Officially it’s just a research vessel, but China’s newly unveiled drone carrier is a clear sign that Beijing is rushing to deploy an autonomous swarm of unmanned vehicles to establish military dominance in the Pacific.
State media last month revealed the launch of the Zhu Hai Yun – “Zhu Hai Cloud” – capable of transporting an unspecified number of flying drones, submarines and submarines, and operating autonomously thanks to artificial intelligence.
The 89-meter (292-foot) ship would be operational by the end of the year at a top speed of 18 knots, greatly increasing China’s surveillance capability of the vast Pacific region it considers its zone of influence.
“The ship is not only an unprecedented precision tool at the frontier of marine science, but also a platform for marine disaster prevention and mitigation, precision mapping of the seabed, marine environment monitoring, and at-sea search and rescue,” said Chen Dake, laboratory director at the company that built the airline, China Daily said.
Armies around the world see drone squadrons as key players in combat, able to overwhelm defense systems through sheer numbers without endangering soldiers’ lives, such as with more expensive jets or tanks.
“It’s probably a unique development, but other navies around the world, including the US Navy, are experimenting with long-distance warfare capabilities in the maritime realm,” said US Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko, who is also an international relations specialist from Cornell University in New York.
While the ship’s actual capabilities remain to be seen, Beijing is announcing its intention to cement territorial claims in the region, as seen in the security partnership agreed with the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia last month.
“It’s definitely imposing, provocative, escalating and aggressive,” Luschenko told AFP.
– Collective Intelligence –
Building fleets of autonomous and relatively inexpensive drones would greatly improve China’s ability to enforce the so-called Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2-AD) in the Pacific, with the aim of weakening decades of US influence.
Unlike traditional aircraft carriers or destroyers that carry hundreds of troops, the drone carrier could navigate itself for extended periods of time while also sending out devices that form a surveillance “net” that might also be capable of launching missiles.
The Zhu Hai Yun could also improve China’s seabed mapping and give its submarines a covert advantage.
“These are skills that are likely to be critical in any future conflicts China wages, including over the island of Taiwan,” strategists Joseph Trevithick and Oliver Parken wrote on the influential War Zone website.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to seize control of Taiwan, and military experts say it is closely monitoring the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to gauge how and when it might act.
And last month, Chinese researchers released a drone swarm experiment that allegedly shows 10 devices navigating autonomously through a dense patch of bamboo forest without crashing into the trees or each other.
“The ultimate goal is something that has a collective intelligence,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, head of risk at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
“The analogy is a bit like a school of fish. They create shapes in the water that are not the decision of an individual fish, but the result of their collective intelligence,” he told AFP.
– game changer –
It would be a major technological advance over current weapons, which can be programmed and semi-autonomous but must have human operators to respond to unexpected challenges.
A fleet of self-navigating drones could theoretically incapacitate defensive systems or advancing forces by sheer numbers, saturating combat zones on land or sea until an opponent’s arsenal is exhausted.
“Conventional attack becomes impossible when faced with tens, hundreds or thousands of devices that are much cheaper to develop and operate than heavy conventional weapons,” Rickli said.
In the face of these profound changes in modern warfare, a 2020 study by the RAND Corporation found that while unmanned vehicles need significant improvements in onboard processing, “the overall computing power required will be modest by modern standards — certainly less than that of a.” modern smartphones”.
“A squadron of approximately 900 personnel, properly equipped and trained, could launch and recover 300 L-CAATs every six hours, for a total of 1,200 sorties per day,” it said, referring to low-cost assignable aircraft technology – equipment so cheap that an army can afford to lose.
“We have signs that China is rapidly developing its capabilities,” Lushenko said of Beijing’s new drone carrier.
“What we lack is empirical data to suggest that China’s one-party state can actually deploy the ship in an integrated manner in conflicts.”
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