China has deployed a fleet of underwater drones in the Indian Ocean. According to Chinese government sources, the drones were launched in mid-December 2019 and recovered in February after making more than 3,400 observations. These Sea Wing gliders are a type of Uncrewed Underwater Vehicle (UUV) which can operate for months on end.
The gliders are similar to ones deployed by the U.S. Navy. When China seized a U.S. Navy ocean glider in 2016 the stated reason was to ensure “safe navigation of passing ships.” Taken at face value, it may be surprising that China is now deploying these types of UUV en masse in the Indian Ocean. China has also deployed the Sea Wing from an ice breaker in the Arctic.
Reports from December 2019 suggested that 14 would be employed in the Indian Ocean mission. But newer reports suggest that only 12 were used. Possibly there were technical issues with the other two. They were launched by the specialist survey ship Xiangyanghong 06 which has since returned to Rizhou in China. The mission was the winter survey for the Joint Ocean and Ecology Research Project run by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
The Sea Wing (Haiyi) bear a striking resemblance to the Littoral Battlespace Sensing-Glider (LBS-G) used by the U.S. Navy. On December 15, 2016, China obtained a U.S. Navy LBS-G in international waters in the South China Sea. The glider was in the process of being recovered by USNS Bowditch when a small boat from a Chinese vessel which had been shadowing the Navy vessel plucked it from the water. After a diplomatic spat the glider was returned to a U.S. Navy warship.
The Sea Wing isn’t a case of reverse engineering however. It was reported in Chinese sources in September 2016, months before the U.S. Navy incident. But the American type is a clear influence and they are generally equivalent.