Officially, it is a research vessel, but the military dimension is obvious. China has announced a likely strange drone ship, a new embodiment of the growing importance of these unmanned vehicles in modern warfare.
Chinese state media reported at the end of May the launch of this boat presented as a flagship of maritime research, which will operate by the end of the year and carry an uncertain number of aerial drones, sailors and submarines.
88.5 meters long, the Zhuhaiyun – Where Zhuhai Cloud – will reach 18 knots (33 km/h). Chen Dake, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and director of the laboratory that owns the ship, presented it to China Daily as a “breakthrough innovation”.
According to him, the ship is not only an unprecedented precision tool in the frontiers of maritime science, but also a platform for the prevention and management of maritime disasters, accurate mapping of the seabed (…) and rescue at sea. .
But the strictly scientific use of matter, which itself is remotely controllable, is not very convincing. Especially since the transition to the military is simple: the autonomy or semi-autonomy of a machine is a matter of lines of computer code. The technology is the same.
Therefore, the drone carrier is a tool of choice in the service of Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific.
And another step towards the use of swarm drones for military purposes, as battlefields around the world, from Afghanistan to Libya to Ukraine today, increasingly demonstrates the importance of these technologies in modern warfare.
China and the United States lead in this area, ahead of important second-tier players such as Israel and Turkey. Ankara is still developing a project to make the Anadolu aircraft carrier a combat drone carrier.
But Beijing’s presentation on this ship remains sibylline. “There is a lack of empirical data to suggest that the Chinese state could actually use the ship in an integrated way” during or before a conflict, said Paul Lushenko, American lieutenant-colonel and researcher at Cornell University.
“This is probably the first development of its kind, but other navies around the world, including the U.S. Navy, are working on remote warfare capabilities in the maritime domain,” he told AFP.
“It’s clearly impressive, provocative, escalatory, aggressive,” Paul Lushenko said. Such a drone carrier, especially if it is duplicated, would allow Beijing to pursue its strategy of denying access to it or to the desired area.
China is escalating territorial disputes with its neighbors and in the future may manifest itself in a territory without deploying troops there.
Australia, Paul Lushenko added, could not be happy about it. If the drone carrier stays in Southeast Asia, it doesn’t threaten. If we deploy it for example in the Solomon Islands, where Beijing has just signed a security pact, “it is even more troubling”.
Along the way, Beijing addresses its internal opinion. “The state party must assure its citizens that they can survive competition in the region” in the strategic field, the American official said.
One of the key elements to manage for a drone carrier is the autonomy of kinetic combat.
“It’s pretty much like the school of fish analogy: it creates shapes in the water, which is not the decision of any of the fish, but the result of their collective intelligence”, explains AFP Jean-Marc Rickly, Director of Global and Emerging Risks at the Geneva Center for Security Policy (GCPS).
“The ultimate goal is to create something with collective intelligence capabilities.”
Today, man has developed semi-autonomous, programmable devices. But last month, Zhejiang University released a video in which ten drones were flying over a bamboo forest.
“They are able to understand the environment in which they are present, identify barriers, communicate together to map areas and overcome barriers”, the researcher explains. Another step towards complete autonomy.
All the major armies in the world are working on this type of project, with the goal of soaking up space – air, sea, submarine – with cheap and infinitely replaceable objects, as opposed to very well -piloted weapons. of human life.
In 2020, Rand Corporation noted that the computing capacity of a military drone will be less than that of a smartphone. The American think tank specified that a unit of 900 trained soldiers would be able to launch and recover 300 drones every six hours, for a total of 1,200 sorties per day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The idea is to saturate and ultimately deplete the available arsenal of enemy interceptor missiles,” he wrote. After simulations in the Taiwan Strait.