Why the Navy’s New Sub-Hunting Drone Is Raising Red Flags in China
Policy + Politics

Why the Navy’s New Sub-Hunting Drone Is Raising Red Flags in China

REUTERS/Steve Dipaola

The Sea Hunter, the Navy’s new, unmanned nautical drone that can detect even the quietest submarines, is already causing alarm bells to ring in China.

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Developed by DARPA beginning in 2010 as part of the secretive research agency’s $100 million Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, the Sea Hunter was launched last April and is now undergoing testing.

Its capabilities, at least on paper, make clear why other navies might be concerned:

  • A self-piloted trimaran (a main hull and two outriggers), the 132-foot-long Sea Hunter is capable of cruising on the open seas for 70 days.

  • Its range is 10,000 nautical miles. “You could go from San Diego to Guam and back to Pearl Harbor on a tank of gas,” Scott Littlefield, project manager for the ACTUV, has said.

  • A remotely based operator can control the Sea Hunter with a joystick, but it is also capable of operating autonomously and has the ability to steer clear of other vessels on its own. It can also handle rough seas.

  • By sending acoustic “pings” into the ocean depths, the Sea Hunter can determine the shape, size, speed and characteristics of any undersea activity, according to the website Scout Warrior. And it can do so from more than 11 miles away, Chinese analysts figure.

  • More important, the Sea Hunter can detect electric-diesel subs, which are proliferating in the navies of countries ranging from Indonesia to Russia and China. On the website of Leidos, a defense company that helped develop the Sea Hunter, Rear Admiral Frank Drennan, head of the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command, is quoted as saying that trying to identify an electric-diesel sub in crowded coastal waters “is like trying to identify the sound of a single car engine in the din of a major city.”

China has one of the largest submarine fleets in the world, according to the website of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, including more than 50 electric-diesel attack submarines, and it is planning to build more.

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In an article in The National Interest, Lyle Goldstein, associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, says that in” a single (and seemingly quite affordable) stroke,” what he calls the “robot ship” may be a nautical warfare game-changer.

After looking at a number of Chinese analyses of the Sea Hunter, Goldstein concludes that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is worried. He quotes one Chinese strategist as saying the Sea Hunter is “a severe challenge to our country’s future submarine force.”

At a cost of about $20 million each, Goldstein says that the Chinese figure Sea Hunter-type drones are 10 times cheaper than P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft.