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April 13, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

China, North Korea building underwater strike drones

By Bill Gertz
Both China and North Korea are fielding underwater drone strike vehicles similar in design to Russia’s nuclear-armed underwater Poseidon drone.

China‘s new extra-large underwater drone vehicle was showcased by its manufacturer, the China State Shipbuilding Corp. 705 Institute, at an arms show in February in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. An image of the drone sub shows four openings for torpedo tubes — an indication the vessel will be heavily armed and likely used to attack submarines or surface ships.

Naval warfare specialist H.I. Sutton, who first disclosed the drone in Naval News, said outfitting the drone with torpedoes represents a significant leap in weapons technology for Beijing.

“Arming autonomous underwater vehicles with weapons which require target identification, such as torpedoes, is problematic,” Mr. Sutton said. “It increases risks of blue on blue (or for China, red on red) accidents,” he said, referring to friendly-fire incidents.

The killer Chinese underwater drone also raises ethical and legal questions since it likely will employ completely robotic kill chains without human intervention. Underwater drones cannot be controlled by humans and must be completely autonomous, including when deciding whether to fire weapons.

“China appears more comfortable than other nations to take these risks,” Mr. Sutton said.

Images of the Chinese drone show what appears to be a sonar array on its side.

North Korea is also building an underwater drone that Mr. Sutton dubbed a conventionally powered “mini-Poseidon.” The North Korean Haeil-2 drone is much smaller than its Russian counterpart and could potentially be armed as a nuclear-tipped torpedo.

The North Korean weapon was disclosed in late March and tested April 4 to April 7, with a reported range of 540 nautical miles and an average speed of 4.6 knots.

“This is much slower than a torpedo,” Mr. Sutton said, noting that videos of the drone were shown on North Korean state television.

As Inside the Ring disclosed in May, Indo-Pacific Command commander Adm. John Aquilino revealed in congressional testimony that Russia was on the verge of deploying its first Poseidon drone, outfitted with a megaton-class nuclear warhead capable of destroying entire ports or cities. The Poseidon will be deployed on Russia’s new special-purpose submarine called the Belgorod, which can carry up to six high-speed Poseidon drones.

The U.S. Navy is also building large underwater drones, including Boeing’s Orca and Echo Voyager, but neither will be outfitted for firing torpedoes. The first Orca was launched in April 2022.

According to the Navy, the Orca will be equipped with sea mines, including the planned Hammerhead mine, a weapon tethered to the sea floor and equipped with an anti-submarine torpedo similar to the Cold War-era torpedo mine known as the CAPTOR.

Taiwan minister: China prepping for war
Threatening Chinese military exercises around Taiwan in recent days are signs Beijing is preparing for a conflict with the island state, Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu warned this week.

“Look at the military exercises, and also their rhetoric, they seem to be trying to get ready to launch a war against Taiwan,” Mr. Wu told CNN on Tuesday. “The Taiwanese government looks at the Chinese military threat as something that cannot be accepted, and we condemn it.”

In response to the meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week in California, the Chinese military conducted large-scale military war games for three days ending Monday. China‘s state media called the war games a “serious warning” for Taiwan, describing the exercises as “practice” for military operations against the island.

The Taiwan foreign minister’s comments reflect a more dire assessment than that of Pentagon leaders.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently sought to play down growing war fears by telling Congress that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is neither imminent nor inevitable. As reported in this space last week, Gen. Milley blamed members of Congress, in part, for fueling war concerns by highlighting mounting Chinese provocative military actions.

A Chinese military official stepped up the rhetoric regarding Taiwan in an appearance on Chinese state television Tuesday.

People’s Liberation Army Sr. Col. Zhao Xiaozhuo said Taiwan’s opposition to unification with the mainland is “like a sick person with a cancerous tumor, a malignant tumor.”

“We have to operate and excise this tumor. The body may hurt, but what causes this pain? Scalpels or the tumor? The tumor, of course,” he said.

Intelligence officials have said Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered his military forces to be ready for operations against Taiwan by 2027. But Mr. Wu, the Taiwanese foreign minister, said he is confident regarding his country’s efforts to strengthen defenses.

“Chinese leaders will think twice before they decide to use force against Taiwan. And no matter whether it is 2025 or 2027 or even beyond, Taiwan simply needs to get ready,” he said.

China’s military has dispatched hundreds of warplanes, including nuclear-capable bombers, and about a dozen warships, including the aircraft carrier Shandong, to participate in the recent exercises. Many of the warplanes intruded into Taiwan’s air defense zone, an action often requiring the dispatch of interceptors and violating the fragile status quo across the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Strait.

Asked about Chinese opposition to Ms. Tsai’s recent visit to the United States and other nations, Mr. Wu said: “China cannot dictate how Taiwan makes friends. And China cannot dictate how our friends want to show support to Taiwan.”

No let-up from FBI’s Wray on China threat
While the White House has been playing down the threat from China as part of a new detente, FBI Director Christopher Wray made clear recently that the bureau is not pulling back from its campaign highlighting the dangers posed by Chinese intelligence operations in the United States. In remarks last week at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, Mr. Wray said hostile nations are expected to become even more aggressive in stealing secrets and technology, while targeting critical infrastructure and interfering with democratic institutions.

“Front and center in that expanded threat is China,” Mr. Wray said. “As I’ve said before, there’s no doubt that the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s ideas, our economic security, and our national security is that posed by the Chinese communist government.”

The China threat comes from the Beijing government and not the people of China or Chinese Americans, he said.

“The current Chinese regime will stop at nothing to steal what they can’t create and to silence the messages they don’t want to hear — all in an effort to surpass us as a global superpower and shape a world order more friendly to their authoritarian vision,” Mr. Wray said.

China’s spying operations are “insidious,” he added, employing multiple tools for technology theft, undermining American businesses and dominating markets. Chinese intelligence extensively uses scores of “co-optees” — those not directly linked to the Chinese government — in spying operations.

The co-optees identify and assess potential spy recruits, provide disguises and communications, and help carry out the theft of U.S. secrets, Mr. Wray said.

The Chinese regime “combines those efforts with a cyber hacking program that’s bigger than that of every other major nation combined, using cyber as the pathway to cheat and steal on a massive scale,” he said. “The result of all this theft is lost American leadership in key industries, lost American jobs, and lost opportunity.”

Beijing also targets people in the United States for personal and political retribution, the FBI chief said. The practice is “trampling on the basic rights and freedoms of people here on U.S. soil who express opinions [the Chinese] don’t like,” Mr. Wray said, citing an Indiana case where a Chinese American student posted online support for students killed in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of protesters by Chinese security forces.

“Almost immediately, Chinese intelligence threatened the student’s parents back in China, and groups of Chinese students mobilized to threaten him personally as well — demonstrating the lengths the Chinese government is willing to go to when it runs across even a hint of criticism of the regime,” Mr. Wray said.

Mr. Wray’s assessment contrasts with recent remarks of White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, who told reporters the Biden administration is seeking a “reengagement” with China.

“We’d like to see this relationship get onto a better footing,” Mr. Kirby said Monday, noting recent tensions. He added that President Biden hopes to speak to Chinese President Xi Jinping soon.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken canceled a planned visit to China in February after China dispatched a surveillance balloon over the United States. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is also planning to visit Beijing as part of the administration’s push for high-level engagement.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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