Center for Strategic Communication

PLA soldiers in formation outside the Green Pearl, China’s newest military cruise ship, during the ship’s August commissioning ceremony. Photo: People’s Liberation Army

The media freaked out about China’s crappy aircraft carrier and hyperventilated over the J-20 stealth fighter. But China’s newest addition to its military is more subtle, and stylish. It’s a 36,000-ton pleasure boat capable of disgorging thousands of troops and hundreds of vehicles held inside its belly.

That would be the Bahai Sea Green Pearl, a 36,000-ton ferry and cruise ship commissioned in August at Yantai Port in China’s northeastern Shandong Province. At heart a vessel for pleasure and civilian transport, the ship is intended to normally ferry cars and passengers across the Yellow Sea. But when needed by the People’s Liberation Army, the Green Pearl can double as a troop carrier. During its launching ceremony and demonstration on Aug. 8, PLA troops could be seen loading dozens of tanks, artillery pieces and armored vehicles on board.

Photos from Chinese state television posted to the China Defense Blog show some of the action, including what looks like fully loaded soldiers running through a corridor. Tanks and artillery pieces are also seen inside one of the ship’s three vehicle compartments. How they got there: via the ship’s roll-on/roll-off (or ro-ro) ramp on its stern.

China also has three more of the vessels under construction, which Zhang Wei, chief of the PLA’s Military Transportation Department under the PLA General Logistics Department, said is a “new leap in our military use of civilian vessels to improve the strategic projection.” The Green Pearl reportedly has room for more than 2,000 people and 300 cars. It’s even got a helicopter pad.

It’s also got luxury. When the ship isn’t ferrying civilians, China’s troops could take in the pleasure of tall windows for observing “the beautiful scenery of the sea,” reported the Yantai Daily Media Group. Not only that, but rooms — which range from first to third class — are equipped with televisions, cellphone signal amplifiers and wireless internet access. And if the troops get bored in their rooms, there’s always mingling in one of two staterooms and a cafe. There are even rooms set aside for reading and chess. And no cruise ship would be complete without some collective entertainment at a multi-purpose auditorium. If troops are feeling cooped up, they can always go above deck for excursions in the sun.

Armored vehicles from China’s People’s Liberation Army prepare to board the Green Pearl in August 2012. Photo: CCTV via China Defense Blog

However, the Green Pearl is by no means a true amphibious assault ship. There’s no indication of any landing craft, or any ability to launch them. The ship needs a proper dock to gets its heavier equipment onto land. That mostly rules out launching an invasion of troops while sitting (relatively) safely off-shore. Instead, the ship is more accurately called something like an “amphibious augmentation” platform. It can base a helicopter, and it can follow up an amphibious assault with more troops — after a landing site is secure.

It’s also not a new concept. Using civilian ships for double duty is “entirely in keeping with Chinese practices reaching back for centuries,” Jim Holmes, an associate professor of strategy at the Navy War College, tells Danger Room. For Western navies, that practice dated up until the 18th century. And today, the U.S. uses mixed military and commercial ships to refuel at sea, Holmes says.

China has also been building up its fleet of amphibious assault ships, which could be at the front line of an invasion of Taiwan, say. That is, if China could conceivably launch one. But probably not. Since 2008, China has launched four Yuzhao-class, or Type 081 amphibious assault ships. The lead ship was deployed to fight pirates near Somalia. China is also reportedly working on a newer, bigger amphibious ship called the Type 081 (.pdf).

What’s more likely is using the Green Pearl for “soft power” operations distant from China’s shores. “Beijing seems rather comfortable with the situation in the Taiwan Strait and is clearly looking beyond Taiwan, as it has been for some time now,” Holmes says. “Such a vessel could be a workhorse for any mission involving amphibious operations, meaning humanitarian relief.”

That could mean delivering aid, transporting doctors and engineers to a country beset by an emergency. And there’s always port calls. That is, making stops in countries friendly to China while carrying a contingent of visiting officers and diplomats on board.

And not that China’s new cruise ships of war have any chance of matching the United States’ own massive fleet of commercial transport ships available for military duties. The U.S. has 60 privately owned commercial ships available to be called upon by the Navy under the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Security Program. Most of those are heavy-duty container vessels, but 17 of them are ro-ro ships.

According to the DoT’s Maritime Administration (.pdf), the Navy has relied on them to lift troops during the Persian Gulf War, and into Bosnia, Somalia and Kosovo, and has had to rely on those commercial ships even more in recent years to fight the war in Iraq. The United Kingdom famously hauled troops during the Falklands War with the Queen Elizabeth 2.

In the meantime, let the PLA take in the scenic views and relax to the soothing hum of the Green Pearl‘s engines. Unlike the U.S. and British cruise and ro-ro ships of war, there’s not a huge chance of China’s new pleasureboat invading anyone any time soon.