America May Soon Find Itself in an Underwater War with China

Unmanned underwater vehicles, assigned to Commander, Task Group 56.1, are pre-staged before UUV buoyancy testing. CTG 56.1 provides mine countermeasure, explosive ordnance disposal, salvage diving and force protection for the U.S. 5th Fleet.

In the years to come, Chinese and U.S. drones will likely be in a high stakes cat and mouse game in the Pacific.

Strategists contemplating Asia-Pacific strategy quickly come to the conclusion that the undersea campaign is decisive. Fixed targets are vulnerable in the age of precision strike, meaning that air bases do not have a chance against a barrage of missiles. And with advances in ISR (Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) sensors and ever expanding missile ranges and power projection platforms, surface warships may not fare much better. Thus, it is no laughing matter to consider rumors that China has pulled off some breakthroughs in submarine quieting or that the PLA Navy submarine force has ambitions to enter both the Arctic and also the Atlantic as part of a much enhanced pattern of operational deployments.

But undersea warfare is not static and some have speculated that higher computer processing speeds combined with myriad new underwater sensors could render even remote parts of the ocean more and more transparent, undermining submarine stealth and survivability. Some of China’s recent achievements in these developments have been noted in this space. Another question hovering over the undersea warfare planner is the question of how important undersea robots, both unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs) and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) could be. Will they come to assume the same vital role that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have assumed? A Dragon Eye column has dipped a toe into this discussion before by examining the role that the new U.S. Navy anti-submarine unmanned surface ship (USV) Sea Hunter (with an extraordinary range of 10,000 miles) could play in the evolving U.S.-China maritime rivalry. This column will dip another toe into this pond and explore several Chinese platforms in development of this nascent unmanned contest unfolding on and under the waves.

A first Chinese UUV of significance is the so-called Haiyi [海翼] or “sea wing,” which is a standard looking glider. It should be said that this is hardly Beijing’s only glider program. Gliders in the UUV context refer to vehicles originally developed in the West that are literally self-propelled in that they lack a large battery or fuel for propulsion. Instead they rely on small changes in buoyancy to maintain propulsion through a constant process of ascending and descending through the water column. According to a description of Haiyi recently published in the Chinese military magazine Ordnance Industry Science and Technology (兵工科技), “since there is no power propulsion, the acoustic signature is extremely low. That characteristic suggests that [this platform] can have great significance for the military domain [由于无动力推进噪音极底这个重要的特点使得其在军事上也有很大的应用价值]. Produced by a Shenyang robotics laboratory, Haiyi is two meters in length and weighs 65kg, dimensions quite in line with Western analogues. The project was initiated in 2003 and a prototype was ready in 2005. An extended test in 2012 explored the area proximate to the Dongsha [东沙] islands in the northeastern South China Sea. A map included with the article actually shows the vehicle’s precise track, exploring the sensitive waters west of the critical Luzon Strait. The article further notes that, due to Western sanctions on glider technology, the Haiyi was “completely developed indigenously.” It is apparently of some significance that a subsequent report boasts that this glider has set world diving records and reached a depth of 6,229m. This is significant because sound propagation is more efficient in deeper waters, so deep-diving gliders could possibly be related to submarine detection missions.