Watch the Story Change and Unfold

The initial headline:

China ‘seizes US vessel’ in S China Sea” (link) isn’t quite deliberately deceptive, though if you look at the page the first thing you see is a great big white non-military-looking ship; you have to read in more detail to realize that it’s a drone that was seized.

The drone did/does belong to the ship, the “USNS Bowditch, an oceanographic survey ship” (same article) But when you read a little bit closer:

The device, dubbed an “ocean glider”, was used to test water salinity and temperature, officials say.

The data was part of an unclassified programme to map underwater channels, Pentagon spokesman Capt Jeff Davis told reporters.

Oh, that big white ship is not a civilian ship? It’s a military research ship. Oh, that drone isn’t just some oceanographic drone it’s part of an unclassified program to figure out where the themocline is and where underwater channels are that submarines might use to move into and out of the area?

The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] was lawfully conducting a military survey in the waters of the South China Sea,” he added.

Trying to figure out where the sono-sensors are going to go, so that the US can map China’s growing submarine fleet. Got it. Of course. Hainan Island, in the South China Sea, is where the Chinese ballistic missile submarines are based. Where will they enter/leave the South China Sea? What underwater channels will they take?

China Subs Ingress/Egress points (source)

China Subs Ingress/Egress points (source)

Don’t you think the US would have a “shit fit” (I believe that’s the technical term) if the Chinese were surveying the ingress/egress points of the sub bases where the boomer fleet refits? Because you damn betcha that’s what the Bowditch was doing.

Cue flag-waving and yelling. But, seriously, this is pretty much exactly like if the Chinese were planting sono-devices outside of King’s Bay on the Georgia coast: it’s part of the necessary intelligence battle that keeps the powers from any one of them convincing itself that it controls the entire world. Their tendency to spy on eachother is one of the crucial things that keeps political/military leaders from thinking they can “get away with it” for any given “it” – and it’s one of the reasons why rational people should support other governments when they loft spy satellites and monitor eachothers’ communications: it makes it harder for any one government to decide on a little surprise “regime change.”

Look at the inset in the map above, by the way: the US’ base in the Philippines is right near the new Chinese base in the Spratly Islands. The US is screaming about China building air bases and whatnot, sort of in its back yard, you know, right next to the US’ eight bases in the Philippines. Imagine the horking great shitfits the US would be throwing if the Chinese arranged with El Salvador to build a huge naval base and military air base capable of launching bombers into the US homeland. The Chinese aren’t doing that because they’re not an imperial power that’s trying to project global “soft dominance” like the US is. One possible reason the Chinese base in the Spratlies is a problem is because the Chinese could, you know, pre-empt US forces at Subic, now that they are building longer-range conventional weapons (and where the long-range conventional weapons go, the nuclear weapons eventually follow)

Remember: the argument is that China is vastly overreaching its territorial boundaries by building a base in the Spratlies. Near a US base that’s, at best, 7,000 miles from Los Angeles. If there’s territorial overreach going on, guess who’s doing it?

Subic Bay and Naval Air Base

Subic Bay and Naval Air Base

It's like a trap for submarines

It’s like a trap for submarines

One likely scenario is that the US ship was mapping the ingress / egress points and measuring the thermoclines / salinity to calibrate sensors, or to figure out where to put sono-sensors to monitor the Chinese boomers. A less pretty but equally likely scenario is that the US ship was mapping potential ingress/egress points for US boomers to get close to China in case the US wants to launch a rapid nuclear strike. Let’s assume it’s the first. Look at the map and you can see how the US has a sensor-grid of bases up and down the Chinese coast.

I expect this story will fizzle out, because Obama is still president and the Chinese can talk to him. (“Yes, thank you for the drone, we will examine it, see if it has any encryption keys or anything useful, and determine what kind of data it was collecting, then eventually we will return it in a large box, in pieces. Maybe you should be more careful where you play with your toys, perhaps off the coast of Los Angeles.”


Addendum: One also assumes that the US Navy is freaking out because the Chinese grabbing the drone indicates that there are deep intelligence compromises within the US Navy – either its communications, or its technology, or (worse yet) there’s a mole. The reason for the freakout is because someone told Chinese intelligence what the Bowditch is doing, and where it was going to be. The Chinese sent out a military anti-submarine ship; presumably its got pretty good communication and sensor gear – one possible scenario is that the Chinese were listening in on the drone’s data-stream and decided to grab it when the navy called it home.

Daily Brief: Geography Will Drive China’s Submarine Deployments

National Interest: Undersea Crisis: China Will Have Twice as Many Subs as US





  1. John Morales says


    On Australia’s national broadcaster, 3 hours ago: US, Australia urged to get tough on Beijing over South China Sea

    China has gained “effective control” over the South China Sea and is using “psychological warfare” in its quest for territorial expansion, according to a new study which urges the United States and allies to do more to push back.

    The joint Australian and US report concludes current policies have failed to strongly challenge Beijing’s “adventurism” and suggests options for the new Trump administration to help free up the strategic waterways.

  2. komarov says

    I was reading the same article earlier and found it quite surprising, to say the least. That word, ‘military’, seemed to pop out of nowhere. A brief mention and then it’s back to “surveys” and “research”. Oh, and the Pentagon is mad, but I suppose they would be even if it had been a civillian ship. To paraphrase Zapp Brannigan, ‘let’s show them what a bloated, run-away military budget can do and release a strongly-worded statement to the press.’

    As for the purpose of the ship, your post certainly made for interesting reading. Whatever the ship may or may not have been doing, the USA’s capacity for hypocrisy remains, as ever, inexhaustible. Any complaints about ‘adventurism’ ring hollow coming from a nation that routinely launches drone strikes against other nations, against civilians.

  3. says

    The US and USSR used to play lots of “unobvious spy ship” games – ranging from things like the USS Liberty (which was an NSA signals intelligence ship) to the Soviet “trawlers” festooned with antennas that used to harvest communications intelligence up and down the east coast. The US’ “research” bathyscaph “Trieste” and “Alvin” also had unnamed military bretheren that were used to plant an array of acoustic receptors along the US coasts, the SOSUS line. ( ) China’s boomer fleet is supposedly fairly loud compared to the US stuff, so Chinese boomer drivers have to take advantage of the thermocline or salinity gradients – I don’t understand the physics of the salinity gradient, but if you’re detecting submarines based on the pressure / hydrodynamics of the sub going through the water, knowing the density of the water is really useful. None of that stuff is particularly useful for civilian navigation (which tends to be on the surface!) They’re probably trying to figure out where to have a plane drop sensors. You can be pretty sure one of the reasons the US is trying to claim that the area around the Spratlys is not Chinese waters is because they want to be able to overfly and drive through/drop sensors. And you can be pretty sure that one of the reasons the Chinese don’t want the US doing exactly that is because, well, exactly that.

    It’s “traditional” to try to track and identify ballistic missile submarines. I suppose the theory is that, if a war broke out, the other side’s boomers could be sunk. Of course if one “side” were able to accurately and effectively track boomers, their political leaders might get the deranged idea that they would “win” a nuclear war. There are certain things that, under doctrines of mutual assured destruction, nobody rational will attempt to do – such as: sinking a boomer, shooting down a spy satellite if it’s over your missile fields, performing an unannounced nuclear test, fielding an effective anti-ballistic missile system, pushing medium-range missile systems to within less than 10 minutes flight time, etc.

    The US is playing a very unsafe game of imperial influence with the world, and has been doing so for a very long time. Currently it is called “full spectrum dominance.” Go search up the term and see what the monsters at the pentagon are talking about when they say that’s what they want to achieve.

    ( )

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    “… one possible scenario is that the Chinese were listening in on the drone’s data-stream and decided to grab it when the navy called it home.”

    More likely the Chinese already have their own hydrophone array down there, and they could hear Bowditch and its drones coming. The acoustic noise the drones made revealed their mission.

  5. Brian English says

    Marcus, it’s instructive (for an ignoramus like me) to read the Guardian (home of self-confessed fearless journalism) and your take on the same article. For the Guardian reporter, it was provocative of China to snatch an American survey drone, whose only purpose was surveying submarine ‘easements’ in waters surrounding China. I don’t have a love for China or Russia, but when I read of the navy of either of those countries surveying ‘easement’s for submarines that U.S. subs need to silently decamp, then I’ll think provocative….
    I agree with John Morales (suspiro).

  6. komarov says

    Further reading, thanks! I’ve actually come across the SOFAR channel recently (wiki-binge), but for a different use: SOFAR bombs carried by returning spacecraft like Mercury. Timed correctly they’d sink to the depth of the SOFAR channel and detonate. The sound of the explosion could travel incredible distances along the channel, allowing the US to triangulate the location of their lost capsule. Another good use for the US’s marine tracking systems.

    So it looks like you have to measure the conditions in the ocean in order to determine how fast and far sound will travel. The SOFAR channel apparantly varies in depth. Different salinty / gradients result in different speeds of sound and different ranges as well. That suggests the effective range of your sensors is also dependent on those conditions. That’s probably something you’d like to know when you’re cruising around in a submarine of your own. Apart from that, any sound propagating into the SOFAR channel from above or below will start travelling along it, too. So the SOFAR channel is where you want your fixed sensors to see what it’s picking up. And so the DoD decided to fund Unthreatening Research Vessels, Military Surveys and a marine sensor net.

    If we hadn’t figured out how to bash each others’ heads in we’d still be living in caves. No funding for fire until there are some military applications.

    P.S.: I wonder what I did to trip moderation. For now I’ll just assume it was the mention of that illustrious military leader, since he’s usually the one to blame when things go wrong.

  7. ospalh says

    Rachel Maddow mentioned it on her show, but Chinese Navy-US Navy military reconnaissance confrontations aren’t new.
    They are almost a tradition after a new US president comes in.
    In 2001 it even was the same ship, the Bowditch
    I guess this time the Chinese did it earlier in part because of Trump’s Taiwan phone call.

    Two links:

  8. says

    P.S.: I wonder what I did to trip moderation.

    Your name sounds vaguely Russian, and since the Russians hacked the US elections, you know… reasons.

  9. says

    Chinese Navy-US Navy military reconnaissance confrontations aren’t new.

    No, not even close. In fact while you were making that comment, I was doing an entire post about a few such incidents. There was also the US surveillance plane that collided with the Chinese interceptor.

    I wish that our various military were more competent and less prone to penis size-measuring contests. It’s scary: they have weapons and I get the impression they’re thrilled to use them.

  10. trent1543 says

    I am reposting this comment I just put up on Pharyngula.

    I am sorry, but this information is in error. The reports are that the drone was seized fifty-seven miles outside of Subic Bay. That location is over 700 miles from the nearest Chinese port. The distance from Subic Bay to the disputed Spratley Islands is over 300 miles. And while Subic Bay is regularly visited by US vessels it is no longer a US base.

  11. says

    I’m sorry if I was unclear; I was not trying to imply that the drone was seized in US or Chinese waters; the “near” Subic bay bit was my way of pointing out that the Philippines are a whole lot farther from the US than the Spratlies are from China. With regard to the base at Subic Bay being closed – yes, but the US’ relationship with the Philipines and base-building go way back, and forward into the future as well:

  12. jrkrideau says

    Not exactly germane to the main discussion here but in the link Marcus provides we have an indignant US Captain Davis stating, “It’s a sovereign immune vessel, clearly marked in English not to be removed from the water

    Gorgeous. Just how many people in the South China Sea read, let alone read English?

    I am still laughing/shaking my head in dismay.

  13. komarov says

    You should put that in a letter addressed to the DoD. Coming soon to all USN military assets survey craft: the Do-Not-Remove-From-Ocean-And-Sell-For-Scrap emoji, designed to cross language and cultural barriers. Perhaps they can name it after you. One day research (actual and otherwise) drones everywhere might be marked with the Rideau (assuming I picked the right letters as initials).

  14. freemage says

    Honestly, if it weren’t for the Trump Factor (ie, what is that idiot going to do when he gets into office in a situation like this), this would strike me as a non-story, all part of the Great Game. It’s just so much news-making by the respective militaries, and no, this wouldn’t (under normal conditions) be anything to worry about turning hot–we’ve got dozens of layers of diplomatic and public relations tit-for-tat at this point before anyone even thinks about pulling a trigger.

    Surveillance-style spy games tend not to distress me too much. It’s what militaries do when they aren’t actively shooting at each other, and in my opinion, it’s vastly preferable. I had pretty much the same reaction to the revelations about U.S. spying on Brazil’s government last year. My main response was, “Congrats, Brazil–you’re an important enough player that we need to know what you’re going to do next, and we assume you’re smart enough that you won’t always telegraph that information. So yeah, welcome to the big leagues.” (And I’d have pretty much the same reaction to a revelation that Brazil was spying on us, and I’m sure the diplomatic games would play out the same way in opposite chairs.)

    But Trump changes all of this, because we can’t assume that he understands this is business-as-usual, and that no, it’s not an opening to a major military strike, or anything of that nature. His history is one of perpetual overreaction to perceived slights–a situation like this could actually get much nastier under him.

  15. says

    I agree – it’s part of the great game (which is why I tend to counterpose such news with stories about US espionage history) it’s actually comforting to me when I see that the various nations are up in eachothers’ business — it makes it less likely that one or another may think they can get away with some kind of unilateral aggression. Although that has failed or broken down badly in the past.

    His history is one of perpetual overreaction to perceived slights–a situation like this could actually get much nastier under him.

    Yup. I’m sure other leaders around the world are a bit nonplussed at the idea that there’s a US president whose ego is so fragile that he’s potentially lethal. For them.

  16. komarov says

    Oh, ye of little faith. President Donald “Measured Response” Trump overreact? That wouldn’t be like him at all!

    More seriously, I think he might try and treat his presidency like his campaign: as long as he keeps mouthing off, maybe noone will remember all the vile crap he’s spewing on account of sheer volume. Unfortunately for him and everybody else, nations like China probably have a longer memory than the crowds he’s used to dealing with now. They will remember every word.
    Then again, he might turn out to be a president of action after all, and start punching buttons just as soon as he’s put in front of the controls. In that case things might escalate quite quickly after all.
    I’m almost hoping he’s merely a bigmouth.* And just now I’m wondering how his business buddies would feel if their pet president started trampling all over US diplomacy, such as it is. At some point that would have to start hurting them, wouldn’t it?

    *Not that his cabinet wouldn’t do plenty of damage even if he decided to take a four-year vacation. (A notion someone ought to forward to him a.s.a.p.)

  17. John Morales says

    Bodies are buried, so… (my emphasis)

    Plehve’s foreign policies backed aggressive ventures that helped provoke the Russian-Japanese War of 1904 – 1905.This conflict grew out of the rival imperialist ambitions of the Russian Empire and the Empire of Japan over Manchuria and Korea. In January 1904, Russian General Alexey Kuropatkin reproached Plehve for instigating the Russian-Japanese war and cooperating with political crooks. Plehve responded: “Alexey Nikolaevich, you don’t know Russia’s internal situation. To avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.” His quote is often cited as an ironical commentary about the governmental policy of trying to distract people’s attention from the failure of internal politics through an external war.

  18. says

    John Morales@#19:
    I’d never heard of Plehve before! Interesting character to read up about.

    Thatcher had the Falklands. Which, by my scoring was not much of a victory, but hey “Rule, Brittania!”

  19. Dunc says

    Thatcher had the Falklands. Which, by my scoring was not much of a victory, but hey “Rule, Brittania!”

    It was a victory for Thatcher… Public opinion of her turned 180 and she won re-election the following year with the largest majority since WWII.

  20. says

    It was a victory for Thatcher…

    It sure was!
    It was also a huge victory for the French Exocet missile. My take-away from that war was that Britain showed that it could beat up a regional power, but that extremely expensive modern navies are sitting ducks against comparatively less expensive missiles. You’ll notice that since the Falklands, the Royal Navy has turned into a nub of what it once was – largely because of the realization that they were a gaggle of sitting geese ( )

    Oh, I’m suddenly back in moderation… How odd.
    It seems that every so often the spam-checking engine’s database gets updated, or something, and all the permissions get discarded so we have to re-establish them. It’s nothing personal.

  21. Dunc says

    Yeah, I assumed it would be something like that. Welcome to the wonderful world of the future, where nothing really works properly… ;)