The Chinese Navy’s Project 022 class is, despite its innovative hull design, a classic missile-armed fast attack craft. It is designed for the sole purpose of delivering eight anti-ship missiles to a specified naval target and has virtually no capability outside that area. Its design makes it unsuitable for patrol duties, while its short operational radius limits its applicability to maritime policing work.
In military roles, it is virtually defenseless against air attack and would have to rely on speed and agility to survive in a hostile environment. Craft in this general category were once in great vogue, but experience has shown that they are not an effective military unit outside very limited and specific areas. However, the Chinese Navy happens to have one of those limited and specific areas as a primary operational requirement. Thus, in its specific geostrategic situation, the Project 022 is a viable and effective craft.
The Chinese Navy has gone to significant lengths to reduce the investment in any single Project 022 class FAC-M to a minimum. This does not just apply to equipment standards, austere though they are, but to manpower. The Project 022 has a crew of 12 to 14 sailors, less than half that of similar craft. At a unit cost of an estimated $50 million each, the Chinese could afford both the financial and manpower commitment needed to operate a very large fleet of these craft. Construction is expected to exceed 100 hulls and may well go beyond that point.
The catamaran hull form used by the Project 022 appears to be successful, and films of the class at sea show the craft handle well. This raises the possibility that variants of the design might well be evolved to handle a wider spectrum of operational requirements. Stripping out the bulky and heavy missile tubes would provide space and weight for the equipment needed to handle rigid inflatable boats and the other equipment necessary for maritime policing operations. This would allow the Chinese to offer a low-cost and effective competitor in the offshore patrol craft sector.
Over the years, the Chinese have sold large numbers of attack and patrol craft around the world. At present some 40 coastal patrol craft and 70 missile-armed fast attack craft built in China remain in service. The Project 022 would be in an excellent position to replace the latter as they begin to wear and need to be replaced. The postulated maritime patrol craft variant of the design would be well placed to replace the former group. The export market for the Project 022 and derivatives thereof certainly exists; it is up to the Chinese to turn a potential into reality.