Officially it’s just a research vessel, but China’s recently unveiled drone carrier is a clear sign that Beijing is racing to deploy an autonomous swarm of unmanned craft in its race for military supremacy in the world. ‘Pacific Ocean.
State media last month showed the launch of the Zhu Hai Yun – “Zhu Hai Cloud” – capable of carrying an unknown number of flying drones as well as surface and underwater vehicles, and operating autonomously thanks to to artificial intelligence.
The 89-meter (292-foot) vessel would be operational by the end of the year with a top speed of 18 knots, greatly increasing China’s surveillance potential in the vast area of the Pacific it considers its area of influence.
“The vessel is not only an unprecedented precision tool at the frontier of marine science, but also a platform for marine disaster prevention and mitigation, precision seabed mapping, marine ‘marine environment and maritime search and rescue,’ Chen Dake, laboratory manager at the company that built the aircraft carrier, told China Daily.
Armies around the world see drone squadrons as key players in combat, able to overwhelm defense systems with sheer numbers and without putting soldiers’ lives at risk, as with more expensive jets or tanks.
“This is probably a one-of-a-kind development, but other navies around the world, including the United States Navy, are experimenting with ranged warfare capabilities in the maritime realm,” Lt. Col. of the US Army Paul Lushenko, also a specialist in international relations. specialist at Cornell University in New York.
Although the ship’s actual capabilities remain to be seen, Beijing is announcing its intention to cement territorial claims in the region, as evidenced by the security partnership struck last month with the Solomon Islands in northeast Australia.
“It’s definitely imposing, provocative, escalating and aggressive,” Lushenko told AFP.
Building fleets of autonomous and relatively inexpensive drones would greatly increase China’s ability to apply so-called anti-access and area denial (A2-AD) in the Pacific, with the aim of weaken decades of American influence.
Unlike traditional aircraft carriers or destroyers carrying hundreds of troops, the drone carrier itself could sail for longer periods of time while sending devices that create a “net” of surveillance, potentially capable of firing missiles as well. .
The Zhu Hai Yun could also improve China’s mapping of the seabed, giving a secret advantage to its submarines.
“These are capabilities that will likely be critical in any future conflict China fights, including on the island of Taiwan,” strategists Joseph Trevithick and Oliver Parken wrote on the influential War Zone site.
Beijing has made no secret of its desire to take control of Taiwan, and military experts say it is closely monitoring the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to assess how and when it might act.
And last month, Chinese researchers published a drone swarm experiment showing 10 devices navigating autonomously through a dense bamboo forest, without crashing into trees or each other.
“The ultimate goal is something that has collective intelligence,” said Jean-Marc Rickli, risk manager at the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
“The analogy is a bit like a school of fish. They create shapes in the water that are not the decision of a single fish, but the result of their collective intelligence,” he explains to the AFP.
It would be a big technological advance over current weapons, which can be programmed and semi-autonomous but must have human operators to react to unexpected challenges.
A fleet of autonomously navigating drones could in theory overpower defense systems or advance forces in numbers, saturating combat zones on land or sea until an adversary’s arsenal is depleted.
“Conventional attack becomes impossible when you’re dealing with tens, hundreds or thousands of devices that are much cheaper to develop and operate than heavy conventional weapons,” Rickli said.
Noting this profound shift in modern warfare, a 2020 RAND Corporation study found that while unmanned vehicles need significant improvements in on-board processing, “the overall computing capacity required will be modest by modern standards – certainly lower than that of a contemporary smartphone.”
“A squadron of about 900 personnel, properly equipped and trained, could launch and recover 300 L-CAATs every six hours, for a total of 1,200 sorties per day,” he said, referring to the technology. aeronautics attributable to low cost – that is, to the devices such a cheap army can afford to lose them.
“We have indications that China is rapidly developing its capabilities,” Lushenko said of Beijing’s new drone carrier.
“What we lack is empirical data suggesting that China’s one-party state can actually use the ship in an integrated way in conflict.”
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