At the turn of the 20th century, the great powers competed to build the modern-day battleship. Today, a new arms race may be breaking out, this time with robotic warships.
The D3000 is a 98-foot-long, stealthy robotic trimaran warship designed to operate autonomously for months. Notably, this system—which appears to be tagged for export—is being offered by the China Aerospace and Science Technology Corporation, a Chinese defense contractor whose primary strength is in missiles and other aerospace technologies. (It’s the company that’s building the T Flight, China’s answer to the Hyperloop.) CASC notes that the D3000 can either operate by itself, or as part of a larger task force with manned ships.
This isn’t the first time China has offered a trimaran warship for export; the China Shipbuilding Trading Company offered a 2,400-ton trimaran frigate (manned) at the IDEX 2017 arms fair in the UAE earlier this year.
From available pictures, the D3000 has significant stealth shaping and likely displaces about 100-150 tons. While the model shows that the D3000 is armed with three Type 730 Gatling cannons (two stern, one aft), the conceptual nature of the robot warship suggests that we shouldn’t take that armament fit seriously. More realistically, the D3000 will also be armed with anti-ship missile launchers built into its superstructure, and launch tubes above the waterline. Those launch tubes could potentially be used to launch torpedoes, lay mines, or deploy underwater unmanned vehicles.
Using unmanned vessels as a mothership for more unmanned systems is becoming popular in both defense and civilian applications. In this case, unmanned surface vehicles could extend the sensor net of the D3000, hiding underwater to spot enemy submarines and carriers to call back to the D3000, which, in turn, networks firing solutions to friendly ships and aircraft.
China has already tested (and tried to sell) other armed unmanned surface vehicles. The High Speed Intercept Boat is a 42-foot trimaran with speeds of 80 knots and can be armed with machine guns and anti-tank guided missiles, potentially operating in unmanned swarms. It is being tested by the PLAN, and made its international debut in 2016 in Malaysia.
The D3000’s closest international counterpart is the Sea Hunter, built for DARPA’s ACTUV anti-submarine program. The 131-foot, 145 ton Sea Hunter has a speed of only 27 knots, but that’s fine because it’s conceived as a test ship for future unmanned operations. Conceptually, the Sea Hunter and its follow-ons would also take on roles like tracking enemy submarines and mine detection, as opposed to antiship role reflected the D3000 concept. Of course, there’s nothing from stopping China from building its own sub-hunting robotic warships to make up for its historical anti-submarine warfare weakness.
That China is already pitching a large robotic warship for export—and from a vendor not typically known for such offerings—suggests a high degree of confidence in the global competitiveness of the country’s unmanned naval technologies. In turn, more established shipbuilders like the China State Shipbuilding Corporation and the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are certainly not going to sit the robotic revolution out, so expect more news on robotic Chinese warships in the near future.