A video from late May 2018 shows a swarm of 56 small, unmanned boatsoperating in the South China Sea. While a rudimentary demonstration, it mirrors similar exercises performed by U.S. Navy boats practicing — semi-autonomously — to defend harbors and intercept incoming vessels.
The Chinese robo-boats do not appear to be armed, but the company behind it — Yunzhou Tech Corporation — revealed an armed unmanned boat at a Beijing “Civil-Military Integration Expo” in July 2017.
The show focused on cutting-edge technologies that China believes could provide an “asymmetric” advantage in a conflict with the United States. Meaning, cheaper technologies and tactics that allow a weaker adversary to exploit unanticipated weaknesses in a more powerful opponent.
If the at-sea demonstration is any sign, those capabilities are developing.
The expensive and difficult portion of a robotic swarm is the technology you can’t see — the networks and algorithms that allow machines to work together and avoid obstacles. The boats themselves are cheap.
Once you figure out the mathematical problems, then it’s a simple matter of arming each of those small boats with rockets and missiles and sending them after a $1 billion cruiser. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, the cruiser can’t swat them all away before one draws blood.
However, the Chinese military is not entirely sold on the concept, as there are more conservative-minded generals who prefer the People’s Liberation Army focus on improving and expanding its conventional, and established, military forces — warships, fighter jets and missiles — as opposed to taking risks on largely untried technology.
But Chinese companies are still developing drones, and the armed Wing Loong — similar to the U.S. Predator — has proliferated to Africa where it has seen combat. A more anodyne set of examples of developing Chinese drone tech are the dancing displays of networked machines taking to the skies during public events.
“Clearly the U.S. and China are in some sort of weird swarm race,” Paul Scharre of the Center for New American Security told the Financial Times last year in a broad overview of the trend.
That same article discussed the divide within the PLA over whether this tech — not as far-flung as it used to be — is worth the investment. “China, which is at the center of the commercial drone industry, has some advantages as the era of unmanned systems dawns,” the article’s authors Emily Feng and Charles Clover wrote.
That would be China’s large domestic consumer demand for drones, and the country’s large manufacturing base working together to spur development. Naturally, the Chinese government and military are tapping into it.