A similar incident happened to the USNS Victorious in May 2009.
Much was made of the unarmed nature of these vessels. But look at their pictures.
There seem to be a few odd pictures in the above link.
Arguments have been made by both sides as to who was in the wrong, and it may be that under the UN Law of the Sea that the American Navy had a right to carry out its operations within the Chinese Exclusive Economic Zone; but I had to applaud the Chinese for trying to stop these vessels from their mission.
It is disingenuous to carry out work which is clearly aggressive, and then deny it by saying you are permitted to do so. Hunting for submarines in a section of the ocean far, far, away from your own could indeed be considered to be an act of aggression.
But what if the vessel were actually an oceanographic survey vessel? Could something as noble as gathering scientific data be considered an act of aggression? Let's consider.
Russians on the Grand Banks
In June of 1986 I was a member of the scientific staff on board the CSS Hudson, a Canadian oceanographic vessel (now called the CCGS Hudson).
CSS Hudson enters St. John's harbour May 1987 with surviving crew
members of the Skipper 1. Photo by me.
The mission involved mapping and exploration of the seafloor on the Grand Banks through a combination of sidescan sonar and seismic profiling, combined with core collection. We sailed from St. John’s, tailed by a Russian oceanographic vessel called the Passat. During the entire mission, the ship (or another like it) would appear near the horizon, but always stayed several km away.
Composite image of the Musson, docked in St. John's harbour in late 1987
(about sixteen months after the events of this story). Photos by me.
Officers on the Hudson commented that Russian oceanographic vessels were on the Grand Banks at least 300 days a year. By contrast, Canadian research vessels surveyed the Grand Banks for less than 30 days per year.
One of the scientists on board related how the Russians used to steal ocean monitoring devices left behind by Canadian vessels. The instrument package was attached to a weight by a cable with an acoustic release. The instrument package had a float, so when the acoustic release was triggered, the package would float to the surface. On the cruise in question, the scientist observed the Russian ship always near the horizon, passing over locations where the instrument packages had been placed. When the Canadians went back to pick up their instrument packages, they were all gone.
There were other stories of how during testing of one of the later Huntec systems, the prototype of a newer form of their deep-towed system, the ship was surrounded by Russian trawlers and other vessels, some with nets deployed, and the equipment was lost. This event supposedly happened in April 1981.
The Russians (when they weren't stealing or sabotaging equipment) could have been carrying out innocent scientific research. What research could that include?
There is a long history of collecting weather data in the North Atlantic for the purpose of forecasting for Europe. Weather collection could be for civilian or military purposes.
What about seafloor mapping? A noble endeavour, no?
On this 1986 cruise, we mapped out several submerged fjords, at the edge of the continental shelf. The internal geometry of these fjords was very interesting, but it was clear that our instruments were unable to image the walls or bottom of the fjord accurately.
There was nothing unusual about this--the distortion is a function of the geometrical relationship between instrumentation towed near the surface and the relief of the seafloor. Basically, the greater the distance between the sonar and the seafloor, the less representative the sonar returns were. Over most areas, where the seafloor is relatively flat, this wasn't a problem. But where the seafloor is very rugged, the distortion may be significant.
In the case of our undersea fjords, our instruments were incapable of seeing the bottom, because of reflections off surface irregularities in the walls of the fjords. This can only be overcome by towing the sonar within the fjord close to the bottom.
There is a correspondence between the type of sonar we were using and the type used by, say, a destroyer looking for a submarine. If our sonar is unable to see to the bottom of the fjord, the same will be true of the standard anti-submarine sonar. Mapping the location of these things could come in handy if you were looking for a place to hide, say, nuclear submarines on the edge of the continental shelf of some future adversary.
Soil cadmium and Canadian wheat
In 1994 I was about to carry out an exploration program in Northern Ontario for a Canadian mining company. The program was a large-scale reconnaissance project bent on recovering diamond indicator minerals from glacial till, but the samples were to be assayed geochemically for various elements of interest. I decided to discuss sample location distributions with a friend of mine at the Geological Survey office in Ottawa.
At the time the GSC had recently completed a soil survey over western Canada, and were still compiling the results. But one issue in particular was causing a great deal of grief.
The European Union was proposing to decrease the acceptable levels of cadmium in all wheat imports. Cadmium is a metal, and like all metals is toxic in sufficiently high doses. Unlike many metals, however, cadmium is not necessary for human life, and as it can accumulate in tissues in the body, it makes sense to reduce your intake. But to suspicious eyes (most of which were Canadian), the proposed cadmium restrictions appeared to be very carefully selected to exclude Canadian durum wheat from the European market while not excluding Russian wheat.
Part of the reason for the GSC survey was to try to find the source of the cadmium. The results were discouraging. It appeared that the cadmium had been spread by glaciers after advancing over a particular black shale unit in the Manitoba escarpment. Since the cadmium was natural, and spread all over the Canadian plains, there was no feasible remediation. (although see this for some recent progress).
There was initially a lot of crying over the cadmium in Canadian wheat issue. But the Canadian government came up with a brilliant plan. In March 1995 they began siezing Spanish trawlers fishing at the edge of the EEZ. There was a great to-do, climaxing with Brian Tobin's tour of New York with a Spanish turbot fishing net. In the aftermath, the whole cadmium issue disappeared, and there was a signed agreement regarding fishing stocks that straddle lines of jurisprudence.
This is more my speed nowadays. Fishing off the coast of Ghana. Photo by me.