8, 2009: A crewmember on a Chinese trawler
uses a grapple hook in an apparent attempt
to snag the towed acoustic array of the
military Sealift Command ocean surveillance
ship USNS Impeccable (T-AGOS-23). (U.S. Navy
photo - click image to enlarge)
8, 2009:Two Chinese trawlers stop directly
in front of the military Sealift Command
ocean surveillance ship USNS Impeccable
(T-AGOS-23), forcing the ship to conduct an
emergency "all stop" in order to avoid
collision. The incident took place in
international waters in the South China Sea
about 75 miles south of Hainan Island. The
trawlers came within 25 feet of Impeccable,
as part of an apparent coordinated effort to
harass the unarmed ocean surveillance ship.
(U.S. Navy photo - click image to enlarge)
South China Sea Incident
USNS Impeccable is a US Navy surveillance
ship that was involved in an incident with
five Chinese vessels while operating
in the South China Sea on March 8th, 2009.
According to the U.S. Military:
"Five Chinese vessels shadowed and
aggressively maneuvered close to the USNS
Impeccable in the South China Sea yesterday,
a senior Pentagon official said today.
The U.S. oceanographic ship was 70 miles
south of Hainan Island conducting routine
operations in international waters when the
ships approached, Pentagon spokesman Bryan
"We view these as unprofessional maneuvers
by the Chinese vessels and violations under
international law to operate with due regard
for the rights and safety of other lawful
users of the ocean," Whitman said.
A civilian crew mans the ship, which
operates under the auspices of the Military
The incident began as the ships surrounded
the Impeccable and two craft closed to
within 50 feet, Whitman said. The Chinese
ships included a Chinese navy intelligence
collection ship, a Bureau of Maritime
Fisheries patrol vessel, a State
Oceanographic Administration patrol vessel
and two small Chinese-flagged trawlers.
Crewmen aboard the Impeccable used fire
hoses to spray one of the vessels as a
protective measure. The Chinese crewmembers
disrobed to their underwear and continued
closing to within 25 feet.
The Chinese vessels dropped pieces of wood
in the water directly in the Impeccable's
path, and two of the ships stopped directly
in the U.S. vessel's path, forcing it to
Whitman said the Chinese used poles in an
attempt to snag the Impeccable's towed
acoustic array sonars. Impeccable's master
used bridge-to-bridge radio circuits to
inform the Chinese ships in a friendly
manner that it was leaving the area and
requested a safe path to navigate.
"These are dangerous close maneuvers that
these vessels engaged in," Whitman said.
The incident was the culmination of earlier
harassment. A Chinese patrol vessel shined a
high-intensity spotlight March 4 on the USNS
Victorious operating in the Yellow Sea 125
miles from China's coast. Chinese maritime
aircraft "buzzed" the ship 12 times March 5.
A Chinese frigate crossed the bow of the
Impeccable at a range of about 100 yards
March 5. Maritime aircraft buzzed the ship
after that incident.
Another Chinese ship challenged Impeccable
over bridge-to-bridge radio March 7, calling
its operations illegal and directing the
American ship to leave the area or "suffer
the consequences," officials said.
The Impeccable is one of six surveillance
ships that gather underwater acoustical
data, Whitman said. U.S. ships routinely
operate in the area.
"We expect Chinese ships to act responsibly
and refrain from provocative activities that
could lead to miscalculation or a collision
at sea, endangering vessels and the lives of
U.S. and Chinese mariners," a Defense
Department official said.
U.S. embassy officials lodged a protest
against these actions with the Foreign
Ministry in China, and Defense Department
officials have protested with the Chinese
USNS Impeccable is one of the five Ocean
Surveillance Ships that are part of the 25
ships in Military Sealift Command's Special
Mission Ships Program. The ship directly
supports the Navy by using both passive and
active low frequency sonar arrays to detect
and track undersea threats.
Length: 281.5 feet
Beam: 95.8 feet
Draft: 26 feet
Displacement: 5,368 long tons
Speed: 12.0 knots
Civilian: 25 contract mariners
It should be noted that relatively early in
George W. Bush's presidency a Chinese jet
fighter collided with a U.S. Navy spy plane
in an incident now known as the Hainan
Island Incident. The Chinese plane crashed
into the sea, killing the pilot, and the
U.S. plane was forced to make an emergency
landing on a Chinese island. Early in
Obama's presidency the Chinese seem to be similarly
testing the United States.