China’s Type 022 Stealth Missile Boat Swarms: The Next Big Threat?

By CSR Report RL33153 China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress by Ronald O'Rourke dated February 28, 2014 - United States Naval Institute News Blog, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia
November 25, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaPLA NavyU.S. NavyType 022Missile Boat

China’s Type 022 Stealth Missile Boat Swarms: The Next Big Threat?

Or do these small warships not really post a threat?

Armed with surface-to-air missiles, 30mm guns and even anti-ship missiles, a group of Chinese Type 022 stealth missile boats fired weapons, conducted combat operations and moved in a deliberately threatening way in the South China Sea and near the coast of Taiwan

A flotilla of the boats (fast-attack craft that have been in existence since 2004) are trained in “comprehensive attack and defense, air defense and anti-terrorism,” according to a story in the Chinese-government backed Global Times. The war preparations, the report continued, should “serve as a strong deterrent to Taiwan secessionists and forces with ulterior motives in the South China Sea.” 

While referred to as “stealth,” the Type 022 missile boats exhibit many shapes, antennas and protruding structures likely to generate a return radar signature, a configuration which would appear somewhat less stealthy. The 140-ft fast attack craft are built with slightly rounded or curved hull shapes and very few sharp edges on the exterior, yet the boats do operate with a protruding mast and a range of vertical structures easily detectable to enemy radar. Ultimately, while referred to by the Chinese paper as stealthy, that might be a little bit ambitious of a term to use, given its overall structural configuration. For instance, a more stealthy ship like the U.S. Navy’s Zumwalt-class destroyer has virtually no protruding vertical structures and is instead built with flat, slightly angled hull panels, rounded weapons on deck and less sharply angled exterior. Even China’s somewhat stealthy new destroyer, the Type 055 guided missile destroyer, appears stealthier than the catamaran-shaped Type 022s. 

A Chinese military analyst quoted in the paper said the Type 022 stealth missile boats were now being developed for more of a deep or “blue-water” attack mission scope in addition to being intended for coastal patrol. Using speed and increasingly long-range anti-ship missiles, swarms of Type 022 boats could seek to overwhelm enemy surface ships and jam defensive systems, or simply attack from so many different angles at once the ship commanders have insufficient opportunities to mount effective defenses. 

However, the idea of using the boats for deep water attack, as suggested by the paper, is a concept which presents many complications in the realm of blue water warfare on the open seas. China operates as many as eighty-three Type 022 boats and they often travel in flotillas, as was the case in the recent combat preparation drills cited in the Global Time report, a circumstance which presents an easier opportunity for overhead surveillance or even larger-ship targeting systems to identify. The more concentrated an attack formation is, the more aggregated or condensed it is, the more detectable it is to an enemy. Groups of these boats operating in swarming fashion presents the kind of circumstance quickly recognizable by drones and long-range sensors on the open ocean. Whereas in closer-in coastal patrol missions, avoiding detection is less of a needed focus as the boats seek to use speed, maneuverability and near proximity weapons to achieve mission success. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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