Home Contact Us  

China - Articles

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
#5433, 15 February 2018

Maritime Matters

South China Sea: Unmanned Vessels and Future Operations
Vijay Sakhuja
Former Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF), New Delhi

Two recent developments in the domain of disruptive technologies have invited the attention of naval planners and the strategic community. These relate to US and Chinese investments in unmanned vessels that can shape future naval operations as also impact security dynamics in the South China Sea (SCS).

First, the US Navy inducted an Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) designated as Sea Hunter-I. Developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the vessel is designed to conduct "missions spanning thousands of kilometers of range and months of endurance under a sparse remote supervisory control model" and also be compliant with "maritime laws and conventions for safe navigation, autonomous system management for operational reliability, and autonomous interactions with an intelligent adversary."

Although the potential roles for the Sea Hunter-I have not been made public, its multi-payload capability has been tested during trials. In 2016, it towed a parakite "packed with communications equipment from a parachute connected to a vessel" called Towed  Airborne Lift of Naval Systems (TALONS), and in 2017 it was put to mine-countermeasure trials. The US Navy has now placed an order with DARPA for Sea Hunter-II, and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has begun to explore new uses for the platform.

Second, China has begun work on the world’s biggest test facility for unmanned vessels in waters around Zhuhai, which is a gateway to SCS. The test site designated as Wanshan Marine Test Field, covering an area of 771.6 sq km, will be developed in phases - however, in the first phase, only 22 sq km will be available for trials. The announcement of this test facility comes close on the heels of successful trials in January 2018 of the Huster-68, a 6.8-metre unmanned vessel developed by Shenzhen Huazhong University of Science and Technology.

Similarly, in December 2017, Beijing Sifang Automation (Sifang), a research and manufacturing company, announced that it was ready to commence production of its SeaFly unmanned surface vessel (USV). The 4.5-tonne SeaFly-01 can carry a payload of 1.5 ton comprising a variety of electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) imagers and other electronic support measure (ESM) sensors. Interestingly, it can also be "equipped with a retractable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launch and recovery system, which enables the SeaFly to function as a ‘mothership’ for small vertical take-off and landing UAVs." Another interesting feature of the SeaFly is its line of sight control for up to 50 km using a "shore-based mobile or fixed command-and-control (C2) centre, while beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) control is supported by the indigenous BeiDou satellite navigation system as well as satellite communication (SATCOM) equipment."

Meanwhile, during the All China Maritime Conference and Exhibition in Shanghai in December 2017, a Chinese developer of unmanned vessels unveiled a 7.5 ton unmanned vessel - Tianxing-1 - and claimed it to be the fastest unmanned vessel with a speed of 50 knots. Further, the vessel can be put to operations for maritime law enforcement and support naval operations.

These developments clearly demonstrate that unmanned platforms offer new capabilities for operations at sea, and in the case of the US’ Sea Hunter, it offers enormous payload flexibility for a variety of potential missions including anti-submarine warfare and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) duties, thus expanding the range, flexibility and effectiveness of the US Navy's operational capability. According to DARPA, “ACTUV 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.”

The Chinese high speed Huster-68 can be an effective platform for maritime law enforcement duties without putting personnel at risk and can also be creatively put to use for ISR duties. Although the SeaFly unmanned surface vessel (USV) boasts of a number of unique features such as launch and recovery of UAVs, it remains to be seen how it performs at sea, where the operating environment is much more severe. Further, its small size precludes sustained operations and it has to remain close to the ‘mother ship’ for  recovery, unlike the US’ Sea Hunter-I which is a prototype for "an entirely new class of ocean-going vessel—one able to traverse thousands of kilometers over the open seas for months at a time, without a single crew member aboard."

It is fair to argue that these technology demonstrations signal, at three levels, the unfolding of a new naval competition between the US and China. First, at the technological level, China is pitted against the US’ technological superiority and is attempting a ‘catch up’ given that at present it cannot neutralise the US' scientific advantage despite its unprecedented investments in building disruptive technologies.

Second, the US has chosen to develop large size unmanned vessels that can stay at sea for longer durations whereas the Chinese prefer smaller USVs, clearly suggesting their intention to use these in swarm configurations.  

Finally, at the level of freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in SCS, it is plausible that the US may prefer to deploy unmanned naval platforms both as an alternative or as complementary to the guided-missile destroyers and shallow draft trimaran Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) deployed for countering China’s excessive and expansive maritime claims. This scenario poses new challenge for both the US Navy and the PLA Navy to operate and respond to unmanned naval operations by either side.

Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
IPCS Columnists
Af-Pak Diary
D Suba Chandran
Resetting Kabul-Islamabad Relations: Three Key Issues
Can Pakistan Reset its Relations with Afghanistan?
The New Afghanistan: Four Major Challenges for President Ghani
Big Picture
Prof Varun Sahni
Understanding Democracy and Diversity in J&K
When Xi Met Modi: Juxtaposing China and India
Pakistan?s Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Inevitability of Instability

Dateline Colombo

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera.
Sri Lanka: Moving Towards a Higher Collective Outcome
The Importance of Electing the Best to our Nation's Parliament
Sri Lanka: Toward a Diaspora Re-Engagement Plan
Dateline Islamabad
Salma Malik
Pakistan's Hurt Locker: What Next?
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
India-Pakistan Relations in 2015: Through a Looking Glass
Dhaka Discourse
Prof Delwar Hossain
IPCS Forecast: Bangladesh in 2015
18th SAARC Summit: A Perspective from Bangladesh
Bangladesh in Global Forums: Diplomacy vs. Domestic Politics
Eagle Eye
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra
India-US: Significance of the Second Modi-Obama Meet
Has President Obama Turned Lame Duck?
Modi-Obama Summit: Criticism for Criticism?s Sake?

East Asia Compass
Dr Sandip Mishra
India-Japan-US Trilateral: India?s Policy for the Indo-Pacific
China-South Korea Ties: Implications for the US Pivot to Asia
Many ?Pivots to Asia?: What Does It Mean For Regional Stability?
Himalayan Frontier
Pramod Jaiswal
Nepal?s New Constitution: Instrument towards Peace or Catalyst to Conflict?
IPCS Forecast: Nepal in 2015
Constitution-making: Will Nepal Miss its Second Deadline?

Prof Shankari Sundararaman
IPCS Forecast: Southeast Asia in 2015
Indonesia's Pacific Identity: What Jakarta Must Do in West Papua
Modi in Myanmar: From ?Look East? to ?Act East?
Sushant Sareen
IPCS Forecast: Pakistan in 2015
Islamic State: Prospects in Pakistan
Pakistan: The Futility of Internationalising Kashmir

Looking East
Wasbir Hussain
Myanmar in New Delhi's Naga Riddle
China: ?Peaceful? Display of Military Might
Naga Peace Accord: Need to Reserve Euphoria
Maritime Matters
Vijay Sakhuja
Indian Ocean: Modi on a Maritime Pilgrimage
Indian Ocean: Exploring Maritime Domain Awareness
IPCS Forecast: The Indian Ocean in 2015

Nuke Street
Amb Sheelkant Sharma
US-Russia and Global Nuclear Security: Under a Frosty Spell?
India's Nuclear Capable Cruise Missile: The Nirbhay Test
India-Australia Nuclear Agreement: Bespeaking of a New Age
Red Affairs
Bibhu Prasad
Countering Left Wing Extremism: Failures within Successes
Return of the Native: CPI-Maoist in Kerala
The Rising Civilian Costs of the State-Vs-Extremists Conflict

Regional Economy
Amita Batra
India and the APEC
IPCS Forecast: South Asian Regional Integration
South Asia: Rupee Regionalisation and Intra-regional Trade Enhancement
South Asian Dialectic
PR Chari
Resuming the Indo-Pak Dialogue: Evolving a New Focus
Defence Management in India: An Agenda for Parrikar
Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan: Implications for Asian Security

Spotlight West Asia
Amb Ranjit Gupta
Prime Minister Modi Finally Begins His Interaction with West Asia*
A Potential Indian Role in West Asia?
US-GCC Summit: More Hype than Substance
Strategic Space
Manpreet Sethi
India-Russia Nuclear Vision Statement: See that it Delivers
Global Nuclear Disarmament: The Humanitarian Consequences Route
Nasr: Dangers of Pakistan's Short Range Ballistic Missile

The Strategist
Vice Admiral Vijay Shankar
Jihadi Aggression and Nuclear Deterrence
The Blight of Ambiguity
Falun Gong: The Fear Within

OTHER REGULAR contributors
Gurmeet Kanwal
Harun ur Rashid
N Manoharan
Wasbir Hussain
Rana Banerji
N Manoharan

Ruhee Neog
Teshu Singh
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Roomana Hukil
Aparupa Bhattacherjee


Browse by Publications

Issue Briefs 
Special Reports 
Research Papers 
Seminar Reports 
Conference Reports 

Browse by Region/Countries

East Asia 
South Asia 
Southeast Asia 
US & South Asia 

Browse by Issues

India & the world  
Naxalite Violence 
Suicide Terrorism 
Peace & Conflict Database 
Article by same Author
Women Cyber Warriors and the Indian Military

The Debut of Counter-Drone Technologies

Swarm Drones: Could they Shape the Future of Naval Warfare?

Maritime Digital Trends in 2018

India and Blue Economy in the Bay of Bengal

Microbeads and Microfibre: A Big Challenge for Blue Economy

Short Sea Shipping in Bay of Bengal Takes Baby Steps

Plastic Litter: The Challenge at Sea

Marine Mammal Stranding: Myth, Mystery and Facts

Dhow Trade in the North Arabian Sea

Maritime Issues: Proactive Initiatives

Towards a North Arabian Maritime Partnership

Forecast 2016: Indian Ocean Politics and Security

Indian Ocean: Modi on a Maritime Pilgrimage

Indian Ocean: Exploring Maritime Domain Awareness

IPCS Forecast: The Indian Ocean in 2015

Indian Ocean: Why India Seeks Demilitarisation

India and Maritime Security: Do More

Asia and the Seas: Looking Back to Look Forward

Indian Ocean and the IORA: Search and Rescue Operations

Pirates Prefer Energy Cargo

Maritime Terrorism: Karachi as a Staging Point

Xi Jinping and the Maritime Silk Road: The Indian Dilemma

Drug Smuggling across the Indian Ocean: Impact of Increasing Interceptions

Maritime Silk Road: Can India Leverage It?

Y! MyWeb
Print Bookmark Email Facebook Subscribe
Year 2018
 January  February  March
 2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010
 2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002
 2001  2000  1999  1998  1997

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) is the premier South Asian think tank which conducts independent research on and provides an in depth analysis of conventional and non-conventional issues related to national and South Asian security including nuclear issues, disarmament, non-proliferation, weapons of mass destruction, the war on terrorism, counter terrorism , strategies security sector reforms, and armed conflict and peace processes in the region.

For those in South Asia and elsewhere, the IPCS website provides a comprehensive analysis of the happenings within India with a special focus on Jammu and Kashmir and Naxalite Violence. Our research promotes greater understanding of India's foreign policy especially India-China relations, India's relations with SAARC countries and South East Asia.

Through close interaction with leading strategic thinkers, former members of the Indian Administrative Service, the Foreign Service and the three wings of the Armed Forces - the Indian Army, Indian Navy, and Indian Air Force, - the academic community as well as the media, the IPCS has contributed considerably to the strategic discourse in India.

Subscribe to Newswire | Site Map
18, Link Road, Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110014, INDIA.

Tel: 91-11-4100-1902    Email: officemail@ipcs.org

© Copyright 2018, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.