China military develops robotic submarines to launch a new era of sea power
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.
But the researchers also noted that AI subs had limits, especially at the early stages of deployment. They will start with relatively simple tasks. The purpose of these projects is not to replace human crews entirely. To attack or not to attack, the final decision will still be in the hands of commanders, the researchers said.
Current models of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, are mostly small. Their deployment and recovery require another ship or submarine. They are limited in operational range and payload capacity.
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.
Lin called China’s unmanned submarine programme a countermeasure against similar weapons now under intensive development in the United States. He declined to elaborate on technical specifications because the information was “sensitive”.
“It will be announced sooner or later, but not now,” he added.
The US military last year made a deal with major defence contractors for two prototype XLUUVs by 2020. The US Navy would choose one prototype for the production of nine vehicles.
Lockheed Martin’s Orca system would station in an area of operation with the ability to establish communication to base from time to time. It would return home after deploying payloads, according to the company’s website.
“A critical benefit of Orca is that Navy personnel launch, recover, operate, and communicate with the vehicle from a home base and are never placed in harm’s way,” the company said in a statement announcing the system.
Technical details on Orca, like its size or operational endurance, are not available. The company did not respond to the Post’s queries.
Boeing is developing the other prototype, basing it on its Echo Voyager, a 50-ton autonomous submarine first developed for commercial uses like the mapping of the sea floor.
The Echo Voyager is more than 15 metres long and 2.6 metres in diameter, according to Boeing. It can operate for months over a range of 12,000km, more than enough to sail from San Francisco to Shanghai. Its maximum speed reaches 15km an hour.
The vessel needs to surface periodically as its batteries need to be recharged by air-breathing diesel engines. It can dive to 3km while carrying up to eight tons of cargo, Boeing said.
Russia has reportedly built a large underwater drone capable to carry a nuclear weapon. The Status-6 autonomous torpedo could cruise across large distances between continents at high speed and deliver a 100-megaton warhead, according to news accounts.
The Chinese unmanned submarine would not be nuclear-armed, according to a researcher involved in a separate programme in China.
The main advantage of the AI subs is that they can be produced and operated on a large scale at a relatively low cost, said the researcher, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Traditional submarines must attain a high level of stealth to increase the chance of survival. The design has to consider other things including safety, comfort and the mental health of the crew to ensure human safety. All these elements add costs.
In the 1990s, an Ohio-class submarine for the US Navy cost US$2 billion. The research, development and purchase of the first 12 of its new Columbia-class submarines, scheduled for delivery in the early 2020s, is more than US$120 billion.
In contrast, the budget of the entire Orca programme is about US$40 million, according to Lockheed Martin.
An AI sub “can be instructed to take down a nuclear-powered submarine or other high-value targets. It can even perform a kamikaze strike,” said the researcher, referring to the suicide attacks some Japanese fighter pilots made in the second world war.
“The AI has no soul. It is perfect for this kind of job,” the researcher added.
Luo Yuesheng, professor at the College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University, a major development centre for China’s new submarines, contended that AI subs would put the human captains of other vessels under enormous pressure in battle.
It is not just that the AI subs are fearless, Luo said, but that they could learn from the sinking of other AI vessels and adjust their strategy continuously. An unmanned submarine trained to be familiar to a specific water “will be a formidable opponent”, he said.
AI submarines are still at an early stage, Luo noted, and many technical and engineering hurdles remain before they can be deployed in open water.
Hardware on board, for instance, must meet high standards of quality and reliability, since no mechanics will be on board to fix a broken engine, repair leaking pipes or tighten a screw, he said.
The missions of unmanned submarines will also likely be limited to specific, relatively simple tasks, Luo said.
“AI will not replace humans. The situation under water can get quite sophisticated. I don’t think a robot can understand or handle all the challenges,” he added.