PLA Navy and Robotics
Vijay Sakhuja December 03, 2017
Early this year, the UK Royal United Services Institute announced that by 2020 China’s naval order of battle would be 500 ships comprising aircraft carriers, nuclear and conventional submarines, frigates and destroyers, amphibious ships and logistic vessels. Further, the Chinese defence spending would increase from US $ 123 billion in 2012 to US $ 233 billion by 2020. Surely, China is on its way to build a large and powerful navy and in the last eight years Chinese naval shipyards built 83 ships. The speed of production has been characterized as ‘making dumplings’.
One of the significant features of this naval build-up is investments in science and innovation led by digital technologies. Among these, the ‘robotic revolution’ merits attention. Till about 2013, China was the top importer accounting for 20 per cent of industrial robots produced globally (36,560 units as compared to Japan’s 26,015 units, and US in third place with 23,679 units). Since then Chinese demand for robots has increased, and in 2016, it installed 90,000 imported units nearly a third of the global total, which is expected to increase to 160,000 units by 2019.
While import substitution has proved useful, the Chinese government has invested in the development of indigenous robots to support the country’s US $11 billion robot market. The plans aim to ensure that China-branded robots constitute over 50 per cent of total sales by 2020 from 31 per cent in 2016. The country plans to produce 100,000 robots annually by 2020, compared with 33,000 in 2015. This is in line with the country’s “Made in China 2025” strategy led by industrialization and informatization focused on innovation, smart technology, the mobile Internet, cloud computing, big data and the Internet of Things.
No doubt the robot led industrialization has boosted China’s production and export competitiveness in a number of sectors such as car manufacturing, electronics, appliances, logistics, and food industry, but its use in the military has not lagged behind. In June 2017, the state-owned China Electronic Technology Group demonstrated 119 tiny propeller aircraft (X-6 Skywalker, a commercial model) loaded with software and sensors capable of communicating with the other drones in the swarm.
There are nearly 1,300 drones currently in operation with the PLA and the PLA Air Force, but use of robots in the naval domain is more recent. Perhaps it was the discovery in 2015 of a torpedo-like spy device off Hainan province provided the requisite impetus to invest in unmanned platforms. The spy device of US origin was confirmed as an intelligence gathering system to obtain information on the Chinese naval operations in the South China Sea.
China’s advancements in underwater platform technology has been demonstrated by the indigenously built Haiyi-7000 (Chinese for “sea wings”) unmanned platform which dived to a depth of 5,751 meters in the Mariana Trench, western Pacific. Apparently, the technology for the platform was obtained from the US.
The PLA Navy’s has been quite enthusiastic about using unmanned platforms. In 2016, a naval exhibit showcased Chinese plans to build an Underwater Great Wall comprising of sensors moored to the ocean bed 3,000 meters deep, to work in tandem with autonomous unmanned underwater vehicles (AUV’s) launched from torpedo tubes, surface ships, missiles and aircraft, to monitor underwater vessel movements including tracking enemy submarines particularly those of the US and Japan. Although China is yet to develop a mature technology for underwater drones, Chinese scientists are working to build swarms of 3D-printed and cheap autonomous underwater robots connected through underwater communication and datalink technologies, as well as precise navigation systems and multiple sensor payloads.
Another noteworthy Chinese demonstration of its interest in robot ships is validated by the development of a stealthy robotic trimaran warship D3000. According to China Aerospace and Science Technology Corporation, a Chinese defense contractor, this vessel is designed to operate autonomously for months, or as part of a larger task force with manned ships. The D3000 can serve as a mothership for other unmanned systems and pass the data of targets or unfriendly objects to ships and aircraft to work out firing solutions.
China is offering to foreign customers new unmanned systems that are still undergoing testing or have just entered service in the Chinese military. For instance, China showcased a 42-foot trimaran High Speed Intercept Boat in 2016 in Malaysia. The vessel can be armed, achieve speeds of 80 knots, and can ‘potentially operate in unmanned swarms.
The concept of operations for the USVs involve undertaking various missions and tasks “including escort, interdiction of civilian freighters, patrolling offshore assets and working in a system of systems with other unmanned systems, including drones and submersibles”.
In 2014 President Xi Jinping during a speech to the Chinese Academy of Sciences called for a “robot revolution”’ to raise industrial productivity and it is fair to argue that Chinese shipyards, naval research centers and the PLA Navy are ‘certainly not going to sit the robotic revolution out”. The Chinese government has characterized the robotic industry as the “jewel in the crown of manufacturing”. This is best demonstrated by the importance of robotics in the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020), the Made in China 2025 program, Robotics Industry Development Plan and Three-Year Guidance for Internet Plus Artificial Intelligence Plan (2016-2018). In essence, China is exhibiting a high degree of confidence in its ability to develop modern unmanned naval technologies.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is a co-founder and trustee of TPF.