China military develops robotic submarines to launch a new era of sea power

Autonomous robotic submarines are expected to be deployed by China in the early 2020s. Graphic: Henry Wong


Unmanned AI subs, expected in the 2020s, could challenge the advantage Western naval powers have in strategic waters like the South China Sea

China is developing large, smart and relatively low-cost unmanned submarines that can roam the world’s oceans to perform a wide range of missions, from reconnaissance to mine placement to even suicide attacks against enemy vessels, according to scientists involved in these artificial intelligence (AI) projects.

The autonomous robotic submarines are expected to be deployed in the early 2020s. While not intended to entirely replace human-operated submarines, they will challenge the advantageous position established by Western naval powers after the second world war. The robotic subs are aimed particularly at the United States forces in strategic waters like the South China Sea and western Pacific Ocean, the researchers said.

The project is part of the government’s ambitious plan to boost the country’s naval power with AI technology. China has built the world’s largest testing facility for surface drone boats in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. Military researchers are also developing an AI-assisted support system for submarine commanders. As the South China Morning Post reported earlier this year, that system will help captains make faster, more accurate judgments in the heat of combat situations.

The new class of unmanned submarines will join the other autonomous or manned military systems on water, land and orbit to carry out missions in coordinated efforts, according to the researchers.

The submarines will have no human operators on board. They will go out, handle their assignments and return to base on their own. They may establish contact with the ground command periodically for updates, but are by design capable of completing missions without human intervention.

Now under development, the AI-powered subs are “giants” compared to the normal UUVs, according to the researchers. They station in dock as conventional submarines. Their cargo bay is reconfigurable and large enough to accommodate a wide range of freight, from powerful surveillance equipment to missiles or torpedoes. Their energy supply comes from diesel-electric engines or other power sources that ensure continuous operation for months.

The robotic submarines rely heavily on artificial intelligence to deal with the sea’s complex environment. They must make decisions constantly on their own: changing course and depth to avoid detection; distinguishing civilian from military vessels; choosing the best approach to reach a designated position.

They can gather intelligence, deploy mines or station themselves at geographical “chockpoints” where armed forces are bound to pass to ambush enemy targets. They can work with manned submarines as a scout or decoy to draw fire and expose the position of the adversary. If necessary, they can ram into a high-value target.

Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed to the South China Morning Post this month that China is developing a series of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUVs.

“Yes, we are doing it,” he said.

The institute, in China’s northeast Liaoning province, is a major producer of underwater robots to the Chinese military. Lin developed China’s first autonomous underwater vehicle with operational depth beyond 6km. He is now chief scientist of the 912 Project, a classified programme to develop new-generation military underwater robots in time for the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.

Full article: China military develops robotic submarines to launch a new era of sea power (South China Morning Post)

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