MAKICHUK: China's sub fleet faces AUKUS AI threat

Surface ships and submarines of the People's Liberation Army Navy North Sea Command.
Surface ships and submarines of the People's Liberation Army Navy North Sea Command. PLA Navy photo

You might have watched the submarine movie, Red October, or perhaps other war films of the deep.

In one scene, Jonesy, the sonar operator, has picked up a faint trace of an enemy Russian sub on his headphones.

He gambles in telling USS Dallas Captain Mancuso his theory, that he might have just discovered something new and exciting.

That something was the magnetohydrodynamic “caterpillar” drive on the Red October... A nearly undetectable "silent drive" intended to achieve stealth in submarine warfare.

According to experts, the concept actually has some real-world basis.

Today, anti-submarine warfare is a battle of machines. And artificial intelligence algorithms could be a game-changer.

According to a report in Breaking Defence, AI has the potential to piece together the acoustic clues from scores of scattered sensors that share data over long-range networks.

New technologies — from robotic scouts to quantum sensing — also threaten to rend the veil of stealth and expose subs to attack.

Whoever masters these technologies could gain a vital advantage in naval warfare, one relevant to the US-China contest across the vast Pacific, the report said.

So research into AI, robotics, quantum science and anti-submarine warfare are becoming increasingly important for all sides — especially when it comes to AUKUS and the PLA Navy.

For its part, AUKUS is holding it’s cards tightly, releasing a very terse and controlled statement which revealed little.

“The Navy is committed to leveraging cutting-edge technologies,” a service spokesperson told Breaking Defence in a statement.

“We understand the significance of quantum technologies including quantum sensing, quantum timing and artificial intelligence for submarine detection and anti-submarine warfare in the undersea domain, among other applications.”

The People's Liberation Army Navy Submarine Force (PLANSF) is the submarine service of the People's Liberation Army Navy.

Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October.
Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October.Courtesy Paramount

It consists of all types of submarines in operational service organized into three fleets: the North Sea Fleet, the East Sea Fleet and the South Sea Fleet.

Currently, PLANSF has about 70 conventional submarines on active duty as well as two new nuclear submarines that no longer carry a “turtle-back” design, an annual report published by the Institute for National Defence and Security Research said.

That submarine number could hit 80 by 2035, the report warned.

The capabilities of the two new nuclear submarines — the Type 095 and newer Type 096 — match those used by the US and Russia, the institute’s 2023 Assessment Report of the Chinese Communist Party's Government and Military Development said.

The Type 095 nuclear-powered attack submarine’s maximum diving depth is 500m and has a self-sustaining capability of about 90 days, he said.

It can carry 24 torpedoes and 16 vertical launch units and is equipped with YJ-18 anti-ship missiles, CJ-10 land attack cruise missiles and HQ-10 anti-aircraft missiles.

China’s older subs have a reputation of being noisy, but the Type 096 being built at the Huludao shipyard is anticipated to have a substantially reduced acoustic signature within an improved hull type.

According to Naval Technology, the vessel hints at incorporating hypersonic missiles like those found on the Type-055 destroyer.

Such modularity and the potential use of Russian technology make the Type 096 a formidable addition to China’s naval arsenal.

Meanwhile, China aims to be the word’s leader on AI by 2030 and is arguably ahead in some niches of quantum science, such as quantum key distribution for networks.

But for now, the advantage is with the AUKUS triple alliance of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, Breaking Defence reported.

“This is a tech race where the AUKUS countries can have an asymmetric advantage over China, if they integrate their quantum R&D to arrive at a series of prototypes for T&E (testing and evaluation) at sea,” argued Arthur Herman, director of the Quantum Alliance Initiative at the Hudson Institute.

Inside a Chinese Navy submarine.
Inside a Chinese Navy submarine.PLA Navy photo

“Like the advent of sonar, the advent of quantum sensing has the potential to revolutionize submarine warfare — whether we’re talking manned or unmanned systems.”

China does have one big advantage, though.

Its secretive nature allows them to pursue submarine development without revealing their true intentions. This veil of secrecy has created a mystery around the hardware and software sophistication China has achieved, and what is coming.

On December 1, AUKUS announced their latest slate of advanced R&D initiatives, some of which explicitly targeted the undersea domain.

This included the use of AI algorithms to process sonar buoy data from P-8A Poseidon patrol planes, AI/machine learning for precision targeting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and “Quantum Positioning, Navigation and Timing.”

The latter utilizes miniaturized quantum clocks and sensors to substitute for GPS.

That’s valuable to air and surface forces in wartime — when GPS is often jammed — and to submarines all the time, because the GPS signal can’t penetrate underwater. (Neither can radar or radio, which all use the same kind of electromagnetic waves.)

Clearly, quantum is a rapidly emerging and poorly understood technology that exploits the paradoxical behaviour of subatomic particles.

It’s also a scientific arena where Australia, while only the world’s 12th largest economy, punches well above its weight.

A fact that no doubt concerns Beijing.

Artist rendering of an AUKUS sub.
Artist rendering of an AUKUS sub.UK Government

For now, quantum is largely happening in the lab, not on board submarines.

But one application is already here: timekeeping.

By keeping time, experts say, literally “million of times better“ than the atomic clocks from which they evolved, quantum clocks allow sensors to make much more accurate measurements, the report said.

That’s helpful for all sorts of purposes, notably for inertial navigation systems, which “drift” subtly from their true course over time and require constant error-correction.

The next evolution of quantum science is sensing, because quantum phenomena can be actively sensitive to outside forces.

By studying just how the subatomic particles change their behaviour, observers can deduce what external influence is changing it.

So, in theory, a quantum sensor could pick up all sorts of phenomena that sonar cannot, from magnetic fields to the subtle gravitational pull of a large vessel, such as a submarine.

But that sensitivity is a double-edged sword, because, by definition, more sensitive sensors pick up more of everything — including false positives.

Which brings us back to Jonesy on the Dallas and Captain Mancuso.

Despite the high-tech promise, the game has not changed — it’s still about sifting the signal from the noise and finding that Red October ghost.

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