China shows its hand in the intensifying competition with the US to sail unmanned warships

china navyChinese People's Liberation Army Navy recruits chant slogan during a parade to mark the end of a semester at a military base of the North Sea Fleet, in Qingdao, Shandong province December 5, 2013.REUTERS/China Daily

  • China has unveiled what it calls a "world-leading unmanned warship" as great power rivals look to develop crewless vessels for combat.
  • The JARI multi-purpose unmanned combat vessel is ready for combat, the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation said, according to Chinese media.
  • The 50-foot-long ship can purportedly conduct air-defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine missions, although it remains unclear how effectively it can accomplish these missions.
  • "It may only be good for patrolling around China's islands in the South China Sea or around Chinese ports," a US defense expert said.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

China has launched a new "world-leading unmanned warship" that is supposedly ready for combat, Chinese media reports.

The JARI multi-purpose unmanned combat vessel, a new product of the state-owned China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation, is 50 feet in length and displaces 20 tons. Chinese media reports that this ship is capable of conducting the same missions as China's Type 052 destroyers, namely air-defense, anti-ship and anti-submarine missions.

Chinese military observers refer to China's latest development as a "mini Aegis-class destroyer" because of its radars, vertically-launched missiles and torpedoes, the Global Times reports, referencing the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, many of which are equipped with powerful Aegis radars, surface-to-air missiles, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

"This is [People's Liberation Army] vaporware," Bryan Clark, a US defense expert and former naval officer, told Insider, referencing technology that is a bit more conceptual than applicable.

"The boat is very similar to commercially-available unmanned harbor patrol vessels," he said.

"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."

China has yet to say what type of missions this vessel might conduct. "This boat doesn't have the range for operations very far from Chinese territory. Therefore, it may only be good for patrolling around China's islands in the South China Sea or around Chinese ports," he said.

China first revealed a model of the JARI unmanned warship last year in South Africa at the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition, where a China industry representative explained to Navy Recognition that the medium-sized vessel is propelled by a single water jet, has a maximum speed of 42 knots, and has a maximum range of 500 nautical miles.

The model showed a 30mm main gun with eight vertical launch systems behind the cannon and two light torpedo launchers on each side of the superstructure.

Another model was again showcased at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference in Abu Dhabi back in February, where Defense News noted that the vessel included an electro-optical sensor, a phased array radar, a dipping sonar, and a rocket launcher, among the previously mentioned features.

It is unclear how many of these features have been effectively incorporated into the final design. There are actually quite a few uncertainties surrounding this technology.

Seth Cropsey, a seapower expert at the Hudson Institute, told Insider that China is getting better and better at technology but said there are questions of "how soon the Chinese can field this, what its real capabilities are versus what its advertised capabilities are and, this is important, how many of these things they are going to put out to sea."

The JARI can, the Global Times reports, be controlled remotely or operate autonomously, although more testing is required before it can fully do the latter. Chinese military analysts have talked about this vessel being used with other drone ships to create a swarm.

The US military has experimented with small crewless swarm boats, as well as medium-sized unmanned surface vessels like the Sea Hunter being developed by the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Earlier this month, the US Navy expressed an interest in the development of a large unmanned surface vessel, "a high-endurance, reconfigurable ship able to accommodate various payloads for unmanned missions to augment the Navy's manned surface force."

The Navy has said that it is pursuing "a balance of high-end, survivable manned platforms with a greater number of complementary, more affordable, potentially more cost-imposing, and attritable options."

Expert observers suspect the new revelation is a response to US Navy plans. "I believe one of the drivers for this rollout from the PLA is the US Navy's recent announcement of its proposed Large USV," Clark told Insider.

Cropsey explained that "this is a start" for the Chinese, but added that "it doesn't really compare to what we're planning."

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