Swarm Wars At Sea: China's Cats vs. America's Dogs


China's New "Cat" -- Type 022 Houbei Fast Attack Catamaran

Source: US Navy

In an era in which Chinese hackers have stolen almost every major weapons system from the Pentagon - Aegis, Black Hawk, F-22, F-35, V-22, PAC-3, THAAD -- the Navy brass apparently has decided to just start giving stuff away on YouTube for free, thereby saving Beijing the trouble of stealing or reverse engineering it.

That was my first thought when I stumbled across a 2014 video from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) trumpeting its development of "autonomous swarm" boats developed to protect American capital ships. As long as ONR has opened up that particular can of swarm boat worms, it might be useful to do a quick strategic comparison of the American versus Chinese swarm boat approach.
In the ONR video, we see a bunch of small and fairly old boats upgraded with a sensor and accompanying software kit called "Caracas." That's would seem to be the obvious strength of the American approach: You don't have to build a bunch of new boats with money the Pentagon doesn't have - just retrofit the old dogs in the pound with cool new software that moves the human operators to the sidelines.

According to ONR, the autonomous swarming software was adapted from code developed by NASA for the Mars Rover - which is a "name drop" no doubt meant to impress us. On the other hand, how many times has the Mars Rover had to fight off a swarm of Martian bots coming at it at 40 knots? (Did I mention that the ONR video also shows some interesting details about the software and its operation that the Chinese, Russians, and Iranians will no doubt be keenly interested in?)

Watch This Video For a Comparison of Chinese and US Swarm Boats

At any rate, the ONR video demonstrates how a cluster of autonomous swarming boats can quite effectively neutralize a single hostile. That's all well and good if the goal is to defend against, say, a small fiberglass boat with two suicide bombers like the one that damaged the USS Cole and killed 17 American sailors.

But here's a perhaps far more relevant "what if": What if an aircraft carrier strike group operating in the Taiwan Strait or a US destroyer conducting a freedom of navigation patrol near a South China Sea island is approached by a swarm of Chinese Type 022 Houbei class fast attack catamarans? Will it be enough to send out America's autonomous drones to parry the Chinese swarming thrust?

In fact, the results are not likely to be pretty - at least from an American perspective. Here's how US Naval War College Professor Toshi Yoshihara has described China's shiny (and very well-armored) new arsenal of Type 022 Houbei cats:

They are small, maneuverable, and nimble craft with a stealthy infrastructure specifically designed to engage in swarming-attack tactics. They are armed with long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, and they pack a truly out-sized because the missiles are designed specifically to go after capital ships.

As Yoshihara explains, China's swarm cats will be able to rapidly move in and out of ports, use their stealth to avoid detection, and engage in multi-vector attacks against everything from a US aircraft carrier strike group to the surface feet of Taiwan. In any such scenario, America's "autonomous swarm" boats would likely be obliterated (or simply ignored) because they lack the armor, speed, firepower, and maneuverability of the Chinese swarms.

Of course, ONR is likely to protest that this is not a fair comparison, but howl all you want. If you are going to put up a propaganda video to trumpet the rise of a new technology, it's more than fair to point out that the Chinese approach is to simply build hordes of newer, better, and faster boats for their swarms while we retrofit what looks from the ONR video to be at least some boats dating back perhaps as far back as the Vietnam era.

Last take: If I had my way, defense analysts and journalists would never have anything to write about when it comes to new American weapons systems. Loose lips - and porous firewalls - do indeed sink ships. ONR please take note.
Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China's Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series. For more information and to access film interview clips, visit www.crouchingtiger.net or see his book talk on CSPAN2.