The secretive world of naval underwater surveys rarely breaks the surface. Now recent events are briefly shining a light into the darkness.
In the Adriatic, a Croatian fishing vessel caught one of the U.S. Navy’s undersea sensor systems last week. That mysterious object has largely been explained. Meanwhile, China has held an awards ceremony for fishermen who alerted authorities after discovering similar devices in their nets. The devices may have been operating in international waters, but still in China’s backyard, as they see it. We can infer that some of these devices may belong to the U.S. Navy.
China has been holding the annual awards ceremonies since 2016. This year 11 fishermen were rewarded for handing over unidentified underwater vehicles which they had found. The number of devices was not reported, but in 2018, nine were handed over.
The vehicles themselves are not being displayed, but are reported to include ones of foreign origin. By implication, this means that they are operated by other navies in or near Chinese waters. If so, their role is likely to be intelligence gathering. The information they collect could include measuring the depth, noise, salinity and currents. This seemingly mundane data could provide submariners with a tactical advantage in future operations, making them better informed about local conditions. Which is why navies invest so much in these activities. And why they are often conducted discretely, or even covertly.
The Jan. 13 ceremony took place in Jiangsu province on China’s eastern coast, facing the East China Sea. These waters are of interest to South Korea and Japan, as well as the U.S. Navy and potentially other global players. American submarines in the region are based in Pearl Harbor and frequently visit ports in Guam, South Korea and Japan.
Jiangsu province is not the only area where China finds foreign underwater devices. The scale of the incidents is hard to measure because most are not reported in the media. There is patchy information on a few of these incidents however. In 2012 a fishing boat from Hainan Island discovered a torpedo-shaped drone in the South China Sea. That titanium drone had satellite communications and cameras. It was reported as an American device in Chinese media. Confusingly, photographs of it are now being used to illustrate the latest award ceremonies.
In December 2016, China seized an underwater drone from the U.S. Navy oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch. She is the same class of ship as the one which lost the device off Croatia last week. The innocent -ooking glider, painted high visibility yellow to aid recovery, was termed a Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider (LBS-G). It was later handed back to an American warship.
Unmanned platforms are popular for intelligence gathering because they do not endanger a crew if caught or lost.
China is not alone in facing this manner of unwanted attention. North Korea has a large torpedo-like intelligence gathering drone on display in the capital, Pyongyang. That device is possibly a U.S. Navy submarine-launched drone.