• Large unmanned submarines are seen as a key emerging technology in naval warfare
  • China has been working on building its undersea naval capabilities
  • No much technical details are known about China's unmanned submarine projects

In an effort to boost its undersea naval operations, China may be preparing to deploy its massive new unmanned submarines, providing the first indication of a much larger program that may be underway.

A report in Naval News by defense analyst H.I. Sutton showed a satellite image of two Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicles (XLUUV) at the Sanya Naval Base.

The Sanya Naval Base, aka the Yulin Naval Base, located in Sanya on Hainan Island, is China's strategically important naval base in the contested South China Sea.

According to the report, although the two vehicles have been present there since March-April 2021, they have been spotted only now and their arrangement indicates trials or testing.

According to the Naval News report, the first XLUUV appearing in the satellite image is around 16 meters long and two meters across with a streamlined bow. At the tail, it appears to have two side-by-side propellers, indicating that it may be related to the HSU-001 Large Displacement Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (LDUUV), first unveiled in 2019.

Although very little is known about the HSU-001 in terms of its technical details, it is believed to be China's first large displacement Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV). It was exhibited for the first time at a parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the country in 2019.

Writing in Covert Shores, Sutton pointed out that HSU-001 is approximately the same size as the U.S. Navy's LDUUV projects, suggesting it is large enough to carry smaller UUVs or, potentially, sensors or mines.

According to Sutton, the other XLUUV is outwardly simpler in form, much slimmer but also longer at around 18 meters, and its design reminiscent of Lockheed Martin's contender for the U.S. Navy's Orca XLUUV program, which was awarded to Boeing.

Large unmanned submarines are seen as a key emerging technology in naval warfare. In an effort to boost its naval power, China has been working in recent years on building its undersea capabilities by developing unmanned undersea vehicles.

Experts believe that China's HSU-001 is roughly analogous to the U.S. Navy's own LDUUV, "Snakehead," which is designed for missions such as intelligence preparation of the environment (IPOE) and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and is comparably smaller than "Orca," the U.S. Navy's XLUUV, which was unveiled in May.

An earlier report in National Interest said when compared to American large UUV designs, Chinese designs are seemingly wider and have dual shaft propulsion that is expected to maximize stability and should also reduce noise. It is believed the design could accommodate externally mounted torpedoes and mines.

In May, the U.S. Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command unveiled its first-ever Orca Extra Large Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (XLUUV) built by Boeing as part of a project to produce five such vehicles. Based on Boeing's 51-foot Echo Voyager, the Orca is designed to conduct offensive missions including mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, electronic warfare and strike missions.

The delivery of the U.S.'s Orca is however delayed. Media reports based on budget documents said that "due to contractor challenges and supplier issues," the first of five operational Orca drones, which were to be delivered in Dec. 2020 will now only be delivered by Sept. 2023.

China is on a major military modernisation drive, including the development of aircraft carriers for its navy
Representation. China is on a major military modernization drive, including the development of aircraft carriers and aircraft. AFP / WANG ZHAO