Fleet Stands Down after McCain Disaster. Why? Equipment failure? Jamming? Hack?

by Stephen Bryen

News reports say that Secretary of Defense James Mattis has stood down the entire Pacific fleet in the shadow of the latest disaster of the USS John S. McCain.  The USS McCain was struck broadside near Singapore, where it has now arrived apparently under its own power.  Ten crewmen are missing and another five were injured.  The McCain is the sister ship of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald that had a similar “accident”  when it collided with a large merchant vessel named the ACX Crystal in June.   The Navy has now decided that the Fitzgerald’s captain and XO and some of the sailors responsible for monitoring the radars and other sensors should be punished with Navy “administrative procedures,” one step short of a formal Court Martial.

Is it possible that the McCain’s crew made mistakes similar to their counterparts on the Fitzgerald?  

While anything is possible it is hard to believe that a seizure of incompetence swept through two separate crews in a two month period, resulting in very similar tragedies, even to the point that in both cases it was the crew compartments of the ships that sustained major damage?

The Navy urgently needs to find out and perhaps even should suspend the Fitzgerald administrative procedures until it does more homework.

There are some possibilities to explore.  These include whether the software of the computer systems on both ships was somehow buggered, either by hacking or some other means; or whether the sensors were somehow jammed as both ships passed though very congested shipping lanes were plenty of international traffic passes?  Or is there a fault in the equipment that leads to failure in certain parts of the world, a far fetched happenstance but one that needs checking.

Remember that these ships are not new; many of them have computer systems running commercial software such as Windows XP.  Even our nuclear submarines are using this obsolete and easily hacked operating system.  Was the Fitzgerald and the McCain a victim of easily hacked obsolete computer software?

Congress should insist on a full investigation preferably by outside experts not connected to the Navy.

The Fitzgerald calamity happened very early in the morning while the McCain was hit by the Alnic MC, the merchant ship and tanker at 5:24AM, just as the skies should have been bright enough for a visual sighting.

Ships are relatively slow moving, but the sensor systems on-board have plenty of range if they were operating correctly.  The watch crew should have had time to inform the bridge and move the ship out of harm’s way. 

That didn’t happen on either occasion leading one to suspect that something funny could have been going on.

Let’s hope the Navy brings in the right experts to see if they can find out.  Even though some of the communications equipment and electronics were damaged in both collisions, this avenue of research needs attention as soon as possible.