Given the scope of the U.S. Navy's progress with autonomous surface warfare and its fast-expanding fleet of drone warships, it comes as no surprise to learn that the large and closely followed Chinese Navy is reporting success with the same thing.
The Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times newspaper has reported that a new Chinese unmanned high-speed vessel demonstrated “breakthrough” levels of “dynamic cooperative confrontation technology.” This language, according to the paper, suggests that the Chinese Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs) can “quickly intercept, besiege and expel invasive targets.”
This technology is brought to fruition through advanced levels of collaborative autonomy wherein advanced algorithms are able to process incoming data, bounce it off a vast database to perform analyses, and optimize a course of action. The Chinese paper describes it as “collaborative perception, high-speed tracking, evidence collection, interception and guarding Chinese sea territory.”
This language sounds strikingly familiar, as it mirrors what the U.S. Navy has been advancing for many years with its Ghost Fleet or Overlord program effort. This fast-progressing technological configuration involves a number of unmanned assets operating autonomously in coordination with one another to respond to fast-emerging new intelligence information, adjust mission scope or function quickly as needed, make critical, non-lethal decisions autonomously, and optimize mission effectiveness. The full extent to which Chinese AI-enabled computer algorithms are able to parallel the United States in terms of operational functionality is unknown. However, it seems unlikely that China is well-positioned to match the advanced stages of collaborative autonomous functions now operational with the U.S. Navy.
The process is both nuanced and quite complex, as groups of U.S. Navy unmanned surface vehicles can operate with their own computer-enabled levels of autonomy. The next step, which the U.S. Navy continues to make breakthrough progress with, comes in the form of “collective autonomy,” meaning individual drones can share and analyze data between themselves and make necessary, mission-critical adjustments as a group. Groups of USVs are now being built and developed to operate in close coordination with one another in a fleet of unmanned and manned vessels in an optimal way.
The U.S. Navy is fast acquiring a new, highly advanced fleet of Small, Medium, and Large USVs to operate in close coordination with one another. Each of these platforms is intended to operate smaller drones, autonomously hunt mines and submarines, organize and share information across the fleet in real-time through AI-empowered data processing technology and perform integrated, collaborative missions with small groups of drone boats. The Ghost Fleet program goes back many years to its early days with the Office of Naval Research, and given how complex the algorithms need to be to advance an integrated system of surface drones, it would seem unlikely that China would be in a position to rival this mission capacity.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.