Conventional Chinese submarines. Source: China Network Television

The Chinese military on Tuesday slammed speculation in the foreign media about the development of an unmanned submarine fleet to take on Western naval powers in the South China Sea as “overblown and confrontational.”

China’s large unmanned submarines, now nearing the end of construction with deployment expected in the early 2020s, would be much bigger than existing unmanned underwater vehicles and be able to perform missions including reconnaissance, mine placement and even “suicide attacks” thanks to breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, according to the South China Morning Post, which called them “autonomous, robotic AI subs” in a report published on Sunday.

“The robotic subs are aimed particularly at the United States forces in strategic waters like the South China Sea and western Pacific Ocean,” the report said, citing Chinese researchers involved in the ambitious project. The researchers are from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation and are stationed at a massive surface drone boat testing center in the coastal city of Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province.

“[These subs] will go out, handle their assignments and return to base on their own. They may establish contact with the ground command periodically for updates, but are by design capable of completing missions without human intervention.

“Their cargo bay is reconfigurable and large enough to accommodate a wide range of freight, from powerful surveillance equipment to missiles or torpedoes. They make decisions constantly on their own: changing course and depth to avoid detection; distinguishing civilian from military vessels; choosing the best approach to reach a designated position and even ram into a high-value target if necessary,” said researchers.

But the Beijing-based Global Times noted that China was one of many countries developing unmanned subs, a tacit admission of the existence of the AI sub project. The paper added, citing an unnamed Chinese naval expert, that “even if one had reached the experimental phase, it was still far from actual deployment.”

The Global Times also targeted foreign media reports, which “echoed rhetoric of the China threat theory” and claimed the foreign media was “trying to create a confrontational atmosphere between China and the US.”

Beijing’s usual line is that its research and development of cutting-edge weaponry is for self-defense only and is not targeted at any specific country.

Still, observers say China has a head start in drone technology, as seen in displays in which a flock of drones talk to each other to form complicated patterns while airborne. There is also their militarized versions for reconnaissance and assault that China has been actively pitching for sales overseas. The Chinese claim the technologies can be replicated from air to underwater and used on such things as AI subs.

State media has also been trumpeting the new depths its indigenous manned or unmanned submersibles like the Jiaolong series have gone to in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. Xinhua reported that the Jiaolong’s unmanned counterparts, the Qianlong and Hailong, could also go solo underwater for months.

Some believe that China’s progress in industrial automation backed by a number of industrial-military conglomerates with expertise in aero-defense and shipbuilding and its capabilities to put technologies and prototypes into swift, mass production also means its fleet of experimental unmanned subs could have already been roaming underwater for some time. But experts have their doubts.

Read more: China shows off drone brigade at Guangzhou Fortune Forum gala

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