An Unmanned Artificial Intelligence-Guided Chinese Submarine Fleet: What Could Go Wrong?

Military Tech

The South China Morning Post reported on July 23rd that the Chinese Academy of Sciences is pursuing designs for a fleet of unmanned autonomous underwater submarines. These submersibles would be able to take on a docket of missions, from whale tracking to anti-carrier kamikaze ops. And the ace up China's sleeve to make this a reality is artificial intelligence.


The use of unmanned underwater vehicles — UUVs — has been ongoing since the mid-’60s. However, the large majority of these drones, including the U.S.’s, have been controlled remotely by a human operator at the surface or in another sub. Maintaining control over a submerged drone is difficult under the best circumstances. But China’s fearless embrace of a possible robot uprising has conquered all that, supposedly. With AI at the helm, the limitations of remote human controls are theoretically eliminated.

The downsides, though, are many. An AI-driven sub could go rogue and attack a tanker or a random blue whale. Perhaps it could surface and fire on a British frigate to incite a war for TV ratings, like in a certain James Bond film. But even if you don’t speculate on the apocalyptic possibilities, you have to admit that self-driving drone subs could moot maritime law awfully fast, providing new legal challenges, just like the headaches aerial drones have created for aviation authorities.

CTG 56.1 conducts Unmanned Underwater Vehicle Training in the 5th Fleet AOR.U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonah Stepanik/Released

Some of those murky legal waters washed up in 2016, when the Chinese Navy seized a (remotely piloted) U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea; the wayward unmanned vehicle was eventually released, but the possibilities for mishap and mayhem remain almost limitless if a fleet of armed submarines starts trawling around the world’s oceans and something goes wrong.

China isn’t the only one looking into “Extra Large Underwater Unmanned Vehicles,” or XLUUVs. Uncle Sam’s favorite defense corporations are gearing up to outfit the U.S. Navy with its own fleet of terrifying artificial intelligence driven ocean-dwellers. Lockheed Martin and Boeing have each been given over $40 million to start designing the XLUUV of the future. Submarine fights of the 21st century are looking less The Hunt For Red October and more like an episode of Battle Bots.

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