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China has secret underwater drone to attack enemy submarines, report says

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Type-39B submarine. (Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/U.S. Navy)
July 09, 2021

China has been developing an unmanned submersible vehicle that can track enemy submarines and attack them with torpedoes. According to documents obtained by the South China Morning Post first reported Thursday, China’s underwater drone already successfully attacked a mock submarine target 11 years ago.

The South China Morning Post reported the underwater drone project was partially declassified by a Chinese engineering university involved in its development. A Journal of Harbin Engineering University paper published last Friday detailed a 2010 test in the Taiwan Strait in which the underwater attack drone used its own sensors to independently identify and track the submarine target, before successfully firing an unarmed torpedo at it.

It is not entirely clear why China has now declassified some of the details of the 2010 test, but the South China Morning Post noted the declassification of these details comes amid ongoing tensions over China’s control of Taiwan, with China vowing to reunify the island with mainland China, while the U.S. and Japan have raised the possibility of intervening on Taiwan’s behalf if China seeks to exert control over the island.

Professor Liang Guolong and other researchers at Harbin Engineering University, China’s top submarine research institute, wrote that the underwater attack drone test simulated it operating “with the complete absence of humans in an open environment.”

The South China Morning Post reported the unmanned underwater drones could also be pre-positioned along the ocean floor, lying in wait and activating in the event of a military conflict.

Liang wrote that China has continued to advance its unmanned underwater drone technology in the years since the 2010 test, including improved sonar systems and improved artificial intelligence and communications systems that could allow multiple underwater drones to coordinate as a fleet to attack the same target from different directions. Liang also wrote that an improved power supply for the drones could also allow them to wait for longer periods of time before they are activated to attack enemy vessels.

China is not the only country working on unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs). U.S. defense contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Huntington Ingalls Industries have been developing the “Orca”, an extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle (EXUUV) under a $43 million U.S. Navy contract.

Russia has also been developing underwater drone technology, including a drone that could carry a nuclear warhead and detonate along enemy coastlines.

Liang and his colleagues wrote Israel and Singapore are among other countries that have tested or deployed underwater drones.

China’s underwater drone efforts are part of a larger effort to develop technology that can coordinate swarms of drones. China is reportedly developing unmanned surface vessels, long-distance reconnaissance gliders, and even a UFO-like drone that can both fly and travel underwater, the South China Morning Post reported.