In the latest slap in the face for the Navy, Houthi rebels have reportedly captured a Navy REMUS 600 unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) off the coast of
. (1) Yemen
In a similar incident in Dec 2016, the Chinese Navy seized a U.S. UUV about 50 miles northwest of
Bay in the
as the drone was in the process of
being recovered. The UUV was later
These incidents raise some interesting issues regarding UUV operations.
According to Peter Cook, Pentagon press secretary, the UUV is a sovereign American vessel just as any Navy ship is.
“The UUV [unmanned underwater vehicle] is a sovereign immune vessel of the
.” (2) United States
The Maritime Awareness Project website affirms that position.
“… the seizure was unlawful because the drone enjoyed sovereign immunity as a
vessel.” (4) U.S.
If UUVs are sovereign
vessels then their seizure in
international waters is illegal, at best, and an act of piracy or war, more
likely. This is tantamount to a foreign
country seizing a US naval warship which would be an act
of war. US
has no policy for dealing with this
occurrence other than strongly worded notes of protest. Evidence for this is that the US has failed to defend or, indeed,
take any action in the past when foreign countries have seized our military
assets. Recall the Chinese force-down,
seizure, and dismantling of the EP-3 in April 2001 or the recent Iranian
seizure of two riverine boats and crews.
No action was taken by the US in either case. U.S.
We need to establish a response policy and, preferably, one that recognizes the illegality of the action and responds accordingly and forcefully.
If drones are going to be seized, we need to give consideration to providing protection for them. We need to have ships or aircraft available to respond to seizures. For example, the Chinese seizure of the UUV should have elicited a SEAL retrieval operation and/or sinking of the Chinese ship. It is clear that the Chinese are not in the least deterred by either international law or
military forward presence. What is needed is a swift and brutal response
that makes it clear that we will not accept the seizure of sovereign U.S. property. You don’t placate a bully, you punch them
hard in the nose. U.S.
Referring to the Dec 2016 seizure by the Chinese, a Chinese spokesman had this to say.
"The Chinese navy discovered the device -- and identified and verified it in a responsible and professional manner. … And they did so to prevent it from harming navigational and personnel safety of passing ships." (3)
While the statement is just the usual lies and spin from the Chinese, it does raise an interesting point – who is responsible for the operation of UUVs when they come in contact with commercial or naval ships? Will a UUV apply the navigational and safety rules of the sea? Are ships under any obligation to avoid UUVs? Who is financially responsible if a UUV causes damage to a ship? Who is responsible if a UUV causes a death?
seems to be operating UUVs on an
ever-expanding basis and without enough positive control to even avoid seizures
so what makes us think that we can avoid potentially detrimental interactions
with ships? True, a UUV is not big
enough to substantially damage a ship of any size but they can certainly foul
fishing nets, drag nets and equipment away, foul and damage rudders and props,
and potentially cause collisions as ships attempt to steer out of their way. They could certainly severely damage or sink
fishing boats and put lives at risk. US
We need to carefully think through our operational policies as they pertain to commercial and naval shipping.
Area of Operation
The Houthi UUV seizure suggests that we are operating UUVs within other country’s territorial waters. This is not surprising as it is generally acknowledged that we operated submarines within enemy territorial waters during the Cold War. It does, however, mean that we need to think through the ramifications of being caught operating within territorial waters.
Does the procedure of Innocent Passage (as defined in UNCLOS) apply to a drone? If it does, can Innocent Passage be claimed if a UUV is conducting surveillance or even benign oceanographic surveys?
If one of our UUVs is caught operating in another country’s territorial waters is that an illegal act, as we would undoubtedly accuse anyone of who would do that to us, and would we acknowledge the illegality of it? Are we prepared to accept the hypocrisy inherent in those positions? Our behavior in the Cold War would suggest we are. If so, that undermines our moral high ground as we criticize
’s manifold territorial
transgressions. Are we comfortable with
that double standard? China
If seizing American UUVs is going to become the new international sport, are we comfortable with the loss of technological secrets that goes with that? If not, and referring back to protection and sovereignty issues, are we prepared to use force to protect our UUVs?
We have more than enthusiastically plunged into the production and use of unmanned vehicles/vessels without taking the time to think through the associated issues. I would urge the military and government to think about these issues and formulate relevant policies before the various events discussed herein occur.
(1)Navy Times website, “Video reportedly shows Houthi rebels with captured underwater Navy drone”, Geoff Ziezulewicz,
(2)The Guardian website, “Chinese warship seizes
underwater drone in international
waters”, Julian Borger, US 16-Dec-2016,
(3)CNN website, “
returns seized China underwater drone” Steven Jiang and Kevin Bohn, US December
(4)Maritime Awareness Project website,