This is what a Chinese stealth warship looks like on radar

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Although commonly described as ‘stealth’, the Chinese Type 022 missile boat is clearly visible in Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) satellite images provided by Capella Space Inc. HI Sutton image used with permission

The designs of warships increasingly take their radar signature into account. Sharp angles that deflect radar waves and coatings that absorb radar energy have been standard features of warship designs for most new warships over the past 20 years. An extreme example is the Chinese Navy’s Type-022 Missile Boat Class (PLAN). Its lines are slanted and tilted to deflect incoming radar waves, like a stealth hunter. Everything is neatly angled and even the window frames have jagged edges, according to published photos of the class.

However, when viewed from space using a satellite equipped with radar, they appear very well. The unique layout of the Type-022 even creates a distinctive signature that can be easily identified. Capella Space, a company that provides radar-satellite imagery, has discovered that so-called stealth missile ships appear when docked at their bases.

Type-022: The Stealth Missile Threat from China

Map showing the location of Chinese Navy Missile Boat (PLAN) Type 022 bases. Analysis by The Intel Lab with insert image from Capella Space Inc., used with permission

The Type-022 Houbei class was introduced into PLAN service around 2004. Since then, very large numbers have been built, with estimates between around 40 and 80 hulls. Unlike most large warships in the Chinese Navy, it is operated in separate squadrons, usually consisting of eight ships.

They operate in swarms, providing a combined firepower of 64 YJ-83 anti-ship missiles. These are roughly equivalent in capacity to the US Navy’s Harpoon missile and have an effective range of around 100 nautical miles. In a conflict scenario, such as an invasion of Taiwan, ships would depend on stealth to survive long enough to launch crushing missile strikes and survive.

The design uses a wide catamaran hull. This allows the inward sloping sides to extend to the waterline, like the famous Lockheed Shadow of the sea stealth boat. Its shape is less extreme than that of the Sea Shadow, with concessions to operating factors. Its teeth, the anti-ship missiles, are carried in two covered hangars to hide them from radar. Overall, the boat can be described as unobservable, meaning that its radar signature should be considerably smaller than one would expect for a regular vessel of this size.

SAR – Synthetic Aperture Radar

Houbei class fast attack craft (Type 022) With a former Luda class destroyer. PLAN

The angle of the radar and the frequency of the waves will affect visibility. Radar satellites like Capella’s use Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR).

Unlike traditional imaging satellites, the SAR can see through clouds and at night. The latest images, reviewed by USNI News, provide very high resolution (ORV) images up to 50cm resolution. They also have low noise levels and the underlying data can be analyzed for the best results.

In this case, if the Type-022’s stealth capability can be called into question – at least in terms of the angles and radar frequencies used by the satellites. The radar image may look very different from an ordinary surface search radar or a missile seeker.

The ability of radar satellites to observe warships intended to be stealthy is a capability that, until recently, was limited to a handful of powerful government agencies around the world. But now it is relatively easy to obtain.

It is even possible to point the satellite wherever you want. With their very high revisit rate, intelligence can be extremely timely and the same set of locations can easily be monitored over time to see changes in operating patterns. This could include leading indicators of planned military action. The capabilities are low latency and highly automated – and give greater visibility to international naval operations.


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