Unmanned vehicles or drones are considered a crucial part of America’s future warfighting efforts; and in 2016 as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, the first of these vehicles was launched. Designated the Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vehicle (MDUSV) – and known as the “Sea Hunter” – the Class III autonomous USV was developed to track quiet diesel-electric submarines.
It was considered that due to their higher speed, nuclear-powered submarines could outrun a USV, which could make the U.S. Navy’s boat largely immune. It now appears that the Chinese are actually developing their own version of the Sea Hunter, and while perhaps the USVs couldn’t track the U.S. subs, other potential rivals of Beijing’s – including Japan, Australia, and India – operate diesel-electric submarines.
Writing for USNI News, H I Sutton reported that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been conducting tests of its Sea Hunter-style drones at a former tourist resort on China’s northern coast. An auxiliary facility, which features a new pier that was constructed in early 2016 and took about a year to build, has been used for short-term trials and exercise, while submarines have been observed there as well.
Sutton suggested that the facility may be used as “overspill for the nearby Xiaopingdao naval base,” and that the site could have benefits for use as a USVs testbed. The fact that it is located further from the main base would give the unmanned vehicles more room to operate safely.
It is at the auxiliary facility where China has been testing its JARI (Jiangsu Automation Research Institute) USV fleet since 2018. Dubbed a “mini-destroyer,” the JARI is just 50-feet long but is armed with a remote weapons station (RWS) that includes a small vertical launch system (VLS) surface-to-air missiles and lightweight torpedoes. The platform is also equipped with various sensors including phased-array radars, electro-optical devices and sonar.
Another USV that is similar in the overall form of the JARI has also been spotted. It is reported to be larger – at about 70 feet in length, while its superstructure is also far more substantial. The lower hull may have also been modified from the JARi’s semi-catamaran to a simple monohull configuration.
This is likely just one of multiple Chinese USV projects in the works right now. Yet, China is far from alone in testing unmanned naval technology. The U.S. and the UK have their own respective programs, and last year Sutton reported for Forbes that the Royal Navy had awarded a contract for what may be the world’s largest underwater drone.
The “Manta” XLUUV (extra-large unscrewed underwater vehicle) would be upwards of 100 feet in length and would have the capacity to be heavily armed. The Royal Navy may no longer be the dominant naval force in the world, but it seems that it won’t let the Chinese get an advantage in drones, while Beijing also intends to lead the way in the development of the technology.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.