University researchers in China have completed testing on a new, autonomous unmanned mini-submarine, Chinese state media reported.
The reports said that researchers at Tianjin University completed a sea test of the Haiyan, an autonomous underwater unmanned vehicle (UUV).
“During the test, the vehicle worked consecutively for 21 days and reached a depth of 1094 meters. With an endurance of 30 days, the torpedo-shaped vehicle propelled at a maximum underwater speed of close to 6 kilometers per hour,” the reports said.
The Haiyan is currently being developed as a civilian vessel for the purposes of scientific exploration of marine biology, seabeds and to aid search and rescue missions. Indeed, the U.S. famously deployed the Bluefin-21 UUV to aid in the search for Malaysian Flight MH370. The Bluefin-21 was able to scan most of the immense search area in the southern Indian Ocean in nine missions.
The Haiyan is not China’s first UUV. In fact, Beijing already maintains larger and faster UUVs. Where the Haiyan does have an edge is that it is an underwater glider which conserves energy and thus heightens endurance. It also has more advanced computing and can transport information in real time and even make decisions about which course to follow in the sea.
Although being developed for civilian uses, research universities in China and elsewhere maintain close links to the national military and the Haiyan is likely to be used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy — perhaps even in a modified armed version.
In fact, the reports in China’s state media noted that “the UUV can also be upgraded by the Chinese navy to serve as a[n] underwater combat and patrol robot, taking on lengthy and dangerous missions like minesweeping and submarine detection, and offer[ing] protection for Chinese ships and oil platforms.”
The Haiyan’s potential anti-submarine warfare (ASW) applications are likely to be especially useful for the PLAN as this is an area where Beijing has traditionally struggled. China’s perceived ASW weakness is being exploited by rival navies in Japan, Vietnam and the United States. Attack submarines would be key, for instance, in any American attempt to eliminate China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities.
As an underwater glider, the Haiyan will be a boon to the PLAN’s efforts to detect enemy submarines which can be eliminated using ASW aircraft and naval capabilities. As Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer explain on their terrific Eastern Arsenals blog:
“Traditionally, area detection for ASW aircraft was done with sonobouys, small, sonar equipped buoys airdropped over an area of water. Underwater gliders have better endurance than sonobuoys, whose lifespan are often measured in just hours. The larger size of underwater gliders (the Haiyan is four times as large as the USN’s 16kg AN/SSQ-62E sonobuoy) also means that they can carry multiple sensor types to monitor changes in water temperature, conductivity, optical backscatter and acoustics. In the battle for detection of a stealthy submarine, using multiple sensor types increases the probability of finding the prey. Being self-propelled, UUVs can, in turn, cover a wider area. And unlike fixed underwater sonar stations, underwater gliders can be rapidly deployed via ships or airdrops to new uncovered areas (such as the Taiwan Straits or South China Sea), where their mobility complicates enemy efforts to disrupt and destroy them.”
The Haiyan could provide more immediate utility for China. Chinese media outlets have alleged that Vietnam is using combat divers (frogmen) to try and disrupt operations surrounding the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in the South China Sea. According to Want China Times, some Chinese media outlets have speculated that the Haiyan will be deployed to try and detect these combat drivers and other special forces being used by adversaries to disrupt Chinese activities in disputed waters.
It seems highly unlikely that the Haiyan will see action during the current dispute with Vietnam over the oil rig, but it certainly could see action in the future in the South China Sea.