Modern U.S. navy ships, especially top-of-the-line warships should not run aground in a well-known and thoroughly charted major port (Tokyo) and should be able to detect a 600-ft long tanker before it smashes into their port side. The latest incident probably killed 10 U.S. sailors, but even more importantly, this is the fourth major incident this year. Even more alarming, they were all in the same command.

Shoes and ships and sealing wax and software

The modern navy ship (of any nation) depends heavily on its electronic systems and not just radar, GPS and radios. Many of the control systems on a modern military ship are electronic.

Computers manage the engines, may determine how sharply the ship can maneuver in heavy seas, decides when to fire weapons, and more.

There are conspiracy theories already spreading that the USS Mccain was the victim of something called GPS spoofing (as seen in a James Bond Movie, “Tomorrow Never Dies.”) Let's be clear, there is such a thing as GPS spoofing, it has occurred in a number of well-documented incidents. But any question about the precise location of the USS McCain wasn’t the cause of its being hit broadside by a 600-foot tanker. Someone looking out a port on a US Navy warship should have noticed it bearing down on them.

Even radar systems on boats back in the 70’s which I sailed on would sound an alarm if the system detected a ship on a collision course. So, while GPS spoofing can and does occur, it certainly couldn’t have been the cause of this collision.

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But if the location of the USS McCain as determined by GPS wasn’t the cause of the collision, what was the cause?

Location, location, location

The narrow (in navy and tanker terms) Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, near where this latest collision occurred sees the transit of commercial and military vessels numbering upwards of 81,000 per year. This is one of the busiest and most crowded sea lanes in the world. But that still doesn’t explain why a world-class US destroyer didn’t spot a tanker which was longer and higher than the USS McCain.

I’ve sailed in the North Atlantic a lot and know a number of Annapolis graduates, having sailed with them on private yachts and lived next to them in a Boston Harbor Marina. While tankers are lightly manned and seldom keep a good watch even in dangerous waters, U.S. Navy warships are normally overmanned, that is, they are manned by more people than necessary for normal operations because they must continue to function in combat conditions where some people may be injured or lost.

Navy warships also normally keep a very good watch outside, in the pilot house, and in the CIC (Combat Information Center). On a modern destroyer, there may not be an outside deck watch; I don't know, they are mostly enclosed and may not have a deck watch in normal conditions.

But that leaves the question of whether the tanker was observed bearing down on the destroyer but for some reason, it couldn’t be avoided. Why, you ask, couldn’t a 30 knot (about 35 m.p.h.) warship such as DDG-56 (USS John S. McCain), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, couldn’t get out of the way of a lumbering tanker?

Tankers are slow compared to military vessels and vastly underpowered. It takes miles for a tanker to stop or maneuver much, so it is up to a highly maneuverable Navy ship to get out of its way, regardless of the law of the sea or who has the right of way.

There are three electronic systems which are likely to be the cause of such an accident - steering, engines, and communications.

If someone saw the tanker but was unable to communicate properly because of a compromised system, that could be a problem with electronics. But there are almost certainly multiple hard-wired comm systems on a warship. If signals were sent to the engine room to either reverse engines (actually the propellers) or speed up but that didn’t occur, that could also be a failure of electronics, that is, the engineer got the message and tried to alter speed, but the system didn't accept his commands. Finally, if the ship uses electronic fly-by-wire steering that could also be compromised.

A fourth possibility is even less likely than the first three, and that is a computer problem in CIC which prevented watch officers there from seeing the imminent collision on the radar. Even if that happened the bridge should have been able to see the tanker at 6:30 a.m., although I was unable to learn either the sea or weather conditions, so it is possible there was heavy fog - in which case there should have been an, even more, alert watch.


Early reports from the Navy are suggesting that the USS McCain lost primary steering control before the collision and for some reason, the crew was apparently not able to use the backup steering system. The question remains just how did this happen? Was it a failure of training, overworked crew, or poor maintenance. All three factors were considered a major danger and covered in a Pentagon report several years ago warning of the consequences of reduced funding and sequestering.

But is it just possible that there was a computer failure due, perhaps to a cyber attack? The nation has had its electoral system attacked by hackers from an unfriendly government. When you realize that there have now been four major failures of Pacific command navy warships resulting in collisions or groundings just this year, it must be part of the investigation. Do all of these ships share any hardware vendor? Software? Or civilian service company?

Here and elsewhere I have pointed out that we already entered cyber world war I with Russia attacking voting systems in Europe and the U.S. as well as infrastructure in the Ukraine and some Baltic states. The U.S. and Israel have attacked Iran’s nuclear infrastructure wrecking hundreds or thousands of centrifuges used to enrich Uranium. The list of attacks goes on.

Details, the USS McCain

The ship began construction on the third of September, 1991 at Bath Iron Works in Maine. It launched just a year later in September 1992. DDG-56, the Navy designation for the USS McCain, weighs nearly 7,000 tons empty and fully loaded with crew and supplies about 9,000 tons. This isn't a small boat.

She is 505 feet long and has a range at an economical 20-knot speed of 4,400 nautical miles or less at the reported maximum cruising speed of 30 knots. She is 66 feet wide (beam) and draws 31 ft. (the bottom is 31 feet below the waterline.) She is powered by 4 LM2500-30 gas turbines driving two shafts with a total of 100,000 horsepower reported output. (Please be aware that being a war vessel the Navy may fudge some of those numbers on the low side.)

The USS McCain is manned by 33 commissioned officers, 38 chief petty officers, and 210 enlisted personnel, ten of whom are missing after the collision.