An Op-Ed in the New York Times by Richard Parker discusses the U.S. Navy’s foray into unmanned aircraft technology and the implications for relationship with China in the Pacific.
This story has generated a lot of news recently, and that’s because unlike most drones, the Navy’s launch of the X-47B off the George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier is completely coordinated by computer. At 38 feet, with a 62-foot wingspan, the “Robot” as its nicknamed by crews, is capable of high subsonic speeds with a range of over 2,000 miles. The drone is also capable of withstanding massive amounts of radiation that would kill a human pilot. Moreover, it could be equipped with technologies to demobilize Chinese computer infrastructure:
“in addition to conventional bombs, successors to this test plane could be equipped to carry a high-power microwave, a device that emits a burst of radiation that would fry a tech-savvy enemy’s power grids, knocking out everything connected to it, including computer networks that connect satellites, ships and precision-guided missiles”.
Perhaps in anticipation, China recently landed a J-15 jet fighter on-board the Liaoning aircraft carrier – the navy’s first such feat. China’s navy is nearly half a million sailors strong with nearly 1,000 vessels – making it the second largest in the world. With this force, Beijing seeks to project its power over a series of disputed island chains in the Pacific ocean.
“To project this kind of power, China must rely not only on the quantity of its ships but also on the quality of its technology. Keeping the Americans half an ocean away requires the capability for long-range precision strikes — which, in turn, require the satellite reconnaissance, cyber warfare, encrypted communications and computer networks in which China has invested nearly $100 billion over the last decade”.
To counter the sheer numerical advantage of the Chinese navy, the U.S. is responding by betting heavily on robots, from underwater drones to long-range communications drones: “A single hunter-killer pairing of a Triton reconnaissance drone and a P-8A Poseidon piloted anti-submarine plane can sweep 2.7 million square miles of ocean in a single mission”.
This kind of naval arms race will create all kinds of instabilities – as American drones confront Chinese sailors and Chinese drones, potentially lowering the threshold of conflict – especially when it comes to “drone on drone” warfare.
At the very least, it will create a geopolitical fault line that will become entrenched and contested for decades to come – a brave new droneworld we can scarcely imagine.
UPDATE: Video of X-47B successfully taking off here.