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

China military develops robotic submarines to launch a new era of sea power, by Stephen Chen.

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 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 [unmanned underwater vehicles] 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. …

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. …

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 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. …

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.