The U.S. seems to be losing the edge in the development of large and smart robot submarines — a game-changing new technology that could greatly impact naval strategy
The world’s largest navies are currently in a race to develop XLUUV robot submarines. XLUUV stands for Extra Large Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle. At around 15 to 25 meters in length and around 2 meters in width, these autonomous vehicles would be able to swim underwater for thousands of kilometers.
The U.S. Navy is currently developing the Orca XLUUV, which was previously thought to be the leader in the field. When completed, the Orca will able to cruise at a top speed of 14.8 kilometers per hour (9.2 miles per hour) over a maximum range of 12,000 kilometers (6,500 nautical miles or 7,480 miles). It would be programmed to do specific tasks at specific points in the ocean. As an autonomous robot, the Orca would also be able to navigate around sea-floor objects and deal with unexpected challenges and dangers.
XLUUVs would primarily be used to perform ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions over long ranges, but some would also be fitted with cargo modules or modules that can deposit smart sea mines on the seafloor. The U.S. Navy has published images of the Orca fitted with a 10-meter long module featuring “bomb bay doors” that can open to deploy 12 torpedo mines.
This is one of the most valuable potential capabilities of these robot subs: the ability to sneak into contested territories like the South China Sea and lay deadly sea mines in a time of war — without risking the lives of friendly personnel. This is just one reason why XLUUVs are seen as key naval technologies that could greatly impact future conflicts.
The first Orca model was supposed to be ready by December 2020, with the next four being ready by 2022. However, the program has stalled due to complexity and the Covid pandemic, and the first five Orcas are now expected to be ready around the first half of 2024.
In September last year, naval analysts were shocked when they inspected satellite images that showed China was already testing two large XLUUVs. They were even more shocked when they realized that these prototypes had been present at Sanya naval base on Hainan island since as early as March 2021. On February 23 of this year, China added to this surprise when its CSSC 705 Institute ship-building organization used the NAVDEX 2023 defense exposition in Abu Dhabi to show images of a highly advanced XLUUV with what looks like four torpedo tubes and flank array sonar.
If this new XLUUV does indeed have the ability to fire torpedoes directly at targets, as the four tubes would suggest, then this would represent a huge leap in technology in robot sub design. Other nations have so far shied away from designing an automated kill decision into their XLUUVs. It is one thing to tell a robot where to spy and where to deposit sea mines, but it’s a huge jump from there to trust a robot to analyze ship and submarine traffic, determine if it’s looking at a friend or foe, and then fire directly at that vessel. What if the robot makes a mistake and ends up destroying a friendly submarine or ship, or the vessel of an innocent bystander?
There are huge ethical and legal implications to giving a robot the power to fire torpedoes directly at manned or unmanned vessels. The torpedo mines that most XLUUVs would conceivably plant on the seafloor are designed to lie dormant and listen for the unique seismic signatures of an enemy ship or submarine passing nearby. If the mine has been activated to a war footing, and if it hears such a vessel passing, the torpedo mine will start its engine and home in on the vessel before detonating. This does incorporate a low level of robot autonomy, but this risk is offset by the static environment and narrow target range of the torpedo mine.
To trust a robot sub to fire torpedoes at vessels requires a lot more artificial intelligence and a much larger capacity to analyze the complex environments and scenarios that an XLUUV would encounter during a 12,000 kilometer patrol. The risks are enormous, but with the concept images that the CSSC 705 Institute displayed last week, China is signaling that it is more comfortable than other nations to take these risks.
Of course, it is entirely possible that the images of the XLUUV shown at NAVDEX 2023 is just an elaborate hoax. Such a hoax would be aimed at forcing the U.S. and other nations to assume that China does have an XLUUV that has artificial intelligence which is so sophisticated that it can know without any doubt when it is sensing an enemy vessel while on patrol. If China does indeed have a blueprint from which to build large numbers of XLUUVs that can actively hunt and destroy vessels, it would force opposing nations to spend a lot of money and time on ways to counter such a game-changing threat.
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