The PLA Navy committed a rather saucy piece of theft against the US Navy in the South China Sea this week.
According to the Pentagon, the USNS Bowditch was in the process of recovering an underwater drone when a PLAN vessel, the Nanjiu 510, lowered a boat and scooped up the device, reportedly a “Slocum Glider.”
The US media leapt to the conclusion that this was the much-anticipated PRC test of incoming US President Donald Trump’s resolve. The PRC is notorious for probing America’s enthusiasm for push back in the South China Sea when a new president takes office.
Indeed, a 2001 episode also involved the Bowditch, which is an oceanographic survey vessel that endlessly irritates the PRC by ceaselessly cruising inside the PRC’s EEZ to support sub-detection exercises. It was bullied from its oceanographic survey mission off Hainan Island by a PLAN frigate in March 2001, a few weeks after George W. Bush’s inauguration.
However, Donald Trump isn’t president yet, and that would make lame-duck President Obama and perennial adversary the US Navy the presumed target of Chinese taunting. Indeed, the PRC did not seem to be interested in scrubbing taunting references to the PLA “running off with America’s baby” from Weibo.
However, it is more likely that the PRC simply wanted one of these drones and this was the week it got a chance to snag one.
Drones, as everybody knows, are now a big war thing and the US Navy is inevitably angling for a piece of the “unmanned autonomous vehicle” UAV pie. Therefore, in addition to myriad other initiatives, it has purchased several dozen Slocum Gliders from Webb Design, a division of defense contractor Teledyne.
The Slocum Glider is a rather neat oceanographic sensing platform powered by a “buoyancy engine,” which is a fancy way of saying a) it floats and b) the glider, with the help of a little forward thrust, is able to convert vertical motion into horizontal motion. This allows it to putter along using very little power, albeit very slowly, for months at a time, wending its way through the ocean providing a nice profile of conditions like salinity and temperature and whatever else its sensor package is designed to measure. Every so often it inflates an internal balloon, pops to the surface and uplinks to the Iridium satellite system to transmit its data. It needs to have its battery and inflation gas needs tended to every so often, so a ship like the Bowditch has to show up occasionally and take care of it.
The Navy likes the glider because its data can be used to improve the accuracy of sonar in detecting (Chinese) subs and it’s very very quiet and presumably difficult to detect and neutralize. Also, the Navy can drop a gazillion of them in the water (they cost somewhere around US$150,000 apiece) instead of limiting its data reach to wherever and whenever the Bowditch and its sister ships can cruise with their sonar arrays.
Chinese researchers have a strong interest in buoyancy engine UAVs in general and Slocum Gliders in particular. National self-sufficiency is, of course, the PRC ideal in such matters. They make their own version, the Sea Wing, at Shenyang Automation Institute and have announced some good test results.
Why China would want to steal a Slocum Glider was professed to be something of a mystery. The US Navy declared the drone was a commercially available product and indeed they are sold for oceanographic research and oil exploration around the world. Webb Design has sales offices in Russia and Taiwan, though not listing any presence in China. There is no record of the PRC having bought a Slocum Glider, however, and maybe Teledyne has gotten the message that selling a favorite US Navy toy to China might not be a great idea.
In any case, a closer look at the record and circumstances indicates the PRC was pretty unambiguously in the hunt for a Slocum Glider doing service in the South China Sea.
Unsurprisingly, Slocum Gliders get lost—and get netted by fishermen–and this has already occurred in the South China Sea, as this report from the Philippines in November makes clear:
[T]hree fishermen …found the yellow-colored device while fishing in the open sea and dragged it to the coastal village of Barangay Inhobol, where they live.
Now in the custody of the provincial police in Camp Conrado Yap in Iba, Zambales, the oceanographic instrument is the second such device found near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.
The marine instrument was turned over to the local police and eventually claimed by the US embassy.
That wasn’t even the first wayward drone:
Fishermen from Subic town also found what was described initially as a US drone also near Scarborough in February this year, with a different haul described later as a marine instrument weighing about 40 kilos and was marked “Naval Oceanographic Office USA.”
The devices are identified as a Teledyne-Webb Slocum gliders in the article.
Perhaps reporting the first recovery, the PRC was already Slocum Glider aware in September, per a report that stated:
Fisherfolk in the South China Sea have netted an underwater glider apparently belonging to the US Navy. It is suspected that the glider was surveilling China’s submarine base area. Previously the US Navy had issued a “Seeking Lost Object” announcement declaring that it had lost an underwater glider in the vicinity of the South China Sea…because these devices are unpowered or very limited in their power, they can’t keep up with a submarine or surface vessel, however they can penetrate the main harbor base areas of an adversary and engage in surveillance.
So, we can safely draw the inference that the PRC was a) quite aware that the US Navy is seeding the South China Sea with Slocums b) was interested in the possibility that they would, in addition to conducting plain-vanilla oceanographic measurements, would try to create a UAV picket line at the PLAN submarine base on Hainan Island or possibly help monitor the movements of Chinese vessels at Scarborough Shoal c) knew that every once in a while these devices escaped the US Navy’s control and d) thought it might have a chance of recovering one.
Add to that e) even under Duterte, the Philippines was not ready to hand over a recovered Slocum Glider to the PRC, so the PRC would have to do the dirty work itself.
The idea that the PRC were serious about getting their hands on one of the SCS Slocum Gliders is supported by the vessel that actually grabbed the drone, the Nanjiu 510. Nanjiu 510 is described as a Dalang II salvage vessel; it’s an elderly boat originally designed for submarine rescue/salvage work and now part of the PLAN South China Sea fleet. It’s got a diving bell, cranes, winches, and what not and, unless the waters of the Phillipines are littered with sunken Chinese subs, it’s a good bet it was sharing the waters with the Bowditch because it had the equipment to quickly lower a boat, do a snatch and grab, and scuttle off.
So the most likely scenario for the timing of this particular outrage was not Donald Trump’s statement on Taiwan or Admiral Harry Harris’s “the pivot is aliiiive” tour of Australia. Most likely, the PRC knew that the Bowditch was in the business of recovering Slocum Gliders for service or salvage, assigned the Nanjiu 510 to shadow it and, since the Nanjiu 510 was bigger and faster than the Bowditch, was able to seize the rare opportunity of a surfaced Slocum this week to swoop in and snaffle the glider under the nose of the Bowditch.
All this effort and diplomatic ruckus implies that the PRC believes there’s something more to the Slocum Gliders in the South China Sea than a conventional oceanographic temperature/scientific package.
The US Navy is packing other goodies into the Slocum payload, including a sediment measuring device from Sequoia, presumably to deal with the possibility that the Chinese subs might try to sneak out of the SCS during a typhoon. It has also purchased Slocums for “littoral” a.k.a. in-shore work in addition to the traditional open-sea stuff. So it would not be surprising if the Chinese suspected that there were some new tricks in the US Navy’s Slocum/SCS bag and wanted to get a look inside.
As a service vessel, the Nanjiu 510 is not heavily armed, relatively unthreatening, and indeed pairs functionally with the Bowditch, which is also in the service wing of the US Navy a.k.a. Marine Sealift, which also handles salvage duties. The Bowditch is operated by civilian contractors to make its snooping seem less odious and, I believe, restricts its weaponry to defensive sidearms, rifles, and whatnot. The PRC probably paid some attention to vessel selection for its piratical mission, and calculated that having two lightly armed auxiliary vessels have at it over a drone was less likely to light off World War III.
That’s not good enough for red-blooded American pivoteers and US Navy lawfare experts, who hastened to characterize the Slocum Glider and, indeed any floatable thing tossed off the deck of a US Navy vessel, as a “US Navy vessel enjoying sovereign immunity”. This sort of dramatic overreach is, I might point out, unnecessary in putting the PRC in the wrong. Customary law of the sea is pretty strong on preserving ownership rights for stuff in the water, even if it’s from a ship already sunk. “Finders keepers” just doesn’t cut it.
The Chinese realize that and, unsurprisingly to me at least, have agreed to give the glider back, albeit at some unspecified date, maybe in a million pieces, presumably after they’ve thoroughly rummaged through its innards.
Especially as drones proliferate in the South China Sea and the PRC seeks to stamp them out like underwater cockroaches, it is unlikely to take the US Navy’s huffing and puffing about their sovereign immunity seriously. I question if other nations, other than those under the thrall of the US Navy, will join in regarding violence against drones as a casus belli and might not, instead, call for an international understanding on the use and treatment of these devices.
This, of course, is anathema to the US Navy, whose unlimited ambitions and unlimited budgetary claims are predicated on the concept that minimized limits on its operations allows the US to maximize its material, technical, and positioning advantages in the watery realm.
But the PLAN is making the case that the SCS is for sharing—and stealing—and the US Navy may have to get used to that.