CDR (ret.) Eyal Pinko, Ph.D.
The Use of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles by the Chinese Navy
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
The Chinese Navy is frequently operating 12 unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) in the Indian Ocean.
The first operational round of the deployment of the UUV called the “Sea Wing” (“Haiyi”) began in December 2019 and ended in February 2020. During their mission, the Chinese UUV gathered considerable intelligence, according to Chinese reports.
The vessels were released for their mission and collected by Chinese ships operating nearby.
The Chinese UUV is likely to collect electronic signal intelligence (SIGINT) on the movement and parameters of vessels and aircraft and in the region and on coastal infrastructure and sites in countries of Chinese interest, with emphasis on India.
The Chinese UUV is likely also to collect acoustic signature intelligence (ACINT) for the Chinese submarine fleet, which will assist the Chinese Navy in the detection and recognition of vessels and other submarines. It is also being equipped with cameras.
These UUVs are unpowered. Instead, they employ variable-buoyancy propulsion which makes them sink and then rise to the surface again. This is done by inflating and deflating a balloon-like device filled with pressurized oil. At the same time, they have large wings so they can glide forward as they go. This allows them to run for extremely long periods of time, traveling vast distances. They are not fast or agile however, so generally employed for long-range missions where they can be left alone until they need to be picked up.
The Chinese unmanned underwater vehicles are remarkably similar to unmanned LBS-G US Navy vehicles. In this regard, it should be noted that the Chinese Navy seized an unmanned LBS-G unmanned vehicle in 2016.
The Chinese Navy refused to return the seized UUV to the US Navy, claiming that the US UUV had violated international shipping laws, thereby endangering Chinese merchant ships.
The Chinese “Sea Wing” UUV appears to be based on the reverse engineering of the American LBS-G UUV.
The Chinese “Sea Wing” UUVs operate not only in the Indian Ocean but also observed in the South China Sea and in the Arctic, regions of great political and economic interest to China. It is also believed that these UUV may also operate in the Mediterranean.
The use of the “Sea Wing” provides an intriguing look into China’s unmanned undersea ambitions, which allocate China as a major player in the battle for undersea dominance, and in the coming era of autonomous undersea conflict.
Moreover, the use of unmanned vessels (including Iranian development in the field) indicates a significant increase in the world’s navies in the use of unmanned vessels, especially underwater vessels, for strategic and tactical intelligence gathering missions far offshore and for very long periods.