Last week, the United States Navy released industry solicitations for their new conceptual large unmanned surface vehicles (LUSV), as they begin the hunt for the right ship builder to assemble a fleet of ten of these large drone ships. Building off the successes the Navy and DARPA have had with their autonomous Sea Hunter drone ship program, the Navy is now looking to begin fielding 200-300 foot vessels in the next few years, designed to accept a wide variety of modular load outs based on their operational requirements.
Not one to be outdone, the Chinese government announced this week that their own drone warship, the JARI multi-purpose unmanned combat vessel, is already entering full service. Unlike the U.S. Navy’s plans for large drone ships, these JARI drone vessels measure in at just 50 feet, displacing around 20 tons. However, Chinese media indicates that these small vessels are so jam packed with firepower that these drones will be able to absorb the role of their Type 052 destroyers in a variety of operations, including air defense, anti-ship, and anti-submarine warfare.
With direct comparisons often made between China’s Type 052 destroyers and America’s own Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers, that means these small automated warships reportedly pack just about as much punch as one of America’s destroyers — thanks to its high-powered radar array, vertical launch tubes for missiles, and ability to launch torpedoes. Even Chinese media have taken to calling these drones “mini Aegis-class destroyers,” though their small size would indicate that it would take a number of these drones to match a destroyer in volume of firepower.
A new #USV unmanned surface vehicle was launched Wed 21 Aug by #China‘s #CSIC. The 50-foot-long, 20-ton craft can conduct air defense, anti-ship & anti-sub missions with its phased-array radar, VLS and torpedoes. Well anyway, that’s what they say. https://t.co/BTrOJd3nDf pic.twitter.com/19HMgBnb20
— Chris Cavas (@CavasShips) August 22, 2019
Of course, not everyone is convinced that these small autonomous vessels really offer the sort of capability China is claiming. Although not quite as common as Russian military propaganda, China does have a long track record of announcing military platforms are “operational” well before they are actually of any use in a fight. They have also been known to overstate the efficacy of new technologies in order to garner international attention; such has been the case in recent years with everything from hand held laser “assault rifles” to radar arrays that can detect stealth aircraft.
“The boat is very similar to commercially-available unmanned harbor patrol vessels,” explains Bryan Clark, a former naval officer. “Like those boats, there is a mount on the forward deck that would normally carry a machine gun. It may also have some vertically-launched rockets or small missiles in cells on the rear deck or behind the gun.”
Despite China announcing that these boats are already combat ready, there remains a number of questions about how they have managed to include all the capabilities they’re claiming. It’s likely that there will be multiple trims of the vessel, each with specific roles to play in China’s larger defense strategy. It also seems likely, however, that these unmanned vessels aren’t quite as technologically robust as they’re being advertised.