The Fourth Industrial Revolution is unleashing a new generation of autonomous underwater robots that will fundamentally change the way future naval wars are fought. T
he U.S. Navy surely has an advantage, being slightly further along the development and doctrinal path than other less well-funded navies.
But as is the nature of AI and robotics, it is a space where others can disrupt the established order of things.
China is about to show the world what it has been working on. The government is expected to put on its largest military parade ever October 1 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. It will be jam-packed with the latest weapons technologies.
Much of the new equipment that will be on show is still under wraps, literally. Pouring over grainy candid smartphone photographs of the rehearsals posted on Chinese language social media, military watchers have spotted something hiding under a canvas that I believe will be significant.
One of the camouflage tarpaulins barely hides the outline of what appears to be a very large new underwater robot. Autonomous underwater vehicles, known as AUVs, are the naval equivalent of the killer drones that have rapidly become part of the air warfare landscape. Already a staple of U.S. war-fighting, weaponized unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) are now cropping up in the hands of non-state actors from Syria to Colombia. AUVs, on the other hand, are still the domain of serious navies. And large AUVs are even more elite – most AUVs in service are still very small.
In U.S. Navy parlance this is a Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, or LDUUV for short. Unlike 99% of the AUVs out there, these are large enough to carry smaller AUVs, or weapons such as mines or torpedoes. They also have sufficient range to loiter in the enemy’s backyard for days. At the same time, they are still small enough to be carried to where they are needed by a regular submarine, patrol boat or even a large helicopter, such as those that will be carried aboard China’s new Assault Carriers.
Large underwater robots are likely to play a major role in China’s ambition to dominate the undersea battlespace in the South China Sea. Lurking beneath the headlines of territorial disputes and artificial islands built on reefs, underwater is a less visible environment which is equally if not more important.
China uses the South China Sea as a patrol area for its nuclear powered-ballistic missile submarines because the Yellow Sea and East China Sea are too shallow and cluttered with fishing vessels. To protect them it is building an sonar network coined the Underwater Great Wall. AUVs are expected to play a significant part in this network.
The U.S. Navy’s LDUUVs have yet to enter service so China may be set to catch up in overall terms. The British Royal Navy and Japanese Navy also have large-size AUV programs but those are in their infancy. Russia may also be toying with this technology with an unconfirmed project to build a squadron of large AUVs called Garmoniya, meaning Harmony.