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Research Questions

  1. What is known about Chinese development of maritime unmanned systems?
  2. What roles does China see for unmanned systems?
  3. What technologies are Chinese researchers pursuing in development of unmanned vehicles?
  4. How might China use unmanned systems in its maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas?

To better understand trends in Chinese unmanned systems research, development, acquisition, and employment, and their potential implications, RAND undertook exploratory analysis to lay an initial foundation for future research on China's development and use of unmanned systems, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), unmanned undersea vehicles (UUVs), and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). The exploratory analysis focused on identifying sources related to Chinese development of maritime unmanned systems, including UUVs, USVs, and UAVs, with an emphasis on systems intended for the maritime environment because of their relevance to maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; understanding the roles that China sees for unmanned systems; analyzing trends in Chinese development of UUVs, USVs, and maritime UAVs, including the key technologies Chinese researchers are pursuing; exploring how China could employ unmanned systems in its maritime territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas; and identifying areas for further research and potential future developments. The remainder of this report highlights the key findings of this exploratory research project and presents some preliminary analysis of their potential implications.

Key Findings

Unmanned vehicles with intelligence capabilities could improve Chinese long-distance targeting.

  • Unmanned aerial vehicles paired with an enhanced satellite network would improve China's capability for long-range strike system targeting.

Unmanned vehicles with surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities could play a growing role in monitoring territorial disputes at sea.

  • Establishment or improvement of unmanned-vehicle support infrastructure in disputed areas could promote escalation of conflict. Chinese thinking on this issue seems unclear at the moment.

As China develops and improves its unmanned-vehicle system production, it is poised to become a global exporter of such systems.

  • Low pricing and lack of export restrictions could make China the top global source of unmanned vehicle systems for many countries in the market for UAV capability.
  • China already has a deal to produce UAVs for Saudi Arabia.

Recommendations

  • Further research is recommended into Chinese development and employment of unmanned systems.
  • Monitoring of potential future developments is recommended, in the areas of defense-budget cost-cutting, innovation in unmanned system technology, advocates and opponents within the Chinese military and bureaucracy, leveraging of commercial and foreign innovation for Chinese military application, and challenges to policy preferences posed by technology developments.

This research was conducted within the Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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