China Reveals Plans for 'Phantom' Underwater Drone War Against U.S.

Artificial intelligence-powered drone subs to target American carriers

Kanyon UUV / Artist's rendering
Artistic rendering of a drone submersible
November 2, 2018

China's military is preparing to wage autonomous underwater warfare against the United States, including the use of drone submarine attacks on American aircraft carriers, according to the official Chinese military newspaper.

"Underwater offensive and defense operations constitute a major battle domain for the seizure of sea supremacy, and represent a major means of winning superiority in maritime operations," the newspaper of the People's Liberation Army stated in an Oct. 25 report.

The report said China envisions future unmanned underwater vehicles conducting stealthy autonomous attacks and relying on networks of sensors planted around the world in the sea floor that can be triggered by satellites.

Autonomous underwater warfare capabilities are part of the Chinese military's decades-long arms buildup of forces capable of defeating the United States.

The PLA report provides a rare glimpse into Chinese military thinking for deterrence and future underwater warfare.

Smart submarines operating and attacking on their own, and new high-tech underwater weapons are the "new frontier mainly for laying ambushes with underwater robots, smart 'phantom' weapons, and bionic fish-like devices to shape a network-based operations system."

Underwater attacks will be carried out using AI-powered robot submarines that operate "without relying on human control" to assess targets automatically, and organize coordinated attacks in what the military report calls "underwater phantom warfare."

"Before a crisis evolves into a war, the 'phantom' weapons may be deployed ahead of time in a way of deep submerging below the sea surface or deep lurking on the seafloor beneath a strategic sea channel, or a sea strait that the adversary's vessels will certainly pass through, one may activate such weapons via the space-based or sea-based low-frequency signal system to shape a pre-deployed underwater operations system with the capability of self-determined smart attacks," the report said.

AI underwater drones also can be used to impose a self-activated blockade of fixed targets based on the weapons' automatic target identification capabilities.

The drone submarines also will employ unbreakable coded communications and data transmission sent by advanced quantum computers.

The Chinese envision the use of a complex "neural network" of self-thinking weapons with the power of "cerebral cognition" by massive processing of underwater acoustic signals and images.

"Such a weapon system is able to automatically divide and gather a cluster of actors linked to the underwater smart communications network, and is also able to perform unmanned, self-determined, self-coordinated underwater operations to deliver precision strikes and destroy the main opponent's carrier battle group or other surface ship formation," the report said.

The carrier attacks will be conducted while the drone weapons communications are cut off from the external world.

For targeting, the Chinese will rely on networks of underwater sensors to provide targeting data, such as floating and underwater buoys, bionic fish-like devices, and underwater gliders capable of gathering target signatures.

Robot weapons and mines also will be planted on the sea floor or buried beneath it, and will be supported by underwater power charging pillars and energy tanks that will use non-contact wireless energy storage, power charging, and information relay capabilities.

As part of its future underwater warfare operations, the Chinese have begun gathering massive amounts of data on the electronic signatures of surface ships and submarines that will be used in a database for smart unmanned underwater attack weapons.

Thus China, which was disinvited from this year's large-scale U.S.-led naval exercise in the Pacific, dispatched an intelligence-gathering vessel to monitor the war games.

The AI submarine drones will be self-controlled with "the capability of thinking" and that will be able to "back off from its original decisions."

The system will employ algorithms similar to those used in the AlphaGo deep learning program that was the first to defeat a human in the chess-like Asian game of Go.

"Such a system implements a deep learning method similar to that of AlphaGo, so it can perform the native function of cognitive control, can activate pre-deployed underwater weapons, and exercise tactical control of unmanned underwater combat systems or robots according to the needs of a mission," the PLA report said.

The system will also "choose the best smart attack program according to the marine acoustic environment at the moment, and perform underwater 'phantom warfare' without supervision, without communication, and through self-driving maneuvers."

The drone underwater warfare systems will be capable of operating over wide areas to "unfold underwater ambush operations, and can even impose surrender behavior control and exercise strong psychological deterrence through the smart underwater network control system."

Another use for the autonomous drone warfare will be staging underwater attacks or deterrence operations that will involve triggering preliminary explosions of underwater weapons with the goal of forcing an enemy to give up resistance based on "psychological weaknesses of the opponent in war."

Those weaknesses would be formulated by the intelligent weapons based on intelligence and large sets of data collected in advance.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported in July that China is developing large, smart unmanned submarines capable of roaming the world's oceans for missions ranging from reconnaissance to strikes on enemy vessels. The drone submarines also could place underwater mines.

The report said China expects to deploy its unmanned underwater vehicle weapons by the early 2020s.

The robot submarines will not be equipped with nuclear weapons but can be targeted against U.S. forces in strategic waters like the South China Sea and the western Pacific, according to Chinese researchers quoted by the newspaper.

The drone submarines will be large enough to carry missiles and surveillance equipment and will have power sources that will enable long-range operations for months at a time.

The report quoted Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at China's Shenyang Institute of Automation, as confirming work on a series of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUVs.

Lin said the Chinese drone submarine program is aimed at countering similar U.S. XLUUV development programs.

Russia recently unveiled its large nuclear-tipped underwater drone submarine the Pentagon has called Kanyon and Moscow calls Status-6.

Luo Yuesheng, professor at China's College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University, said drone submarines equipped with artificial intelligence would learn from sinking other AI-powered vessels and adjust accordingly.

Luo said China's work on AI drone submarines is in an early stage and is facing technical hurdles.

"AI will not replace humans. The situation under water can get quite sophisticated. I don't think a robot can understand or handle all the challenges," Luo said.

Last September, Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces dispatched a submarine to naval exercises in the disputed South China Sea.

The Japan Defense Ministry said the exercises in early September included three warships and one diesel-electric attack submarine.

The out-of-area Japanese exercises were widely regarded as a strategic message to China, which claims to own 90 percent of the South China Sea.

The United Nations court has ruled the Chinese maritime claim is illegal.

Published under: China