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A large Chinese company recently rolled out it’s plans for a small robotic warship that could compete with US unmanned warships. The unmanned surface vehicle named JARI is 15 meters long and can sail over 800 kilometers at a top speed of 42 knots. “The JARI is equipped with electro-optical sensor atop a superstructure, a phased array radar, a dipping sonar, eight small vertical launch system cells, a torpedo launcher and a forward mounted machine gun and rocket launcher for counter-surface engagements,” a report regarding the vehicle explained. According to the product video, the device appears to be modular and reconfigurable for the different mission areas, but it remains unclear what missions are permanently integrated into the system.
The device made its public debut as the U.S. Navy was getting ready to begin developing its own robotic warships. The Navy has done “a lot of work over the last six or seven months” preparing to formalize programs for large, remotely-operated vessels, Rear Adm. William Galinis, the Navy’s executive for surface ships, said in January 2019. “We’ve got a set of requests for information we’re going to be putting out in the next few days to the industry to really start a process” Galinis continued.
According to nationalinterest.org, the programs could cover at least two types of unmanned surface vessel. One is a medium-size unmanned surface vessel around the size of the Defense Advanced Research Agency’s experimental Sea Hunter robot ship, acting as a scout and carrying sensors. There’s also a larger USV, claimed to possess the capabilities to “provide additional punch, loaded with missile launchers but relying on other vessels to find the enemy and relay targeting data.”
The American fleet also is acquiring unmanned submarines. In February 2019 the Navy paid Boeing $43-million for four Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles. “Eventually, the Navy could also use the Orca XLUUV for mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions,” according to the Navy.
The U.S. fleet navy wants robotic ships to help make up for a shortfall in manned vessels. In a February 2019 conversation with reporters, Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, signalled the Navy might abandon its plan to grow from 280 major warships to 350 or 355 ships. Manufacturing and maintaining the additional ships would cost as much as $23 billion a year, according to the Congressional Research Service. For years, the Navy’s annual shipbuilding budget has been around $15 billion.
It’s unclear whether the same cost pressure is driving China’s own work on robotic warships. The People’s Liberation Army Navy by 2020 will possess between 313 and 342 warships, the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence estimated.
The U.S. and Chinese fleets are roughly the same size. However U.S. interests are global while China’s are regional, explained Andrew Erickson, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “The U.S. Coast Guard is focused near American waters, far from any international disputes, while the U.S. Navy is dispersed globally, with many ships separated from maritime East Asia by responsibilities, geography and time.”
“By contrast, all three major Chinese sea forces remain focused first and foremost on the contested near seas and their immediate approaches, close to China’s homeland, land-based air and missile coverage and supply lines,” Erickson pointed out.
In the western Pacific, China already has advantage in ships numbers compared to the United States. If the Chinese fleet acquires large numbers of inexpensive robotic vessels, that advantage could grow.