Technology How China is Militarizing Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Technology

PLA Navy
The HSU001 large-displacement UUV at a Chinese military parade, October 2019 (Public domain)

Published
Aug 22, 2021 8:33 PM by

CIMSEC

[By Ryan Fedasiuk]

Since 2018, Indonesian fishermen have regularly reeled in autonomous, glider-like vehicles operating as far south as the Java Sea—part of China’s longstanding undersea vehicle research program first declassified in 2021. Over the past decade, details have sporadically emerged about China’s unmanned (UUV) and autonomous undersea vehicle (AUV) projects, but questions linger about which kinds of vessels the Chinese defense industry may be developing, and how the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might use them in a future conflict.

This article draws on a wide array of primary sources—including advertisements from defense companies, PLA writings and research papers, and information released by state-run research institutes—to illuminate China’s growing fleet of autonomous undersea vehicles. After profiling three major AUV research institutes, the article identifies potential applications of China’s growing fleet of AUVs and continued barriers to development.

China’s Big Three Undersea Vehicle Developers

As in many other Chinese technology industries, the state plays a leading role in undersea vehicle development. In 1986, Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang initiated the State High-Tech Development Plan (863 Plan) to fund billions of dollars in applied technology development. In 1996, marine technologies were added to the program, adding further fuel to China’s emerging undersea vehicle industry. In particular, three government-sponsored research institutions form the backbone of AUV development in China. Each began undersea vehicle research in the 1980s, and has gone on to pioneer lines of AUVs still in use today:

Shenyang Institute of Automation. Part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, SIA’s Computer Vision Group is at the forefront of state-backed unmanned technology and autonomy research in China. In 1981, SIA developed the HR-01, China’s first remotely-piloted undersea vehicle. The institute went on to develop the “Explorer” series of fully autonomous undersea vehicles in the 1990s and 2000s, with later variants capable of diving to 6,000 meters. Today, SIA specializes in developing prototypes of medium and large undersea vessels, including the Sea-Whale 2000 and Qianlong (“Hidden Dragon”) series of AUVs.

China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation. As the world’s largest shipbuilding conglomerate, CSIC’s myriad research institutes have made significant contributions to China’s AUV research and development, particularly the 701, 702, 710, and 714 Research Institutes. Since 2000, CSIC has been responsible for developing the Haishen (“Poseidon”) series of AUVs, in addition to a new line of autonomous undersea gliders, such as the Haiyi 1 (“Sea Wing”).

Harbin Engineering University. Originally called the Harbin Institute of Shipbuilding, HEU began developing a “Smart Water” series of AUVs in 1991, and has gradually expanded AUV testing in the South China Sea. The Smart Water series today comprises five variants of different sizes, but HEU has developed additional AUV models for undersea surveying and mapping, such as the Weilong (Microdragon) 1, 2, and 3. HEU is also home to China’s State Key Laboratory of Underwater Vehicle Technology, which specializes in developing human-occupied, remotely-operated, and autonomous surface and deep-sea vehicles.

New Players in AUV Development

Beyond China’s big three AUV design centers, a growing number of research institutes and private enterprises are entering the Chinese AUV market. A document published in 2019 by the Chinese Society of Naval Architecture lists 159 undersea vehicle research projects under development at more than 40 Chinese universities—a significant increase over the 15 major universities that had constructed undersea vehicle research teams just four years prior. Another document prepared by Dr. Wu Jianguo, a professor at Hebei University of Science and Technology, shows that more than 48 universities and 45 enterprises in China host major UUV and AUV projects.

The CCP’s military-civil fusion development strategy is also facilitating a boom in China’s private-sector AUV industry. By promoting resource and information sharing between the military and private technology companies, China has seen some success in its efforts to accelerate AUV research, as several enterprises are developing new lines of AUVs independent of the big three research institutes. While it is too early to say whether they may become globally competitive with companies like the U.S.-based Bluefin Robotics or Norway’s Kongsberg, Chinese enterprises such as Xi’an Tianhe Haiphong Intelligent Technology and Startest Marine seem to be emerging as China’s national champions of AUV systems and equipment. In 2017, China’s International Ocean Technology Exhibition in Qingdao attracted representatives from more than 500 enterprises working on AUV systems and components.

How the PLA Navy Might Use Autonomous Undersea Vehicles

While China’s AUV fleet still primarily consists of early-stage research experiments and prototypes, scientific research papers and theoretical writings by the PLA Navy (PLAN) indicate that it is primarily interested in using AUVs for marine surveying and reconnaissance, mine warfare and countermeasures, undersea cable inspection, and anti-submarine warfare. Each of these applications rely on different AUV models, and carry distinct implications and risks for the U.S. Navy and its partners in the Indo-Pacific.

1. Marine Surveying and Reconnaissance

The PLAN’s most mature application of AUVs is in marine surveying and reconnaissance. Chinese and American analysts have long assessed that the United States would retain a significant undersea advantage in a Taiwan Strait contingency, and the PLAN has rapidly expanded its manned diesel submarine force to compensate for this disadvantage. As early as 2013, the PLA commissioned construction of the Great Underwater Wall, a network of hydrosonic sensors deployed at depths of 2,000 meters, which are designed to detect adversary undersea vehicles operating in the South China Sea. More recent research papers indicate that the PLAN may field groups of small and medium-sized AUVs for a similar purpose.

Portable and light models have so far formed the backbone of the PLAN’s emerging AUV fleet—in part due to battery constraints. Early AUV prototypes, such as CSIC’s Haishen 100 (“Poseidon 100”) and SIA’s Explorer, could dive to less than 1000 meters each; but modern variants have grown both in size and capability. Undersea gliders are a particularly promising innovation, and it is no surprise that so many have been found across the Indo-Pacific: Because of their improved range and endurance, gliders can more reliably detect undersea objects and periodically surface to transmit that information to ground stations and surface vessels. In the event of a crisis, analysts warn that autonomous gliders could be used to overcome China’s significant disadvantage in undersea warfare by detecting and tracking the locations of U.S. submarines even beyond the first island chain. Examples of such vehicles include SIA’s Haiyi (Sea Wing); Tianjin University’s Haiyan (Sea Swallow); and the Hai Xiang (Sea Flyer) developed by CSIC’s 702 Research Institute. Still, that these gliders must surface in order to transmit information offers a point of vulnerability, and Chinese experts still believe the United States has an advantage in undersea surveying and mapping.

“Marine Environment Detection by Underwater Glider” Source: CSIC 714 Research Institute.

2. Mine Warfare and Countermeasures

Sea mines are a core tenet of Chinese naval doctrine and planning. As early as 2013, researchers at the China Engineering Science and Technology Forum publicly acknowledged the significance of UUVs in deploying mines and mine countermeasures (MCM); and military analysts have commented on the potential mine-laying capabilities of China’s HSU001 large-displacement UUV first unveiled in 2019. Today, the PLA may choose from more than 26 variants of floating and submerged mines designed to attack all manner of enemy ships and submarines.

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