China is developing large, smart and relatively cheap robotic submarines that can roam the oceans and perform a wide variety of missions, from reconnaissance to suicide attacks against enemy vessels. The submarines are powered by Artificial intelligence (AI) technology.
The aim of these submarines is not the replace human-operated underwater vessels, it is aimed at supplementing it in challenging Western naval power after World War II. South China Morning Post reported that the unmanned submarines are mainly aimed at United States forces in strategic waters like the South China Sea and western Pacific Ocean, according to researchers.
The project is part of the governments plan to boost China’s naval power with AI technology. Researchers are also developing an AI-assisted support system for submarine commanders.
The new unmanned submarines will join other autonomous or manned systems on water, land and orbit to carry out missions, as reported by the South China Morning Post, quoting researchers.
The submarines will have absolutely no human operators on board, they will be fully autonomous. They may establish periodic contact with the commander center for updates, however they are fully capable of completing their missions and returning to base entirely on their own.
The South China Morning Post also mentioned that researches emphasize that AI subs have their limits, specifically at the early stages of development. The purpose is not to completely replace human crews. Furthermore, the decision to attack or not also falls into the hands of a human.
The day-to-day decisions, according to the Daily Mail, will be performed by the submarine. It will completely autonomously make decisions regarding navigating the ocean, changing course and depth to avoid detection, determining the difference between enemy and civilian vessels, as well as the best path to reach a destination.
An interview was conducted by South China Morning Post with Lin Yang, who runs the 912 project, a classified program for the development of new-generation military underwater robots by 2021. He called the unmanned submarine programme a countermeasure against similar weapons under intensive development in the US. He, however, refused to elaborate on technical specifications, due to them being “sensitive” information.
The US has made a deal with two major defence contractors: Orca and Boeing. The contracts are for the development of two prototype Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles.
The South China Morning Post also reported that an anonymous researcher involved in another Chinese project claims that the submarine will not be nuclear-armed.