United States Navy Research Ship the USNS Bowditch

So China Grabbed Our Ocean Drone, Does It Really Matter?

Guest written by RADM (Ret.) Jon White and Grace Roskar, Consortium for Ocean Leadership for the Natural Security Forum.

Last week a Chinese naval ship retrieved an underwater drone, actually a glider, from international waters. The caveat: it didn’t belong to them. The glider was a U.S. Navy-owned unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) completing its oceanographic survey route in the South China Sea when it was seized. The gliders are purely scientific instruments — not “spy” equipment — and are made and sold commercially by Teledyne, a technology company that produces monitoring instruments for a whole suite of applications. The Naval Oceanographic office (NAVO) in Mississippi remotely operates a fleet of UUVs that run autonomously for months at a time collecting data on oceanic conditions such as salinity, depth, water pressure and temperature.

The glider’s data and information are critical inputs for oceanic models that are utilized globally in both the private and public sectors. Additionally, NAVO operates six military oceanographic survey ships, including the USNS Bowditch (T-AGS 62) (the vessel was recovering two gliders when this one was taken by the Chinese vessel). Furthering the argument of science technology versus the claim of spy technology, the Bowditch is not the typical “grey hull” combatant Navy ship one might think of. Instead, it’s a “white hull” vessel, crewed by civilians with a technical survey team operating the gliders.

Although the glider has now been returned, this incident at sea raises serious international concerns. UUVs have performing routine military survey activities since 2012 in order to better understand our ocean. Under the most recent United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), coastal countries have sovereignty over marine natural resources within their Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the area of the ocean extending 200 nautical miles from the coastline. This concept exists to protect countries’ economic interests that lie within their zones.

According to UNCLOS, one country cannot perform marine scientific research in another country’s EEZ, but military surveys are allowed with or without the country’s consent. This is why the U.S. requested China’s return of the glider, as it was part of routine military survey work and therefore permissible. However, China’s Defense Ministry has made it clear that they do not condone the U.S. Navy’s oceanographic surveys within their EEZ. A major point of dispute is that while the U.S. does recognize the treaty as international law, the U.S. is not a party to UNCLOS and is not legally bound by it. Critics say it is hypocritical of the U.S. to demand China comply with international laws (China did ratify UNCLOS) when our nation has not acceded to the treaty that codifies those laws. Others argue China breached understood principles of professional and diplomatic behavior between navies at sea.

Will this incident be the final straw leading the U.S. to accede to UNCLOS and avoid future conflicts like these? Some contend that sufficient laws and agreements exist to provide the legal framework for international ocean activities and agreeing to UNCLOS could threaten our sovereignty by unnecessarily subjecting the U.S. to international tribunals.

Debates about UNCLOS aside, the importance of the UUVs and oceanographic surveying cannot be underestimated. For example, El Niños affect ocean currents and sea surface temperatures in the Pacific, severely altering the frequency and severity of droughts, flooding and hurricanes. Climatic events caused by the 1982–83 El Niño (one of the strongest recorded) resulted in more than $8 billion in economic losses worldwide. This is a prime example of how changes in the ocean affect people, and it is ocean observations and research that enhance our ability to forecast that change and adequately prepare for it. Oceanographic research helps us to advance our prediction capabilities, weather forecasting abilities and search and rescue efforts, all of which help keep our communities safe. The National Hurricane Center reduced the margin of error for forecasting hurricane tracks by fifty percent in the last fifteen years, and hurricane watches and warnings are issued twelve hours earlier than they were a decade ago, both thanks to data and information from ocean observations. Additionally, the ocean provides the nation with myriad resources and services, from food and tourism to coastal protection and shipping. Thus, ocean observations and research are vital to growing our economy while maintaining our environmental resource base for future uses.

Oceanographic surveying efforts by the Navy’s gliders and other survey instruments are imperative to preserving our nation’s superior ocean knowledge which directly benefits society in terms of national and homeland security, economic prosperity and community resiliency. Upholding our maritime security and supremacy starts with understanding the ocean that our military operates in and upon. Investing in and maintaining ocean observing and monitoring efforts increases certainty in the warfare arena and in ocean-dependent industries. Closing knowledge gaps enhances science-based decision-making, ensuring national security, reducing risks and increasing readiness. The late Admiral James Watkins used to say that oceanography is how the U.S. won the Cold War — our more advanced understanding of the ocean helped safeguard our national security. To put it simply, our Navy is an away team dependent upon superior ocean knowledge to provide a home field advantage at the away games.

Jon White is the President and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. He retired in 2015 from active Naval Service, after 32 years as a naval officer and oceanographer, culminating in his final assignment as the Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy. Grace Roskar is a policy intern at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership who graduated in 2016 from the University of Miami with a degree in marine and atmospheric science.

The views and opinions expressed on the Natural Security Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Stimson Center.