December 20, 2016

China's Aims in Theft of Militarally Crucial USN Glider UUV

The "unclassified" LBS-Glider System that China stole. Note that in the Glider's description is the classified "Optimize ocean feature characterization for tactical and operational products for ASW, [mine warfare] MIW, [anti-mine-warfare] AMW, and Special Ops." (Slide courtesy US Navy).

The US Defense Department said the Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) stolen by the Chinese Navy on 15 December 2016 is part of an "unclassified" Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider (LBS-G) system. "Unclassified" is not strictly correct. Teledyne Webb along with the USN Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command developed the LBS-G

In the 15 December case the Glider was apparently collecting oceanographic data (such as sea water salinity, water temperature, depth, other seafloor characteristics, sound speed and other factors) to assist the USN in ASW, [mine warfare] MIW, [anti-mine-warfare] AMW, and Special Ops. Put another way the Glider assists USN sensor platforms and databases to track foreign submarines (including Chinese) or mines and aids the discrete movement of US submarines to evade detection.

On 20 December 2016 (US time) is was reported that China has returned the Glider in question.

A glider used for monitoring salinity and ocean temperatures including propagation of heat.
- 3min, 45secs - instead of a propeller a buoyancy pump glides this UUV over extreme ranges.
                          Gliders are too slow to shadow SSKs but larger propeller driven UUVs can.
- 4min, 25secs into the youtube a trans-Atlantic crossing shows how far gliders can travel.

The Gliders can be used to study undersea internal wave behaviour which can then make it easier for US and allied submarines to hide under different undersea water temperature layers - called thermoclines.

The LBS-G is a long endurance UUV propelled by changes in buoyancy along with its wings and tail-fin steering. The 60 kg LBS-Gs can operate submerged up to 5 months using Lithium-ion Batteries (LIBs). LBS-Gs are deployed by USN and USNS ships (like United States Naval Ship (USNS) Bowditcharound the world. 



China's technical aim is to develop its own UUVs and sees theft of Western UUVs, followed by reverse engineering, as a way to lower research costs and shorten development times. So China would have pulled apart the Glider and conducted testing of the computer software and hardware as well as on the electrical contents.

China has also used the theft for the political aim of widening the wedge between the Philippines and the US. With Philippines President Duterte now siding with China (or its money) the theft might also be used as an excuse for the Philippines to direct a diplomatic protest at the innocent USA. This is because some Filipino politicians have chosen to view US testing of the Glider as a violation of the Philippines 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

China has also decided to use the theft (50 nautical miles northwest of Subic Bay, Philippines) as an example of the US violating Chinese seaspace, even though the theft occurred outside China’s imaginary Nine-Dash-Line.



Anonymous said...

Thus do we get an early glimpse of what's going to happen to ACTUV:

and other unmanned platforms, once they try to patrol outside of areas where they can
be protected.

Perhaps DARPA was a bit naive in their assumptions about how adversary nations would
react to these platforms once they were deployed in the real world.

Anonymous said...

In this case, the LBS-G was taken during the recovery phase. It would have been much harder to take it while it was submerged since it can dive to great depths. This is somewhat between a theft and a robbery as it happens in broad daylight in front of the owner, and one vessel, the Chinese one, is armed while the other is not.
The governing leadership teams in both China and the US (after Jan. 20) will be staffed by hawkish members, so Asia (and not just Asia) will be living in uncertain time for sure. The rise of nationalism and populism across the world during the next decade or two reflects the same trend post WW1 which led to the Great Depression and WW2. Global trade, with all its winners and losers, did help to prevent a major conflict and did give the world 70 years of relative peace.

Peter Coates said...

Hi Anonymous [at 20/12/16 4:00 PM]

I suppose DARPA can't accurately predict how different countries will react when they come across US undersea, water-surface and aerial drones.

DARPA will learn through experiences like this. Perhaps China stealing the Glider-UUV was also to show China's displeasure at Trump chatting with Taiwan.

Maybe more offputting measures might be planned. I would say in the leadup to war the US could arm drones that (if captured) to at least destroy the drones' own electronics and maybe large/sensitive drones could have more dangerous destruct charges.


Peter Coates said...


Maybe China, Russia and the US could develop Interceptor Drones to snatch even deep diving Glider or propeller driven UUVs.

Even if daylight robbery I don't think it lessens China's fault.

Trump vs more hawkish than usual Premier will make life more interesting for the US, Japanese and small power navies. Especially interesting for Australia as the US is very much Aus's protector and China is Aus's main trade partner.

Hopefully the commercial mindedness of Trump and Xi will have priority over trade interupting conflict.



Josh said...

I suspect a glider drones is incredibly hard to locate except during recover mode. It doesn't even have an engine per se, the buoyancy changes I suspect are just floading water back and forth on the body of the fish. As such I suspect it basically sounds like a very weak broadband signal lost in background ocean noise. It would also be an incredibly small active sonar target. Drones of these size are largely limited to environmental data and not particularly capable of detecting targets either. Though the one purpose they could fulfill in target detection is operating as moving radio gateway point for underwater sensors linked by acoustic modem. The glider can collect signals from the sensor field and during its surfacing upload that info by satlink to IUSS to be combined with other sensors data. For a system tethered and connected by cable this wouldn't be necessary, but for a system remotely deployed as a stand alone system it would provide a more secure radio gateway then a stationary buoy.


Peter Coates said...

Hi Josh

What you've written about glider drones looks pretty accurate.

I imagine the US Navy is developing glider hardware, software and doctrine/strategy for glider use. This would be in cooperation with friendly western navies and civilian research organisarions (eg. Penn State Rutgers (see ) and

Australian universities eg. .

Gliders seems to be a a hybrid between fixed sensor arrays and the many types of highly mobile manned and unmanned air/surface/undersea platforms.

Happy New Year