Maritime Matters

The Challenges of AI-enabled Underwater Platforms

01 Aug, 2018    ·   5497

Dr Vijay Sakhuja cautions that these developments present clear dangers and could have potentially destabilising consequences

The Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is likely to acquire a new type of submarine by the early 2020s. According to the South China Morning Post, the Shenyang Institute of Automation under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) is engaged in developing a series of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicle (XLUUV) that will feature Artificial Intelligence (AI). The vessels will be capable of performing a number of tasks without "human intervention," "handle their assignments and return to base on their own," and carry out reconnaissance, surveillance, combat operations against enemy targets, and undertake activities such as whale tracking. It will be possible to integrate these vessels with other manned and unmanned platforms and systems at sea, in air as also on land to carry out coordinated missions.

Lin Yang, the project director and a marine technology specialist, has noted that Chinese interest in these platforms is prompted by US plans to acquire XLUUVs capable of carrying "a variety of payloads, from sensors to weapons." Two prototype units have been contracted, one to Lockheed Martin and the other to Boeing, and they have been granted US$ 43.2 million and US$ 42.3 million, respectively for research, design, and testing in 2020. The winner will receive orders for production of up to five platforms. Unlike China and the US, Russia is developing the Status-6 autonomous torpedo capable of delivering 100-megaton warhead capable of "wiping out all living things" within a 1,500 km radius.

These developments are clear signs of the role of AI-enabled underwater platforms and weapons in the future, and add a new dimension to underwater operations. There are at least four issues concerning them that merit attention.

First is naval warfare. Navies have traditionally employed conventional submarines for intelligence gathering, laying mines, attacking enemy submarines and ships, and more recently, conducting strikes against shore targets by using land attack cruise missiles. The usual tactic for conventional submarine has been the 'lie-in-wait' position at the entrance to harbours or close to choke points and attack the enemy. Like their conventional counterparts, AI-enabled platforms can serve as scouts, and smaller platforms can masquerade as decoys to attract the enemy, forcing it to expose its position. If necessary, the AI-tool kit should be able to detect, track, generate high speed, and attack the enemy like a torpedo.

It is useful to mention that the US