China is currently developing relatively low-cost "smart" unmanned submarines that can perform a wide variety of tasks, from surveillance to the placement of munitions and "suicide" attacks.
The project - known only as ' 912' currently - is on the lines of Japan's kamikaze style of attacks in which pilots crashed their planes into enemy ships in suicide operations.
The unmanned subs are part of Beijing's ambitious plan to enhance its country's naval power with AI technology in order to challenge Western naval superiority in regions like the South China Sea and the western Pacific Ocean.
This AI-powered submarine is expected to be larger than the existing torpedo sized robotic underwater drone. The torpedo is about 12 feet long, while the new robotic submarine will be 40 to 100 feet long. Lin Yang, chief scientist on the project, called the planned submarines a retaliation to similar unmanned weapons being developed in the US.
Meanwhile, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has formally given an experimental anti-submarine vessel it was developing to the US Navy. The vessel - officially known as the Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) and unofficially known as "Sea Hunter" - is set to complement the US Navy, which is considerably larger than China's.
Sea Hunter represents a new vision of naval surface warfare that trades small numbers of very capable, high-value assets for large numbers of commoditized, simpler platforms that are more capable in the aggregate.
China has built the world's largest testing facility for surface drone boats in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. Military researchers are also developing an AI-assisted support system for submarine commanders. This will help captains make faster, more accurate judgments in the heat of combat situations.
The subs will eventually be able to station themselves for ambushes at geographical "choke points" where enemy ships are likely to travel, while also being able to work with manned submarines to scout, or as decoys to draw fire and expose an adversary's position.
The robotic submarines rely heavily on artificial intelligence to deal with the sea’s complex environment. They must make decisions constantly on their own: changing course and depth to avoid detection; distinguishing civilian from military vessels; choosing the best approach to reach a designated position.
Currently under development, the unmanned underwater vehicle or UUVs are “giants” as compared to the normal UUVs, according to researchers. While the current models are limited to their operational range and payload capability, the ongoing submarine project is sufficiently large to accommodate wide range of freight and powerful surveillance equipments - from missiles to torpedoes. Not to be outdone in size or girth, the US military announced a major defense contract last year for two prototype XLUUVs by 2020.
Lockheed Martin’s Orca system would be stationed in an area of operation with the ability to establish communication to base from time to time. It would return home after deploying payloads, according to the company’s website.
“A critical benefit of Orca is that Navy personnel launch, recover, operate, and communicate with the vehicle from a home base and are never placed in harm’s way,” the company said in an announcement.
Boeing, meanwhile, is developing the other prototype - its "Echo Voyager," a 50-ton autonomous sub first developed for commercial purposes such as mapping the ocean floor. The approximately 50-foot vehicle just 8.5 feet in diameter can operate for months over a range of around 7,500 miles - enough to sail from San Francisco to Shanghai at 8 knots.
Russia has also reportedly developed a large underwater drone able to carry a 100-megaton warhead - the Status-6 autonomous torpedo.
AI submarines are still at the early stages of operations and many of the technical and engineering hurdles still need to be addressed before it can be deployed in open water. These challenges would include developing the intelligence level, stability, control and developmental cost reduction.
“The missions of unmanned submarines will also likely be limited to specific, relatively simple tasks”, says Luo. “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,” he added.
Our assessment is that advanced military and economic expansion will inevitably lead to a shift in the geopolitical order, but this impact will depend on how China’s main competitors – US and Russia – develop their own AI capabilities. We believe that the international norm being promoted by AI researchers is that that any weaponized AI system will require human input to ultimately make a decision. We feel that if China is on a path of creating weaponized AIs that do not require human input, this should be of serious concern to the global community.