In the UK, the BBC is carrying a report that eleven Chinese fishermen have received cash awards for capturing seven foreign underwater drones also known as Unmanned Underwater Vehicles or UUVs. In 2018, eighteen fishermen were awarded cash at a special ceremony for the capture of nine UUVs. The rewards were considerable, up to 500,000 yuan, almost twenty times the average annual wage in China. In 2016, a Chinese warship also captured an American drone. In that case, the US admitted it was theirs and claimed that it was being used for non-hostile purposes such as collection of ocean data on tides and currents. The drone was returned by China several days later.
Chinese fishing fleets are, like so many sectors of the Chinese economy, dedicated to the service of the Chinese state. There is even a Chinese Maritime Militia which is believed to include dedicated electronic surveillance vessels. Chinese fishing vessels of all kinds can provide both surveillance and early warning capabilities.
The UUVs are believed to be from the US, Japan and/or South Korea. According to a 2011 report by the US Defense Security Service, American UUV capability includes enemy craft and port surveillance, anti-mine operations and payload delivery. Some models of UUV can remain on station at sea for weeks or even months. They serve as a targetable supplement to satellite surveillance. They are relatively inexpensive and allow close surveillance of the Chinese coast without causing the level of provocation carried by naval vessels. Animals are also used in underwater espionage as we reported in May 2019 (see “Moby Bond?”), but UUVs are more reliable, less morally questionable and have made the use of animals largely redundant.
As early as 2012, the UK’s Royal Navy reported that it planned to substantially increase the size of its underwater drone fleet. It had already been using a squadron of sixteen UUVs based at the Whale Island base off Portsmouth harbour. They were used mainly for countermine operations.
The use of remote underwater systems for surveillance is not new. During the Cold War, devices on the sea bed or floating at prescribed depths were used to monitor the movement of submarines at depths that would have otherwise have been untraceable. UUVs are simply an extension of that capability, although they offer greater range and flexibility. The fact that China has not protested more forcibly shows how much these devices have become part of the modern reconnaissance picture.