The challenge of undersea warfare has never been the forte of the Chinese navy.
Once reliant on the imported Russian Kilo-class diesel submarines, the Middle Kingdom’s nuclear subs are considered noisy, with their “boomers” [Jin class SSBNs] only recently taking up an actual “deterrent patrol.”
Now that the era of the robot submarine and unmanned surface ship is nearly upon us, Chinese naval strategist have stated explicitly that they intend to boost their strength in submarine warfare by cultivating undersea AI and by developing UUVs (Unmanned Undersea Vehicles), according to a special report from Lyle J. Goldstein at The National Interest.
A somewhat subtle signal of that intention is the PLAN’s fielding of its very first large-size UUV, the HSU001 — revealed during the 70th Anniversary Parade on 1 Oct 2019, the report said.
A reasonably detailed discussion of the vehicle appeared under the title “Attack from the Sea Floor [从海底出击]” in the final 2019 issue of Shipborne Weapons [舰载武器], published by a CSIC research institute in Zhengzhou.
As is common practice for such articles concerning the most sensitive parts of China’s developing military power, this article begins with a lengthy discussion of competing of US Navy systems, notably the Penn State-developed Sea Horse [海马], which is credited with achieving a 500 nautical mile range and a five-day operating capability, the report said.
A second effort that impressed the Chinese was the Manta [曼塔], which displaced 50 tons, had a top speed of 10 knots and was reported to be capable of slinging Mark 48 torpedoes, the report said.
As to the actual design of HSU001, not too many specifics are revealed. Eye-balling available photos from the parade suggest a length of five meters and a width of 1.5 meters.
Compared to American large UUV designs, it seems wider and notably has dual shaft propulsion. The claim is made that the design maximizes stability and should also reduce noise. It is suggested, moreover, that the design could accommodate externally mounted “torpedoes, mines, etc [鱼/水雷等],” the report said.
One of the most striking features are the two very distinctive sensor masts. Interestingly, these masts appear not to be telescoping, but rather fold down into the hull.
The forward mast is said to house an “advanced electro-optical detection system [先进光电侦察系统],” as well as various underwater cameras. These are likely tasked with providing intelligence on surface, aerial and shore targets, as well as those underwater, the report said.
Concerning the rear mast, which is taller, but thinner, constitutes a communications mast. This indicates that HSU001 has the ability to fight as part of a strategic “wolfpack [狼群]” — one of several potential missions.
And this is where things get interesting.
First, the analysis says directly that the HSU001 vehicle “attaches emphasis to seabed warfare capabilities [注重坐底作战能力].” In other words, the vehicle is not especially large, enabling it to sit on the ocean floor for extended periods and blend in, while passively observing, the report said.
A second potentially mission area of the HSU001 discussed in this article concerns “support for special operations [支援特种作战].” The analysis holds that a similarly configured US vehicle can hold 6 frogmen (naval special forces) and operate for eight hours, perhaps working with some kind of “mother ship [母艇].”
With “ample space,” as well as reliable communications, navigation and covert surveillance capabilities, the vehicle could attain an outsized role in PLAN amphibious warfare, the report said.
A third mission area is said to be specifically concerned with rising tensions in the South China Sea area. It is observed that these UUVs are particularly well suited for the ISR (tactical maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) challenge in the South China Sea, since they are mostly impervious to weather.