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U.S. Oceanographic Drone Seized By Chinese Navy in International Waters

An unmanned U.S. naval drone testing current behavior in international waters within the South China Sea was found and taken by the Chinese Navy on December 15.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis maintains that the remotely-operated ocean glider was one of two being retrieved by the USNS Bowditch, a civilian-staffed oceanographic survey ship. The 6-feet-long gliders propel themselves by changes in buoyancy, and report water conditions back to the U.S. Navy, controlled via satellite by non-military personnel from the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

“They typically travel just a few miles per hour and are tracked by oceanographic vessels such as the USNS Bowditch,” the Washington Post reports. “The data the drones collect is unclassified.”

An unmanned naval glider is prepared for operation in the Southern Indian Ocean, where several such gliders were used to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

An unmanned naval glider is prepared for operation in the Southern Indian Ocean, where several such gliders were used to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Before the USNS Bowditch was able to grab this particular underwater glider, however, it was intercepted by a raft of Chinese sailors from a Dalang-III class rescue submarine. Radio contact was made with the Chinese, relaying the Americans’ order to return the equipment, but the submarine ignored all requests and absconded with the drone.

“It is ours. It’s clearly marked as ours. We would like it back, and we would like this not to happen again,” said Pentagon Spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis.

Navy reports indicate the glider was captured at around 1:45 p.m. local time. Davis claims, as it relates to a lawfully conducted scientific survey, the seizure of this drone constitutes a breach of international law.

“It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water – that it was US property,” he says.


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The actions of the Chinese Navy have raised the ire of Senator John McCain, who labeled the drone’s capture a “flagrant violation” of maritime law.

“China had no right to seize this vehicle,” the Republican senator from Arizona said. “And the United States must not stand for such outrageous conduct.”

Chinese officials finally agreed to return the drone on Saturday, Dec. 17, according to the Pentagon, drawing a less than concerned response from president-elect Donald Trump.

“We should tell China that we don’t want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!” Trump tweeted before news of the drone’s retrieval had reached his office. “China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act.”


According to Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook, the drone’s return was facilitated through clear communication with the Chinese.

“We have registered our objection to China’s unlawful seizure of a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle operating in international waters in the South China Sea,” Cook said. “Through direct engagement with Chinese authorities, we have secured an understanding that the Chinese will return the UUV to the United States.”

McCain said he has little hope for improvement in American-Chinese relations if a “strong response” to events such as these is not put forth.

“Freedom of the seas and the principles of the rules-based order are not self-enforcing,” he said. “American leadership is required in their defense.”


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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee. Find more about Matthew on his personal website.