Military photo

Qianlong III, a Chinese autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), has dived deep into the South China Sea, undertaking a nearly 100-mile, 42-hour voyage.

Qianlong III Deep Sea Fish

For Science!

The Qianlong took pictures of deep-sea marine life, at depths of thousands of meters, on its inaugural voyage in the South China Sea. It also searched for seafloor mineral and energy resources.

Built by the Shenyang Institute of Automation, the colorful Qianlong III looks like a clownfish from Finding Nemo, though the cute look belie serious capability. It has a forward propeller in the “eyes” and the “mouth” is a navigation sonar. Its vertical tail has a magenometer, which is useful for detecting metals like manganese nodes or foreign submarines. Cai Wei, the chief scientist of the mothership Dayang Yihao, noted that in two follow-up trips, the Qianlong III collected reams of data on natural gas hydrate and metallic nodules, in support of Chinese interests in natural resources on the South China seabed.

Qianlong III China UUV robot submarine

Deep Sea, Long Endurance

The Qianlong III can stay underwater for multiple days at depths of 4,500 meters (about 14,800 feet), beating out its Qianlong II predecessor.

Compared to its older brother Qianlong II, the Qianlong III has longer endurance and a higher percentage of domestic content. With a maximum operating depth of around 14,800 feet underwater, this 1.5-ton, 11-foot-long robot submarine will take the lead in China’s underwater scientific ambitions.

China Haiyan UUV glider

Haiyan UUV

The Haiyan UUV is an underwater glider than can dive about 5,000 feet below the ocean surface for up to 30 days. These 154-pound drones (or future militarized versions) could be deployed against enemy submarines during war time.

The development of underwater drones reflects China’s interests in underwater mining, deep-sea energy, and robot ships for civilian freight and military swarms.

China Underwater Great Wall UUV
The Underwater Great Wall may be centered around stationary sensors on the ocean bed, but autonomous UUVs will be a critical enabler in tracking enemy submarines.

China’s Underwater Great Wall of networked seabed sensors and long endurance UUVs like the Qianlong III and the Haiyan glider are tasked with identifying enemy submarines, mines, and other UUVs. Considering longstanding Chinese deficiencies in anti-submarine warfare, deep-sea drones like the Qianlong III have applications beyond the economic sphere. They can also collect valuable data about enemy submarine acoustics and oceanographic conditions for improving stealth and anti-stealth measures. For more peaceful uses, the Underwater Great Wall’s collection of underwater and seabed data could facilitate search and rescue, earthquake and tsunami warning abilities, scientific research, and underwater resource collection.

China Floating Nuclear Reactor Nuclear Group

Atoms on the Sea

China Nuclear Group’s floating nuclear reactor is intended to power both Chinese facilities on artificial islands, offshore rigs, and overseas humanitarian and infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, Chinese naval warfare has plans for swarms on the seas and in the air and, private Chinese firms are pitching multi-hulled robot warships and a 56-USV swarm for militarized purposes. As China pushes for the lead in other future naval technologies like floating nuclear power plants, underwater mining and robot freighters, it is clear that smart UUVs like the Qianlong III will find an ever-expanding set of missions.

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Peter Warren Singer is a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. He has been named by Defense News as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues. He was also dubbed an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Jeffrey is a national security professional in the greater D.C. area. They both are Associates with the U.S. Air Force University’s China Aerospace Studies Institute.