An SIU-crewed vessel was in the news in mid-December during a brief but tense incident that sparked international headlines along with a social-media comment by then President-Elect Donald Trump.
On Dec. 15, the USNS Bowditch was performing part of a planned scientific mission in the South China Sea. The vessel, a Pathfinder-class oceanographic ship operated by USMMI on a Military Sealift Command (MSC) contract, was surveying 50 nautical miles off the Subic Bay when a Chinese warship intercepted one of the Bowditch’s deployed “ocean glider” scientific drones.
After establishing bridge-to-bridge contact with the Chinese vessel, the crew of the Bowditch instructed the Chinese to return the drone, to which the only response was: “We are returning to normal operations.” The warship then left the area.
The drone in question is a small, torpedo-shaped craft that glides beneath the waves to collect various data. Such drones are often used for weather research but have a variety of roles. According to multiple news reports and comments from the United States government, it was clearly labelled, and the Bowditch was a mere 500 yards from the drone when it was seized.
“This incident was inconsistent with both international law and standards of professionalism for conduct between navies at sea,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said in a statement. “The U.S. has addressed those facts with the Chinese through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels, and have called on Chinese authorities to comply with their obligations under international law and to refrain from further efforts to impede lawful U.S. activities.”
The drone was returned to the U.S. on Dec. 20, after American officials condemned the seizure as unlawful (and also after President-Elect Trump said in a Twitter comment the Chinese could keep it).
The Pentagon emphasized that the United States “remains committed to upholding the accepted principles and norms of international law and freedom of navigation and overflight and will continue to fly, sail, and operate in the South China Sea wherever international law allows, in the same way that we operate everywhere else around the world.”
The SIU crew members aboard the USNS Bowditch during the incident were advised by the U.S. Navy not to comment on the event, in the interest of national security. The SIU crew included Bosun Thomas Weber, ABs Tracy Austin, Mark Bolitho and Melvin Kennedy, OSs Blake Braye and Frederick Murray, QE3 Mervin Cruzat, QE4 Eric Cunanan, GVAs Ronnie Rankin and Camilo Villafania, Steward/Baker Elston Yu-Mateo, MDR Leonard Renaud, CSKS Dorine Kendall and Steward Assistant Joseph Allen.