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Thursday, 24 August 2017

US Navy collisions in Asian waters: No, it is not a result of cyber attacks

In June this year the United States Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with MV ACX Crystal, a Philippine-flagged container ship, and in August, the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker. Both of the collisions happened in Asian waters and both destroyers are from the US’s 7th fleet. The June collision killed seven sailors, and the fatalities from the latest collision could be at least as many.
Media and experts point out differences between the two collisions and the most important is that USS John S. McCain sustained damage to her port side aft and USS Fitzgerald to her starboard side. The difference indicates that USS John S. McCain had right of way, but not USS Fitzgerald. The other mentioned difference is that the latest collision happened in the Strait of Singapore, which is one of the business waters in the world. Without the prior collision, these differences may have led to that the consequences on the US navy organization after the August incident could have been limited, but the liability at sea is not as easy as to identify right of way. However, two collisions will always spark a discussion about systematic safety issues.
One such systematic cause put forward is that the collisions could be a result of cyber-attacks on the ships’ GPS system. I cannot rule out that the US ships’ GPS systems are hacked, but suggesting that it has anything to do with these collisions seems far-fetched. A combination of stubbornness and “it-usually-works-out” thinking is much more plausible.
In May 2016 the Swedish Navy vessel HMS Carlskrona collided with the Aspö ferry. These are smaller ships and the consequences were minor. However, similar to USS John S. McCain HMS, Carlskrona sustained damage to her port side aft indicating that she had right of way. The collision was investigated by the Swedish police. The investigation found that a major contributing factor to the collision was that the autopilot on the ferry did not release control as supposed to and therefore reduced the possibility for the ferry to avoid the collision. The criminal investigation was therefore dismissed without any actions. This although these collisions most probably also included a combination of stubbornness and “it-usually-works-out” thinking onboard both vessels. A collision, therefore, does not need to lead to substantial changes. However, it helps if the consequences are small and if it is a singular event.

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