Mass deployment of Drones gives a tremendous underwater advantage to Beijing not only for quietly gathering hydrographic data in territorial waters of other countries but also military advantage to the PLA
|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Sea Wing 'Haiyi' underwater drones developed by the Chinese Institution of Oceanology have been augmenting the considerable submarine fleet of China. Underwater drones use forward momentum created by repeatedly sinking and then rising in a method called variable-buoyancy propulsion. With large wings, the Haiyi unpowered drone is capable of long missions, and can also move through waters using buoyancy compensation system filled with oil.
China claims that Haiyi was able to swim to a depth of over 20,764 feet, or nearly 6.4 km down, beating the US world record of over 16,964 feet. Using a unique battery and a special coat to protect it from over 60 tonnes of underwater pressure, Haiyi also broke records in 2014 by swimming over 1,106 km nonstop in 30 days. Most significantly, Chinese military media has said that the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) can put Haiyi to military use.
On July 8, 2021, China declassified its new underwater drone designed to specifically target enemy submarines, developed as part of a secret project funded by the PLA
China first deployed Haiyi underwater drones in East China Sea during 2015 and later in the South China Sea. In 2016, one Haiyi was found near Quang Ngai in Vietnam during November. Then, on February 12, 2019, another Haiyi was found in Indonesia near Bangka Island, followed by another in Riau Islands in March same year. In December 2019, China deployed at least 12 x Haiyi in the Indian Ocean using its survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 06. The Chinese Academy of Science said in March 2020, "The 12 underwater gliders carried out cooperative observation in a designated sea area. Together they traveled more than 12,000 km and conducted more than 3,400 profiling observations, obtaining a large number of hydrological data." On January 20, 2020, one Haiyi was found near Masalembu Islands located east of the Makassar Strait.
Haiyi is reportedly not armed at present but possibly will be in future if the PLA is to put it to military use. However, even without arming, mass deployment of Haiyi would be used to detect and track enemy submarines movements in order to attack them. The Haiyi, therefore, presents a clear security threat. Mass deployment gives a tremendous underwater advantage to Beijing not only for quietly gathering hydrographic data in territorial waters of other countries but also military advantage to the PLA. The production cost and monthly/yearly production capability of Haiyi is not known but mass production enables China their unobtrusive deployment in exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of other countries. If the Haiyi get detected, China would blame it to unintentional drift or simply deny ownership.
On July 8, 2021, China declassified its new underwater drone designed to specifically target enemy submarines; developed as part of a secret project funded by the PLA. The project dates back to the 1990s. According to media reports, the drone was test-fired in the Taiwan Strait without human input a decade ago; the drone could detect a mock craft, use artificial intelligence to identify its origin, and hit it with a torpedo." Professor Liang Guolong from China's Harbin Engineering University says, "These robotic drones are now working mostly individually, but with technological upgrades (they) could patrol in packs." Specifics suggest the unmanned drone can patrol about 10 meters (32 feet) below the surface following a predetermined route.
China habitually blows its trumpet about achievements in research and development especially weapon platforms. Therefore, it is strange that a successful test of this new underwater drone conducted a decade back is being declassified now. No doubt new unmanned platforms for underwater warfare are feverishly being researched world over but this particular Chinese drone, the name of which has not been revealed, may not be fully operational with capabilities that China is claiming it has. It could be part of the physical and psychological pressure China is building against Taiwan. Recall Chanakya had said, "Even if a snake is not poisonous, it should pose to be one." Witness how some officials of China's Communist Party (CCP) are threatening to "continuously use nuclear bombs" against Japan if it attempts to interfere with a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. These clowns perhaps feel rest of the world will remain mute and not nuke their industrial teeth into extinction!
Variants of these subs and autonomous drones could be planted on sea floors and activated in the event of a clash or war. China could use drones for underwater terrorism as well.
At the same time, the type of drone mentioned by China remains in the realms of reality given that China has demonstratively optimised artificial intelligence (AI) extensively. Chinese researchers say, "That test, conducted in 2010, was China's first attempt to simulate the tracking and sinking of a submarine "with the complete absence of humans in an open environment".
Interestingly, these Chinese researchers also claim that Israel and Singapore, among others, have tested or deployed similar underwater drones in the oceans. Russia recently deployed a new submarine that can launch a nuclear-powered drone with enough firepower it claims can wipe out cities. Also, the US military has asked Boeing to build four extra-large Orca underwater unmanned vehicles (UUVs). Variants of these subs and autonomous drones could be planted on sea floors and activated in the event of a clash or war. China could use drones for underwater terrorism as well. Our policy makers need to keep these developments in mind.