In fact, the Type 022 appears to be especially well equipped for this sort of work, with robust datalink and other command and control capabilities that would allow for greater coordination with other Chinese aircraft and warships.
In addition to that equipment, these catamarans are also well-armed, with eight launchers for YJ-83 subsonic anti-ship missiles and a fast-firing 30mm H/PJ-13 Gatling-type gun on the bow to engage aerial targets and provide fire support. Short-range air defense is apparently entrusted to man-portable air defense systems operated by the crew.
The boats are credited with a maximum speed of around 36 or 38 knots and while their range is unknown, it could be around 300 miles. As noted before, the Type 022s spotted at Mischief Reef were accompanied by a supply ship that would be able to increase their radius of action considerably.
As well as maritime activity in this area, the importance of the Spratly Islands to Beijing’s wider ambitions in the South China Sea has also been reflected in the construction of artificial outposts here. Three locations, in particular, Fiery Cross Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef have all been subject to significant artificial expansion by China since 2014. They are defended by HQ-9B surface-to-air missiles and ground-launched YJ-12B anti-ship missiles, and all three are also equipped with long runways, at least some of which are capable of supporting bombers.
The Spratly Islands have also been a regular host to long-range air patrols by Chinese fighters, including Su-30 Flankers.
By not only deploying warships and aircraft to the Spratly Islands, but also transforming them into manmade bases provides a platform for Beijing to stake its claim to a vast economic exclusion zone, packed with shipping routes, fishing areas, and natural resources. From these outposts, China would be able to expand its anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) umbrella and then potentially claim control of the entire area, if it so wished.
In the past, China has denied that it’s actively establishing military strongholds in the South China Sea, but the fact remains that its claims cover the largest portion of this area and, despite international opposition and “freedom of navigation” missions by the U.S. military and others, Beijing has been unwilling to yield any ground over the Spratlys and, further north, the Paracel Islands.
China already has a fortress-like network of manmade outposts to project power in the southern end of the South China Sea, and it’s possible these could become further fortified with permanently stationed fighter aircraft, long-range sensors, and missile systems. However, having forward-deployed flotillas of Type 022s would provide an additional immediate layer of defense, as well as a way to strike outward against enemy naval forces from those bases. In particular, the vessels’ shallow draft and high speed make them ideal for defending these kinds of littoral claims. What is more, these vessels’ small crew requirements and ability to operate from austere locations would help maintain a powerful localized presence.
On top of that, the apparently new presence of these missile-armed craft in the southern South China Sea alone sends a powerful signal to the Philippines and other regional powers with competing claims in this region.
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