Recent accidents at sea have raised concern about
external issues affecting US warships.
Experts have downplayed likelihood of hackers
disrupting US naval navigation systems.
But commercial and private maritime navigation systems
are vulnerable to malicious actors.
The collision of guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain with
a tanker near Singapore was the fourth accident involving ships
from the US Navy’s 7th fleet in less than a year.
Two of the incidents — collisions involving the McCain and the
USS Fitzgerald earlier this summer — have left a total of 17
sailors dead or missing, more than the 11 service members
killed in Afghanistan so far this year.
After the McCain collision, the Navy relieved the commander of
the 7th fleet “due to loss of confidence in his ability to
command,” according to the Navy.
The service also planned a
temporary halt of operations around the world and
launch a fleet-wide review in search of systemic issues
that could have contributed to the most recent incidents.
The Navy is known for its thorough and unsparing reviews,
which have been undertaken in the aftermath of each incident, and
already pointing to
internal issues, as
well as high operational
tempos in heavily trafficked waterways, that could be related
to the mishaps.
But the number of accidents involving warships in the
western Pacific — during “the most basic of
operations” — has stirred concern that outside factors are
affecting the ships and their crews.
“There’s something more than just human error going on
because there would have been a lot of humans to be checks and
balances” when transiting the Strait of Malacca, the narrow,
heavily trafficked waterway the McCain was approaching, Jeff
Stutzman, a former Navy information warfare specialist, told
“I don’t have proof, but you have to wonder if there were
electronic issues,” said Stutzman, who is now chief intelligence
officer for cyber-intelligence service Wapack Labs.
Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, tweeted on Monday
that there were “no indications right now” of “cyber intrusion or
sabotage.” But, he added, the “review will consider all
The admiral said the McCain’s
collision with the tanker was the second “extremely serious
incident” since the Fitzgerald’s collision with a Philippine
cargo ship off the coast of Japan in mid-June. The nature of the
incidents and the narrow window in which they occurred “gives
great cause for concern that there is something out there that
we’re not getting at,” Richardson said.
Experts have downplayed the
likelihood of such attacks on US warships, noting that
infiltrating Navy guidance systems would be very hard to do and
instead citing human negligence or error as likely causes. Others
have dismissed the
likelihood of state-directed attacks on ships at sea, noting that
such efforts would be a misuse of resources, strategically
unwise, and generally harmful to maritime conduct.
But recent high-profile cyberattacks around the world have
brought new attention to the security of maritime navigation,
which is highly reliant on computer networks.
The US Navy uses encrypted navigation systems that would be
difficult to hack
or deceive, and there’s no sign satellite communications were at
fault in the McCain’s collision. But there is technology out
there to misdirect GPS navigation — typically through a process
known as “spoofing” that
leaves the system thinking it is somewhere it’s not.
The software and electronic gear needed to spoof a GPS system has
become easier to get in recent years, particularly for private or
In 2013, a team of graduate students led by Todd Humphreys, a
professor at the University of Texas at Austin and
satellite-navigation expert, were able to spoof the
GPS on an $80 million yacht, directing it hundreds of yards off
course without the system detecting the change.
In late June, GPS signals for about 20 ships in the eastern Black
Sea were manipulated,
with navigation equipment on the ships, though seeming to be
functioning correctly, saying the ships were located 20 miles
inland. An attack on thousands of computers later that month also
disrupted shipping around the world.
Global commercial shipping is more vulnerable such attacks and
cargo ships are more exposed — the number of them plying the high
seas has quadrupled over the
past 25 years. And causing a collision by hacking or hijacking a
commercial vessel’s GPS is seen as increasingly possible.
Most commercial and passenger ships use the Automatic
Identification System, or AIS, to locate other ships and avoid
collisions. But the AIS has weaknesses,
and hackers could in theory send out a signal claiming to be a
phantom ship, affecting navigation decisions by other ships in
Dana Goward, former chief of Marine Transportation Systems for
the US Coast Guard, said hackers could
go after the unsecured navigation system on a commercial or
private ship while simultaneously jamming a Navy ship’s guidance
systems. Or they could misdirect the commercial ship’s guidance
system, sending the ship off-course.
In the aftermath of the McCain and Fitzgerald collisions, the
demands facing the US Navy, and the Pacific fleet in particular,
have gotten renewed focus. Greater operational demands on fewer
ships have cut into time for rest as well as time dedicated to
training (and the nature of that
training has changed as well).
In light of such demands, experience suggests that in
high-traffic areas mistakes by humans manning the ships remained
a likely culprit, said Goward, a former Coast Guard captain.
“It’s a difficult environment to be in and human error is always
present,” he told USA Today.