developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Zubr class not only bristles with weapons, but can also deliver tanks and ground troops.
  • The ships are thought to be out of production, so where this new boat came from is a mystery.

Recent photos seem to confirm China is building its own high-speed assault hovercraft. Chinese military enthusiasts recently identified two new Type 728-class hovercraft, according to Naval News, indicating that China has begun building its own versions of the heavily armed ship. The Type 728 can carry up to three tanks or nearly 400 ground troops, giving China the capability to quickly seize some of Taiwan’s smaller islands—or lead an assault on the main island itself.

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A picture taken on September 26, 2013 shows a Russian Navy Zubr-class hovercraft unloading armored personnel carriers on the seashore during a joint military exercise of Russian and Belarusian troops at the Khmelevka firing range in Russia’s enclave of Kaliningrad.
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China already has four of the hovercraft, bringing the running total to six. The new ships are entering service five years after the previous ships, and a run of tricky international politics suggests that the new ones were built locally. The lightning-fast tank carriers would complicate Taiwan’s defensive plans, shaving hours off any assault on the main island.

Type 728 is China’s designation for the Zubr-class assault hovercraft. Zubr (“Bison”) was originally developed by the Soviet Union in the 1980s. At 187 feet long and a maximum weight of 555 tons, it’s the largest hovercraft in the world. Each Type 728 is powered by five gas turbine engines, two of which provide lift and three that drive three enormous 18-foot-diameter rearward-facing propulsion fans. This gives the Type 728 a top speed of 60 knots, or nearly 70 miles per hour, on land. Russia, Greece, and China all operate Zubr-class ships or their derivatives.

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The Type 728 can carry up to 130 tons of cargo, which translates to two main battle tanks, ten light armored vehicles, or 386 Marines. Early craft were equipped with four man portable surface-to-air missile systems, two AK-630 six-barreled, 30-mm Gatling guns, and two stabilized rocket launchers capable of bombarding coastal defenses with salvos of 44 140-mm rockets at a time.

Tricky Acquisition

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Amphibious tanks of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army land on a beach during the third phase of the Sino-Russian joint military exercises on August 24, 2005 near Shandong Peninsula, China.
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After the end of the Cold War, Ukraine inherited the shipyards that produced Zubr. In 2010, Ukraine agreed to build China two Zubrs, with another two to be produced in China under Ukrainian supervision. China was also to receive Zubr blueprints, allowing it to eventually build the craft on its own.

Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea in 2014 complicated things, as the Zubr shipyard was located in Crimea. China eventually received all four hovercraft, but the last one was delivered in 2018. A force of just four Type 728s provided only a niche ability in an all-out invasion of Taiwan, their most logical purpose, and given China’s massive industrial capacity, it seemed that something was holding it back from producing more.

The two new ships strongly suggest China has finally turned blueprints into real ships. The question now is: how many does it intend to build?

Invasion Scenario

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The bulk of China’s amphibious forces consists of ships like this Type-071 amphibious landing dock, shown at port in Greece, 2015. China’s ability to build Type 728s independently means that ratio might shift.
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Type-728 transports are not the largest amphibious warships in the Chinese fleet, but they are some of the most useful. The distance from naval ports on the Chinese mainland to the Taiwanese capital of Taipei is 141 miles. At top speed, a Type 728 can make the trip in two hours. Accounting for refueling, reloading, and rearming, and assuming it isn’t destroyed, a hovercraft could make at least two round trips to Taiwan a day. Six hovercraft making two trips every 24 hours to Taiwan would land 4,632 Chinese Marines a day, and China’s hovercraft make up just a small part of the invasion force.

Still, an all-out invasion of Taiwan could be one of the least likely scenarios in a China-Taiwan crisis—at least at first. One scenario could see China picking off the Kinmen island chain located just off the coast of the mainland, as a means of coercing the rest of Taiwan into surrender. Kinmen, a chain of islands under Taiwanese control with a combined population of 127,000, is just six miles off the coast of the People’s Republic of China—a trip a Type-728 hovercraft could make in ten minutes.

The Takeaway

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Anti-landing spikes on the beaches of Kinmen are meant to prevent Chinese landing craft from deploying troops ashore.
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In war, the concept of tactical speed means conducting operations faster than the enemy can respond. While intelligence agencies worldwide might notice the long buildup preceding an invasion months in advance, negating strategic surprise, the Type 728s give China the benefit of tactical surprise, making the crossing in just hours. Now that China can build these unique craft independently, it can increase its forces capable of tactical speed, complicating Taiwan’s job of keeping them out. How many it ultimately builds will keep military planners in Taipei up at night.

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Kyle Mizokami

Kyle Mizokami is a writer on defense and security issues and has been at Popular Mechanics since 2015. If it involves explosions or projectiles, he's generally in favor of it. Kyle’s articles have appeared at The Daily Beast, U.S. Naval Institute News, The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, Combat Aircraft Monthly, VICE News, and others. He lives in San Francisco.