China and US ‘need rules’ for underwater drone clashes

Both countries planning to deploy autonomous robot networks beneath the waves

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 1:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 January, 2017, 9:27am

China and the US need to discuss how to handle potential clashes over underwater drones following the seizure of a US drone by a Chinese navy ship earlier this month, analysts said.

With both countries working on plans for networks of autonomous underwater robots, the likelihood of such clashes is increasing. But the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a voluntary crisis-management mechanism which 21 countries agreed to two years ago with the aim of reducing the chance of an incident at sea and, in the event that one occurred, prevent it from escalating, does not cover underwater drones.

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“Such encounters will plausibly increase, especially given on the one hand the proliferation of drones for military use – in both aerial, surface and subsurface dimensions – and on the other hand, the geopolitical context in the region favouring drone use,” said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

Margaret Kosal, a security expert at Georgia Institute of Technology in the US said CUES should be “reviewed regularly and expanded as new technologies are employed”, but Yan Yan, a maritime law expert at the National Institute for South China Sea studies, a Chinese government think tank, said underwater drones were in a legal grey area.

“CUES cannot apply to them at present, but CUES can add an appendix to include such objects,” Yan said.

Koh said drones had been used by navies for decades, but the “real game-changer would be armed, increasingly autonomous weapon systems, such as unmanned combat vehicles”.

“So far we are seeing drones being used for low-intensity military missions such as surveillance, like the case of the seized US drone,” he said. “However, looking at the pace at which drones are proliferating in this region, and that many countries are riding into the game of indigenously developing their own drone technologies, we need to brace for the likely prospect of armed drones being used and when such a phenomenon becomes more commonplace, this will start to herald a new frontier of modern warfare.”

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The US is looking to deploy autonomous robots underwater, patrolling the sea floor in a network complete with rest stops, where the drones could recharge, and the US Navy has been testing several new systems designed to map the ocean floor, seek out mines, search for submarines and even launch attacks.

China is quickly catching up, with a Chinese underwater robot exhibition in March revealing that Beijing is building an “underwater great wall” centered around stationary sensors on the ocean bed. Chinese researchers envisage underwater drones working in conjunction with the network of seabed sensors to autonomously locate and track enemy submarines.