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Catamarans Glide Through Chinese Waters

December 2007
By James C. Bussert

Three new Type 022 Chinese missile boats lie at anchor in a shipyard. Two of the catamarans are painted in blue and white Chinese marine camouflage colors, which raises questions about the boats’ missions.
But the newest missile boats bear unusual markings.

China is launching catamaran missile boats in large numbers in what might be a program to replace long-standing conventional missile boats. However, the new missile catamarans are painted in blue and white camouflage colors that are characteristic of the Chinese marines. This raises questions about the boats’ real missions—questions that might be intentionally generated by the paint scheme.

In 2004, China’s Quixin Shipyard in Shanghai produced the lead Houbei Type 022 wave-piercing catamaran, hull number 2008. The Type 022 is 43 meters (140 feet) long and weighs 225 tons. It is equipped with two missile launchers and has a top speed of 38 knots. After several years of extensive prototype testing, Quixin then produced hulls 2009, 2010 and 2011. Many observers thought this could be only a four-ship design, such as the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) previous five new guided-missile destroyer (DDG) designs of only one or two hulls since 1991.

However, the startup of production for additional 022 hulls in Dalian, Quixin and Jiangnan shipyards in Shanghai, as well as in the Huangpu shipyard in Guangzhou, changed this precept. The large number of wave-piercing catamaran 022 hulls being launched several at a time at five different shipyards is a major event in PLAN shipbuilding. Previous large-scale building programs were the 130 copies of Soviet Whiskey and Romeo submarines, 16 Luda destroyers and hundreds of Shanghai patrol boats from the 1950s to the 1970s. China has been negotiating to export several 022s to nations on the U.S. terrorist nation list, and a smaller 19-ton, 14-meter (46 foot)-long China Cat design already has been sold to Iran. 

The Australian company AMD exports various sizes of catamarans for commercial customers from all parts of the world. From 1993 until 2000, China procured seven AMD catamarans from 16 meters long to 30 meters (100 feet) long for river, seaport or local ferry duties. AMD has a joint venture company, Sea Bus International, located in Guangzhou that refined this catamaran design. After a review of competing designs, the PLAN selected a military patrol boat design based on the AMD 350, which is markedly like the 022 in specifications. AMD is cooperating in the design with China, and French diesels may be the power plant. Range could be a serious limitation for the speedy 38-knot catamarans, but a couple of Australian 40-meter catamaran designs listed a range of 300 miles with two diesels and waterjets.

In 1965 the Soviet Union provided China with its first Osa-class and Komar-class fast attack boats with two and four Styx surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs), respectively. The boats had Russian M503A diesels for each shaft. Osa was equipped with three propellers and diesels, and Komar had four propellers and diesels. China had only the Square Tie search radar to control its SSN-1 missiles.

Ten years later, China began mass producing copies of these boats and called them Huangfeng and Hegu classes. Several Chinese shipyards built about 10 per year, and by 1985 PLAN had achieved a maximum inventory of 120 Huangfeng and 110 Hegu. As they aged, the active inventory of each class dropped to about 50 active and 25 in reserve by 1995. Currently, no active Hegu-class boats remain and only 14 Huangfeng boats are active, so a new modern high-speed missile boat is needed to replenish this type in the PLAN order of battle.

The Huangfeng boats, along with many Luda destroyers and Jianghu frigates, carried four C-201 missiles (also called HY-2 or CSS-N-2) that are modified Russian Styx missiles. They are large with a diameter of 76 centimeters (30 inches) and are 5.8 meters (19 feet) long in their cells. The large numbers of 022s being produced at a rapid pace might lead to the obvious conclusion that 022s are a modern SSM boat design with the old antiship missile (ASM) mission. But the lack of the detection and track fire control radar and missile datalink Band Stand systems, which are associated with C-803/YJ-83 missiles on new construction 054 frigates and 052 Luyang DDGs, eliminates the idea that the 022s could carry newer C80x/YJ-8x series Mach 0.9 or supersonic long-range SSMs.

Old model SSMs lack the Inertial Navigation System/Global Positioning System (INS/GPS) positioning capabilities provided by Rockwell to China in 1986. This eliminates the likelihood of 022s carrying SSMs prior to the C-802 series, which makes the C-802 with a 160-kilometer (100-mile) range or the C-802A with 200-kilometer (125-mile) range the logical SSM for 022. These are on upgraded Ludas and new Luhu and Luhai DDGs, which similar to the 022s have no Band Stand guidance/link, making the C-802 series the most reasonable SSM loadout. A photograph shows a crane transferring a missile above the 022 launcher, but it is in a transportation container and cannot be identified. It is the same size as on prior DDGs.

The sophistication of 022 combat systems shows a large cost and weight commitment beyond that of previous fast small missile boat designs. The degree of automation is striking and is illustrated by comparing the total of 26 crew members of the Huangfeng—with similar weight and length to the 022—to the crew of only 12 on the 022. For example, copies of the advanced Russian close-in weapon system (CIWS) on the Type 656 Sovremmeny DDGs are very expensive and previously were found only on large new PLAN vessels. The Huangfeng and Hoku missile boats had only manned twin 25-millimeter gun mounts. But, on the 022, a Type 630 six-barrel CIWS is installed in a stealthy unmanned gun turret on the bow. The new 054 frigate and 052 DDGs have the Type 347G Rice Bowl as their CIWS fire control radar. These are large and too heavy for the small 022, so a 2-foot-diameter radar dish on the smaller boat appears to be a tracking radar for the CIWS gun mount without the usual CIWS radar on top of the Type 730 CIWS. The 022 has a passive Fenis-ME electro-optic tracker and Kolonika II low-light-level optical director on top of the bridge, which serve as a backup CIWS fire control director on other ships during jamming of other active radars. The Type ESR-1 362 is the reliable surface search radar on top of the mast. The Type 765 I-band navigation radar is on a pedestal in front of the mast.

Also on the mast is an HN-900 Chinese datalink for command coordination with aircraft, submarines and other PLAN warships. Such comprehensive command and control diversity seems beyond the usual small missile craft requirements. The port corner of the bridge has a 20-meter (65-foot) high frequency whip antenna for long-range communications, and a 15-meter (50-foot) antenna is on the starboard side aft of the bridge. The mast reinforced yardarm has the identification friend or foe (IFF), the direction finder, two outboard electronic countermeasure jammers, electronic support measures receivers and datalinks.

Noticeably missing is the expected satellite communication radomes on each side of the bridge. These may be added later. On previous new construction craft, incremental weapon upgrades are added during production. One upgrade that later 022s now have is a small FLS-1 surface-to-air launcher on the bridge. It would launch one of the QW series missiles with various guidance types.

Since the 1999 production of the 1,250-ton JervisBay for the Royal Australian Navy, Australian builders have provided three high speed vehicle (HSV) catamaran hulls to the U.S. Navy for trials. They vary in size from 950 to 2,100 tons, and they are intended largely for U.S. Marine Corps amphibious and other special missions. The United States recently has built two HSVs, the FSF-1 Seafighter and experimental 88-foot-long Stiletto (SIGNAL Magazine, March 2006). Delivered in late 2005 and 2007, they are modular multimission and special forces vessels. This Western assortment of much larger HSVs comprises practical amphibious support vessels, unlike the small PLAN 022 design.

Several possible answers may exist to explain the lack of an SSM radar on 022 among other anomalies of weapons and missions. The older C-801 and C-201 Osa/Komar copies used the Square Tie radar for SSM fire control targeting. One explanation would be that the marine support mission needs only simple targeting on fixed land sites with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) type ballistic missiles. Since there is no need to detect and track mobile targets and guide the missile to intercept, the complex Band Stand or even basic Square Tie capabilities are not needed.

As for the possibility of fitting Army ballistic missiles into 022 missile cells for marine landing support, there is one prior example of the PLAN trying to modify an existing warship to a shore bombardment role. During a 2003 to 2005 upgrade at Hudong shipyard, the 053H frigate hull 516 had one single-barrel 100-millimeter gun mount replaced with two twin-barrel 100-millimeter gun mounts, which quadrupled the volume of fire. Additionally, two twin CSSN-4 SSM launchers were replaced with three ballistic missile launchers having 10 300-millimeter missiles per launcher or five launchers with 50 rockets each for shore bombardment. The missile range is 40 kilometers (25 miles), similar to the PLA Type 89 and Russian BM-21. A second 053H hull, number 512, began receiving the same landing support modification in 2006.

A four-round NORINCO Type 83 multiple rocket system (MRS) fires four 273-millimeter rockets with a diameter of 4.7 meters (15.5 feet) with a range of from 23 kilometers (14 miles) to 40 kilometers (25 miles) or even 80 kilometers (50 miles), depending on the rocket motor. A 300-millimeter Angel-120 MRS launches eight 6.9-millimeter rockets at ranges of from 50 kilometers (30 miles) to a maximum of 120 kilometers (75 miles). Another 10-round A-100 MRS launches a 300-millimeter rocket at ranges from 25 kilometers (15 miles) to 90 kilometers (55 miles). An earlier MRS designated the WS-1 launches four 320-millimeter rockets to a maximum range of 30 kilometers (20 miles). It is possible for the PLAN to put army launching tubes in the 022 launcher in place of C-802 for landing artillery support missions, but the artillery rockets are one-quarter the diameter of C-802.

Another possibility is if China installed some of the 533-millimeter HN series of submarine-launched ground attack cruise missiles in the 022 launcher cells. The initial 1992 HN-1 had a minimum range of 600 kilometers (375 miles), and the 1996 HN-2 increased that range to 1,000 kilometers (625 miles). Coincidentally, the latest HN-3 became operational in 2005, about the time that the lead 2208 was undergoing tests. The HN-3 had ranges of from 2,500 kilometers (1,570 miles) to a maximum of 3,000 kilometers (1,875 miles). These HN series are long-range strategic weapons with INS/GPS and terrain mapping navigation and have turbofan propulsion such as the U.S. Tomahawk. All have multiple launch platforms including submarines, surface ships and ground vehicles, and the HN-1 also had an air-launched version. A Russian three-dimensional-view drawing of an 022 shows four missile cell hatches per launcher, which makes a total of eight instead of four missiles. These could be much smaller diameter missiles than C-802 SSMs. Ballistic land artillery missiles also are this smaller size, and they offer a simpler design without radar tracking or homing in on a moving target.

A photograph of the lead 2008-2011 hulls berthed at a facility shows all four with marine camouflage. This is a strong indication of direct support of amphibious landing operations, rather than just an anti-surface-ship naval mission such as for the old Hegu and Huangfeng series. Other Chinese amphibious vessels from large multipurpose amphibious assault ships  and tank landing ships to smaller utility landing craft, medium landing ships, mechanized landing craft or assault boats all have standard gray paint, indicating they are PLAN assets. The concept that the blue/white paint means ownership and control by the marine force is reinforced by the fact that marine Type 63A amphibious tanks also are blue/white, as are marine combat uniforms.

The dozen completed 022s are distributed equally among all three fleets. The two PLAN marine brigades are located in Hainan and Guangzhou, both in the Southern Fleet provinces (south and east), but there are small marine bases in the north left over from the days of the Soviet threat. In fact, major Russian/Chinese amphibious exercises in 2005 in the north used PLA special shock landing troops instead of marines. So any correlation of PLAN marine locations with the apparent three-fleet distribution of 022 catamarans is inconclusive.

No other nation has missile catamaran boats with marine missions. Western observers may have difficulty understanding a Chinese design if it does not fit their blue water or littoral mission concepts. But the number one objective of the Chinese government is reunification by bringing the renegade island of Taiwan back into the Chinese nation. If this must be done by an invasion, then gunfire support of the amphibious landing is a gap in PLAN capabilities. The ideal U.S. Navy invasion gunfire support platforms were the U.S. Navy 16-inch battleship guns and 8-inch cruiser guns that provided crushing firepower in World War II. Use of the many PLA intermediate-range ballistic missiles located in Fujian province would destroy much of the Taiwan infrastructure, which would be counterproductive. On the other hand, the small missile catamarans need only travel from Fujian province ports to the Taiwan landing sites. Their design may make no sense to Western observers, but it meets China’s most important unique government and PLAN objective. The catamaran-based missiles could be used to support Taiwan amphibious landings.

So these mass-produced 022 catamarans simply could be replacements for the 210 scrapped Hegu and Huangfeng high-speed SSM boats. Intelligence and naval experts have been wrong in the past about what type of missiles were in naval missile cells. However, it also is possible that China deviously painted these PLAN boats with marine colors just to make Western experts try to figure out why.

James C. Bussert is employed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, where he works on surface-ship antisubmarine fire control systems.