Here's What You Need to Know: America needs to concern itself with more than humans.
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 in 2018.
Image: U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Marcus L. Stanley / REUTERS