China is strengthening its naval defenses after unlawfully seizing a U.S. naval drone last month.
The country is concerned that the frequent use of unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) in the contested waters it claims as its own represents a growing threat to its national security.
America “is constructing a battlefield and preparing for war under the sea. China must respond strongly,” former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Colonel Yue Gang told the South China Morning Post.
The Chinese navy confiscated a U.S. naval drone in the presence of oceanographic ship USNS Bowditch in international waters in the South China Sea Dec. 15.
China returned the drone a week later, following a formal diplomatic protest from the U.S.
“The U.S. has been sending ships and planes into Chinese waters for reconnaissance purposes for a long time,” Ministry of National Defense spokesman Yang Yujun said. “China is firmly opposed to these activities and demands the U.S. stop immediately.”
“China will remain vigilant to U.S. activities and shall take necessary measures to respond,” he added.
“We could develop a technology for our drones to capture their drones or cut off their underwater communications,” Li Jie, a Chinese military analyst, told reporters, proposing options for the Chinese navy to counter operations.
“The drone is not very big, like a small robot, but if it found out enough about the underwater signal features of submarines, a database could be created which could be offered to U.S. navy submarines and the anti-submarine warships,” Yue told SCMP reporters. “With such information, it could quickly identify if a submarine was a normal one or a nuclear-powered one, and this could pose a grave threat to China’s military security.”
“The unmanned drone was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. military actions against China,” Chinese foreign affairs expert Hua Yiwen wrote in a People’s Daily article. “The U.S. has been developing UUVs for a long time, treating them as a ‘power enhancer’ for its military and a crucial part of its weapons system.”
The recent seizure is a “way of reminding the Americans they shouldn’t even dream about using unmanned systems to continue these military surveillance activities, which it deems detrimental to its national security interest,” explained Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “This would consequently motivate China to ramp up its military buildup, including hastening its drone technologies.”
China held its first national technology symposium on UUVs two days after the incident. The attendees determined that there is an “urgent need” for domestic entities to advance underwater drone research and development.
At a Chinese underwater robot exhibition in March 2016, China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC), which builds a majority of China’s naval vessels, introduced plans for the construction of an “underwater Great Wall” for anti-submarine warfare purposes. Chinese drones would work alongside seabed sensors to track enemy submarines.
The next step may be armed underwater drones, some analysts suggest.
“We need to brace for the likely prospect of armed drones being used and when such a phenomenon becomes more commonplace, this will start to herald a new frontier of modern warfare,” Koh told the SCMP.
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