What Chinese Navy Planners Are Learning from Ukraine's Use of Unmanned Surface Vessels

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Apr 4, 2024

NATO military personnel test an unmanned surface vehicle during  exercise Baltic Operations 2023 in the Baltic Sea, June 23, 2023, photo by Jan Eenling/U.S. Navy

NATO military personnel test an unmanned surface vehicle during exercise Baltic Operations 2023 in the Baltic Sea, June 23, 2023

Photo by Jan Eenling/U.S. Navy

By Lyle Goldstein and Nathan Waechter

This commentary originally appeared on The Diplomat on April 4, 2024.

The continued success of Ukrainian unmanned surface vessel (USV) attacks on Russian naval facilities and warships has kept USVs in the defense analytical spotlight and naval analysts around the world, particularly those in China, are taking note.

Faced with ongoing attacks on its Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea, Russia has moved its fleet further away from Ukrainian missiles and USVs. Britain's Defense Minister Grant Shapps remarked that, “Russia's dominance in the Black Sea is now challenged.”

A January 2024 article in the Chinese defense periodical Naval and Merchant Ships, written by three analysts of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), entitled “How to Defend Harbors Against USVs?” focused on the emergent potential of USVs, noting that “the large-scale application of various types of USVs is already a new threat to modern naval warfare. USVs will bring new challenges to the development of traditional military ideas, theories of war, modes of combat, military organizational structures, weapons, and equipment.”

Faced with ongoing attacks on its Black Sea Fleet stationed in Crimea, Russia has moved its fleet further away from Ukrainian missiles and USVs.

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The PLAN analysts first identify five advantages that USVs have in combat: effective concealment, low cost to manufacture and use, strong destructive ability, intelligent modes of control, and their potential to operate autonomously. Moreover, through modular construction and the addition of different weapons systems, they incorporate “diversified attack modes.” We compiled a similar list of USV characteristics that had been identified by Chinese naval analysts in a spring 2023 article. When it comes to their destructive ability, the Chinese authors note that “USVs are more dangerous than air strikes; compared with missiles, USV warheads have greater explosive power.” Furthermore, their low manufacturing cost allows them to be made and deployed at scale which means that USVs can “harness wolf groups tactics to achieve greater destructive power.”

The assessment next identifies the challenges of defending port infrastructure and ships in harbor against USV attacks. The PLAN analysts identify three port security challenges. First, they write bluntly that “the targets are obvious,” meaning the naval infrastructure such as buildings, docks, and the ships at anchor are easy to identify and target. Second, there is a “high degree of information transparency.” This refers to the perceived inability to easily camouflage large ports and the ease at which contemporary surveillance technology can detect targets in port. Third, there is “a high probability of causing damage” to these targets.

To defend against USV threats to ports, the PLAN analysts recommend establishing “a multi-domain three-dimensional defense system of 'sensing, defending, and attacking.'” For the first task of sensing, the PLAN analysts note that “USV's are susceptible to interference and detection, especially when it comes to their communication and navigation links. Active and passive methods can be used.” On coastal defense, the authors recommend “creating a modern defense system that moves from being just a point defense to a three-dimensional perimeter and surface defense.” The information flows for this defense should be coordinated across a range of actors including: “local governments, public security, and maritime affairs,” among others. As part of this defensive system, the authors stress the importance of floating defensive barriers, like those used by the United States, Russia, Singapore, and other countries around the world to protect naval bases, ports, and other infrastructure. The article includes product images seemingly copied from the U.S. Navy's primary port security barrier contractor website.

Finally, the article discusses how to go about attacking USV threats through a “consolidated multi-domain strike system.” The PLAN analysts propose the development of “a new type of kill chain network with more standoff advantages…using relevant weaponry and upgraded asymmetric combat styles.” They propose reducing the expenditure of precision guided weapons, and maximizing combat effectiveness. To achieve this, they propose, “a long-distance, medium-, and short-range multi-layered strike system and multi-domain interlocking fire network of electromagnetic and conventional weapons.” The longest-range aspect of this system includes attacking USV “forward operating bases, assembly areas, and production sites” with precision guided weapons and even hypersonic missiles. Taking warfare into the fully autonomous realm, the authors theorize that USVs could be used to patrol for, discover, and initiate attacks against attacking enemy USVs.

Ukraine's use of USVs has given the world's navies a genuine view of what large-scale future naval warfare might look like.

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Ukraine's use of USVs has given the world's navies a genuine view of what large-scale future naval warfare might look like. At a minimum it is causing Chinese naval analysts to think about how to protect the PLAN's expensive capital investments. It has also shown that even a smaller country without a large navy can pose a serious asymmetric threat to a great power with a large fleet. With China's navy venturing ever further into the world's oceans, the possibility that major PLAN surface units, including even aircraft carrier battle groups, could face such asymmetric threats is growing.

In addition, there are potentially major implications of these developments for a hypothetical Taiwan scenario. Most obviously, the asymmetric example of Ukraine's employment of USVs may provide an important template for Taiwan's defense against a PLAN invasion fleet. In particular, the low cost and autonomous nature of these platforms could make them effective in this role. On the other hand, Beijing is a genuine “drone superpower,” wielding a fully developed set of USV programs, so the PLA will undoubtedly also be looking to take advantage of USVs in order to pose new threats against the fleets of hypothetical third parties (whether the United States or Japan) intervening to assist Taiwan. It can also be anticipated that Beijing's naval planners would employ USVs to tighten a Chinese naval blockade around the island, to assault Taiwan's naval forces and harbors, to complicate the targeting for Taiwan's defenders, as well as to conduct close-in surveillance and “soften up” potential landing zones.


Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement for the Washington think tank Defense Priorities. He is also visiting professor at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University. Nathan Waechter is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he lived in China for close to a decade, working in the quantitative market research industry.