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Today, Chinese underwater gliders operate throughout the Indo-Pacific, from the Bay of Bengal to the Bering Sea, from high seas to sovereign waters. These winged, torpedo-like submersibles are being deployed in droves to collect information about the marine environment. Traveling underwater in a vertical sawtooth pattern, gliders use onboard sensors to measure characteristics of the ocean such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and current speed at different depths to generate water column profiles. This data indirectly bolsters the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) by expanding its tactical understanding of the ocean environment.

Scientists and engineers based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are also developing a new generation of gliders that could play a far more direct role in naval combat by detecting enemy submarines. Since 2014, experts at the PLAN Submarine Academy, working with colleagues at civilian institutions, have been equipping Chinese gliders with passive acoustic sensors. Chinese language records of their activities show a determined effort to adapt this technology for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), an enduring weakness for the PLAN—one that, if remedied, could shake U.S. conventional deterrence in the Western Pacific.

Why Gliders?

The PLAN has a very difficult time detecting advanced foreign submarines within Chinese-claimed maritime space. Modern submarines are stealthy, the ocean is vast and complex, and ASW is inherently difficult—for any navy. But the stakes are especially high for China, given the perceived threat that foreign submarines pose to China’s maritime security. PRC experts often lament that China’s “underwater front door is wide open” (水下国门洞开). China’s 13th Five Year Plan for Innovation in Marine Science and Technology frankly admitted that China “still lacks the ability to resist hostile threats from the deep sea.” One PLAN analyst declared, “the threats our country faces in the maritime direction mainly come from the undersea [domain], and the main gap with the powerful enemy [the U.S.] is also in the undersea [domain].”:snip:

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