Spying Targets Point to Chinese Interest in Amphibious Warfare, Experts Say

August 10, 2023 5:47 PM
USS Essex (LHD-2), front, transits the Indian Ocean with the guided-missile destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG-77) on Jan. 9, 2022. US Navy Photo

The material two alleged spies for China provided to their handlers point to a sustained interest from the People’s Liberation Army in amphibious operations as threats to Taiwan grow, two naval experts told USNI News.

U.S. sailors Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Jinchao Wei and Construction Electrician 2nd Class Wenheng Zhao allegedly fed their Chinese handlers were asked to send information on the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps amphibious operations, according to indictments filed in California.

Wei was assigned to USS Essex (LHD-2) and, according to the indictment, sent technical manuals and other export-controlled information to a Chinese intelligence officer – including details of the upgrade that will allow the big-deck amphibious warship to field Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters. Essex is in the midst of a multi-million renovation following its 2022 deployment.

“The intelligence officer continued to request information in 2023, including information about the overhaul and upgrades to the Essex. Specifically, he requested blueprints, especially those related to modifications to the flight deck. Wei provided information related to the repairs the Essex was undergoing, as well as other mechanical problems with similar vessels,” reads a statement from the Department of Justice.

The Navy’s Wasp-class and America-class big-deck amphibious are like the Chinese amphibious Type-75 and under development Type-76 warships. Many Chinese systems, ships and aircraft have roots in American and other designs from the West.

“Wei sent the intelligence officer approximately 30 technical and mechanical manuals. These manuals contained export control warnings and detailed the operations of multiple systems aboard the Essex and similar ships, including power, steering, aircraft and deck elevators, as well as damage and casualty controls,” “The intelligence officer confirmed with Wei that at least 10 of those manuals were useful to him,” according to a DoJ statement.

Brent Sadler, naval analyst and author of U.S. Naval Power in the 21st Century, told USNI News the information Wei gave to Beijing could be applied to their amphibious programs.

“If they decide to design a similar kind of vertical takeoff, jump jet, basically, then they’re going to probably want to reinforce or learn from what we’ve done. So that tells me a lot about potentially what the Chinese might be up to,” he told USNI News.

In particular, some naval analysts identified the Type-76 as a candidate for the installation of a catapult that would allow for heavier aircraft to be deployed from the big deck.

Sandler also highlighted information Zhao, who was assigned to the construction battalion, allegedly sent to his handlers information about the upcoming large-scale exercise and what’s believed to be next year’s Rim of the Pacific exercise and the ongoing Large Scale Exercise focused on amphibious operations.

Chinese agents also expressed interest in the storage locations of the Marines AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR radars in Okinawa, according to the indictment.

Zhao allegedly took photos detailing the storage arrangements for the portable ground and air search radars that will be key to the Marine’s Force Design 2030 concept of forward-deployed anti-ship missiles systems.

“This would make sense from a [People’s Liberation Army] targeting perspective, as it would give them information on where to strike to take out these air defense radars where they’re stored – presumably in a surprise attack before they’re deployed,” defense analyst Thomas Shugart told USNI News.

China has been expanding its amphibious operations as Beijing has increased military pressure on Taiwan. U.S. military officials have said China could move to seize Taiwan by force by the end of the decade.

In December, the PLA released a television documentary showing a large-scale amphibious invasion with Chinese leaders announcing a wholesale expansion of its amphibious forces.

“The Marine Corps are at a critical stage of accelerating transformation and development,” said Li Wei, deputy chief of staff of an unidentified brigade in the December documentary, according to the South China Morning Post.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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