China sends twin BeiDou navigation satellites into space via a single carrier rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, last year. Photo: Xinhua
China sends twin BeiDou navigation satellites into space via a single carrier rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, last year. Photo: Xinhua

China’s BeiDou satellite navigation system breaks underwater barriers, naval shipbuilder says

  • Advances in positioning system ‘could be applied to country’s stealth submarines and subsea drones’

Topic |   China's military
China sends twin BeiDou navigation satellites into space via a single carrier rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, last year. Photo: Xinhua
China sends twin BeiDou navigation satellites into space via a single carrier rocket from Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in Xichang, Sichuan province, last year. Photo: Xinhua

Tests have confirmed advances in the maritime use of China’s home-grown satellite navigation system, gains that could strengthen the ability of the country’s submarines and underwater drones to mount stealth strikes, military specialists said.

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) said underwater precision positioning tests conducted by its No 716 Research and Development Institute in waters off Lianyungang in Jiangsu province, proved that it had overcome a number of core technical problems with the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System.

CSIC, China’s biggest state-owned naval shipbuilder, said the tests showed that the BeiDou system could not only provide accurate and consistent positioning data to underwater vessels, but could also send tracking and positioning information from underwater devices to shore-based and surface stations.

“The tests were meant to comprehensively test the BeiDou system’s capacity to deal with the complex sea environment,” CSIC said, adding that the system’s positioning accuracy and ranges were better than expected.

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But the company did not specify the depths and ranges of the tests.

Beijing-based naval specialist Li Jie said the advances would help Chinese submarines and underwater drones improve their ability to track other vessels and mount precision stealth strikes.

“Precision and communication are the two most important elements for submarines and underwater drones,” Li said.

“If the underwater BeiDou system can provide accurate positioning information and support communication between submarines and drones and land-based stations it would be a big strategic achievement for the Chinese navy – they will have finally built an independent global navigation system.”

Improvements to the BeiDou system could help China in Arctic exploration. Photo: Xinhua
Improvements to the BeiDou system could help China in Arctic exploration. Photo: Xinhua

The tests are understood to be part of Beijing’s plan to turn the BeiDou system into a global geolocation network, covering land and sea by 2020.

State news agency Xinhua reported last week that China had 35 satellites in orbit as part of the system to provide accurate positioning and navigation services to users around the world.

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said the underwater BeiDou system could be for both military and civilian uses, including guiding artificial intelligence drones sent up to 3,000 metres below the surface of the South China Sea and other waters.

“AI drones are cheaper to deploy than submarines, but they’re still very expensive, with one drone costing up to 50 million yuan (US$7.2 million). Underwater navigation in deep seas is also much more challenging than in the space,” Zhou said, adding that one of the drones was picked up by Vietnamese fishermen off the coast of Phu Yen province in south-central Vietnam in December.

He said the system could also help China exploit maritime resources.

“If the underwater BeiDou system can provide stable communication links with shore-based centres and surface command ships, then it would help China do underwater geological surveys,” Zhou said.

Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said the advances in the satellite navigation system could bolster the operations of China’s nuclear-powered strategic submarines, deep-sea rescues, scientific research on the high seas and even Arctic exploration.

Minnie Chan

Minnie Chan

Minnie Chan is an award-winning journalist, specialising in reporting on defence and diplomacy in China. Her coverage of the US EP-3 spy plane crash with a PLA J-8 in 2001 near the South China Sea opened her door to the military world. Since then, she has had several scoops relating to China's military development. She has been at the Post since 2005 and has a master's in international public affairs from The University of Hong Kong.