Pentagon officials are accusing the Chinese Navy of theft today after one of their ships made off with a US underwater surveillance drone, which officials described as “lawfully conducting a military survey” in the South China Sea.
Details on the incident are still emerging. The USNS Bowditch deployed 2 such drones somewhere in the South China Sea. The Pentagon described the incident as occurring “about 100 miles” from Subic Bay, which likely puts it in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands.
The Bowditch was being followed by a Chinese Navy vessel, the ASR-510, a Dalang-III class rescue and salvage ship. The Bowditch had its drones deployed about 500 meters from itself, and while Pentagon officials described the Bowditch itself as being in international waters, they weren’t clear whether the drones were. Obvious the US and China also have different concepts of whose maritime waters are whose in the South China Sea as well.
The Chinese ship deployed a smaller salvage vessel, and scooped one of the US drones out of the water. The other drone made it back to the Bowditch, and officials say personnel on the Bowditch demanded the ASR-510 return the first drone, but the only response they got was that the Chinese ship was resuming “normal operations.”
The drone itself is of little consequence, being made of off-the-shelf components costing only about $150,000, and not believed to contain any real sensitive technology or information that has been lost.
At the same time, Pentagon officials are furiously demanding China return the drone, noting that they clearly had written on the drone that it was the property of the US military and that this therefore gave it “immunity” to being scooped out of the water.
In the end, the reasoning behind China taking the drone is totally unknown, but with Pentagon officials overtly carrying out previous operations in the South China Sea simply to spite China, it may well be a tit-for-tat measure from their view.