LAKE WALES, Fla. — A U.S. Navy underwater drone seized by a Chinese warship last week was returned Tuesday (Dec. 20), leaving unanswered the question of why it was intercepted in the first place.
The drone, a $150,000 Seaglider, had been launched by the USNS Bowditch about 50 nautical miles from Subic Bay in international waters off the shores of the Philippines in the South China Sea.
After U.S. requests, it was returned to the USS Mustin near where it was picked up.
The Seaglider is the creation of Kongsberg Underwater Technologies Inc. (KUTI, Lynnwood, Wash.), which has been licensing it for manufacture for over a decade. The University of Washington, for instance, licenses it to perform underwater surveys for environmental reasons. Possible surveys include mapping oxygen "dead zones," salinity levels, conductivity, temperature, pressure, content spectroscopy and radar backscatter to create depth maps as well as plain old photography. The Seaglider houses enough battery energy to stay submerged with powered sensors for about nine months.
(Source: University of Washington)
However, the U.S. Navy can equip its Seaglider's with whatever sensor arrays it wishes, allowing it to count ships, survey Chinese underwater defenses, photograph their warships' underwater characteristics — such as torpedo tubes — leaving open the possibility that the Chinese wanted to seize the U.S. underwater drone in order to erase its memory of something it might have observed on the Chinese ship.
The popular media, however, immediately began speculating that its seizure was politically motivated by president-elect Trump's snubbing of the "One China" policy adhered to by most of the world.
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