China Vows to Return US Navy Drone

Daniel Braun, left, Eric Sanchez and David Barney, Systems Center Pacific engineers at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, perform pre-deployment inspections on littoral battlespace sensing gliders aboard the Military Sealift Command oceanographic survey ship USNS Pathfinder. Each glider hosts a payload suite of sensors that will measure the physical characteristics of the water column as the glider routinely descends and ascends in the ocean. The gliders will be deployed during an at-sea test aboard Pathfinder Oct. 22 - Nov. 5.

On Friday, the US Pentagon announced that the USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship stationed in the disputed international waters of the South China Sea, had seen a Chinese warship use a small boat to entrap an “ocean glider” – technically known as an unmanned underwater vehicle, or UUV.

On Saturday, China made its response. And spun its own version, too. A statement was made by China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson Yang Yujun, who said, “In order to prevent the device from causing harm to the safety of navigation and personnel of passing vessels, the Chinese naval lifeboat verified and examined the device in a professional and responsible manner,” according to a translation from state-run media Xinhua News.

The statement took a bitter turn, accusing the US of choosing to “dramatize” the situation:

“The Chinese side has decided to hand over it to the US in an appropriate manner. Both sides have been maintaining communication on the issue. The US side’s unilateral move to dramatize the issue in the process is inappropriate, and not conductive to its settlement. We regret that,” it read.

In a sort of international game of “he-says-she-says”, China is claiming the above, being that they confiscated the American drone to ‘prevent harm’ for passing boats in the area and to examine the device. Washington, however, says that the Chinese vessel was following the American ship, and that the origin of the UUV was not in question.

An NPR article published Friday explained the Pentagon’s version:

“The Bowditch was retrieving one vehicle when a Chinese warship pulled up, put a small boat in the water and retrieved the second UUV, officials told reporters.

“The U.S. sent radio messages requesting that the drone be returned, the Pentagon statement said, but the Chinese ship merely acknowledged the messages and ignored the request.

“No shots were fired by either vehicle, officials said, and the Chinese ship left with a final message that it was returning to normal operations — and with the drone.”

The drone-snatching incident occurred shortly after an American think tank released detailed satellite photos showing China’s increase in military presence on artificial islands the meganation built in the disputed maritime region.

The revealing images were brought to light by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

AMTI’s director Greg Poling sat down for an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon Saturday. Responding to a question regarding any military or strategic interest the drone may have, Poling said, “The real interest, I suppose, would be if there was some advanced technology on this drone — and we’re not going to know that, of course. The Pentagon won’t tell you exactly what sensors were on it, whatnot — and the Chinese wanted to reverse-engineer it.”

“But even by Beijing’s own maps, this was [in] international waters,” Poling told NPR.

Washington says that USNS Bowditch – which according to the US Navy’s Military Sealift Command is a twenty-year-old ship that has “an all-civilian crew of civil service mariners and scientific support personnel” – was conducting ocean research when the Chinese warship overtook it.