China deploys Shāyú-class submarine
China has deployed its first known combat-ready autonomous underwater vehicle, the Shāyú-class submarine, to the South China Sea.
Sources within both the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Ministry of Science and Technology report that sea trials were completed early this year, and that the Shāyú has officially joined the fleet. The exact number of Shāyús operating in the South China Sea is unclear, however satellite imagery revealed as many as twelve objects described as "small torpedos" lined up along a submarine pier at Yulin Naval Base on Hainan Island. Subsequent satellite passes showed the objects being lowered into the water, rather than onto a submarine or surface ship, suggesting that the Shāyú is capable of traveling long distances under independent guidance and power.
Little is known of the Shāyú, as the existence of the program has been heavily shrouded in secrecy. China has, however, engineered several AUVs of varying designs and capabilities, both for civilian and military use, including a "breakthrough" 50-kg submersible developed by Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an. (A graphic illustrating the craft has been removed, but can be found here.) We believe the Shāyú may be based on this craft, developed in a secret, parallel program to include more highly advanced technologies.
While our sources report that the Shāyús have likely been rigged with ordnance, we believe that their main role in the South China Sea will be anti-submarine warfare. Undersea situational awareness is of paramount concern to the Chinese given the large number of actors operating in the region, and while the possibility of microcombat or TCS cannot be ruled out, we do not believe these are as critical as ASW or other ISR-related missions such as SIGINT collection, or surface surveillance.