How China Sees the U.S. Navy's Sea Hunter Drone

Sea Hunter gets underway on the Willamette River following a christening ceremony. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy

Chinese strategists are studying the implications of the U.S. Navy’s new sub-hunting unmanned surface vessel.

The Sea Hunter antisubmarine warfare continuous trail unmanned vessel was unveiled to considerable fanfare during 2016. This vessel has the promise to revolutionize naval warfare in the same way that Predator and Reaper drone aircraft have fundamentally altered counterinsurgency and counterterrorism. The forty-meter-long trimaran is much larger than any other attempts at fielding drones into the maritime domain, but is said to be capable of patrols of up to seventy days at a bewildering distance of ten thousand nautical miles. Were that not impressive enough, the robot ship is tasked with the most challenging mission of tracking quiet adversary diesel submarines. At a single (and seemingly quite affordable) stroke, this new technological innovation may have overturned some starkly unfavorable strategic trends in the Asia-Pacific.

Naturally, Chinese strategists are somewhat unnerved by these developments. One authoritative source describes the Sea Hunter as a “severe challenge to our country’s future submarine force [对未来我海军潜艇部队构成严峻挑战].” Another Chinese defense analysis concludes, “Undoubtedly, dealing with this shadowing-type unmanned ‘sentry’ already confronts China with a new study topic with respect to equipment development and tactical employment [已经成为中国在装备发展和战术使用中面临的新课题].” This edition of Dragon Eye will make a brief survey of these Chinese analyses of Sea Hunter in the hopes of coming to some conclusions about the future trajectory of this intensifying naval rivalry on and under the sea.

The quote immediately above comes from a rather detailed analysis that appeared in the June 2016 issue of Ordnance Knowledge [兵器知识]. The article presents some reasonably detailed data on Sea Hunter’s capabilities, including maximum speed (fifty kilometers) as well as the boat’s seakeeping abilities in rough weather “even up to sea state 7 [甚至在7级海况下].” Using active sonar mode, this Chinese estimate suggests Sea Hunter can detect submarines at a distance of up to eighteen kilometers. Much of the article discusses the vessel’s rapid development process, detailing the interaction over several years between DARPA (Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency) and the U.S. defense companies Leidos and Sonalysts. A particular emphasis in the article is placed on the relatively low cost of Sea Hunter, which at just $20 million per unit is more than ten times cheaper than each P-8 Poseidon antisubmarine aircraft, according to this Chinese analysis. Similarly, the drastically lower daily operating cost of this unmanned vessel compared to manned ASW systems is also highlighted. Of course, the main advantage of deploying such a system, namely that it does not put lives at risk [不会引发人员伤亡的后果], is also mentioned. In terms of how the United States might deploy Sea Hunter in battle, the authors of this analysis project that large numbers of these craft will be sent to undertake twenty-four-hour monitoring of points of egress for the Chinese submarine force [对中国海军潜艇的重要进出水道和海峡实施24小时跟踪].

The somewhat highbrow forum Defense Science and Technology Industry [国防科技技术] also published a piece about the same time. It is quite unusual for this magazine to focus on singular platforms or weapons systems, so this attention speaks to the perceived importance of Sea Hunter for China’s future military development. Among the authors of this piece is the well-known Chinese military academic Li Daguang [李大光] of China National Defense University. Li and his colleagues do not mince words, but declare that Sea Hunter will “precipitate a revolution in the domain of naval strategy [在海军战略领域引发革命].” Touching on another key advantage of the platform, they observe that Sea Hunter is not constrained by “human physiological or psychological limitations.” Although understanding that the present boat has no weaponry, this analysis appraises the vessels as having “rather good stealth characteristics.” The piece conveys that the Sea Hunter can help the U.S. Navy with its problem of having insufficient numbers of submarine and surface ASW assets [攻击潜艇和水面舰数量缩减后搜潜力量不足的问题]. As in the previous article, there is a recognition that the pursuit of Sea Hunter by the Pentagon has been fundamentally an effort to reduce platform and also operating costs. One approach advocated by these Chinese defense analysts is to double down on fielding “new-type nuclear submarines, and thus fundamentally reverse the [current] situation.”