Key point: China hopes that robots will give it an asymmetric advantage over the United States.
A video from late May 2018 shows a swarm of 56 small, unmanned boats operating in the South China Sea. While a rudimentary demonstration, it mirrors similar exercises performed by U.S. Navy boats practicing — semi-autonomously — to defend harbors and intercept incoming vessels.
The Chinese robo-boats do not appear to be armed, but the company behind it — Yunzhou Tech Corporation — revealed an armed unmanned boat at a Beijing “Civil-Military Integration Expo” in July 2017.
The show focused on cutting-edge technologies that China believes could provide an “asymmetric” advantage in a conflict with the United States. Meaning, cheaper technologies and tactics that allow a weaker adversary to exploit unanticipated weaknesses in a more powerful opponent.
If the at-sea demonstration is any sign, those capabilities are developing.
The expensive and difficult portion of a robotic swarm is the technology you can’t see — the networks and algorithms that allow machines to work together and avoid obstacles. The boats themselves are cheap.
Once you figure out the mathematical problems, then it’s a simple matter of arming each of those small boats with rockets and missiles and sending them after a $1 billion cruiser. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, the cruiser can’t swat them all away before one draws blood.
However, the Chinese military is not entirely sold on the concept, as there are more conservative-minded generals who prefer the People’s Liberation Army focus on improving and expanding its conventional, and established, military forces — warships, fighter jets and missiles — as opposed to taking risks on largely untried technology.
But Chinese companies are still developing drones, and the armed Wing Loong — similar to the U.S. Predator — has proliferated to Africa where it has seen combat. A more anodyne set of examples of developing Chinese drone tech are the dancing displays of networked machines taking to the skies during public events.
This article first appeared last year.