James Bond creator and British intelligence agent, Ian Fleming, famously wrote “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” Robert Ludlum’s fictional spy, Jason Bourne, said, “Coincidence is rarely a factor.”
For the U.S. Navy, the collision on August 21 of the USS John S. McCain, a guided missile destroyer, with the Liberian-flagged oil and chemical tanker Alnic MC in the eastern Malacca Straits, is the fourth such incident this year. Ten sailors on board the McCain were reported missing. The corporate media is reporting that the collision of the McCain with the tanker is the second such collision of a Navy ship with a civilian vessel in recent months. While it is the second collision resulting in the loss of life aboard a U.S. Navy ship, the McCain collision is the fourth such collision of a U.S. naval vessel possessing advanced navigational systems with a commercial vessel since January 31. Using Fleming’s calculation, the United States Navy has had four navigational mishaps in six months, including a ship running aground, one more than what Fleming would consider “enemy action.”
On June 17, the USS Fitzgerald, which, like the McCain, is an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, collided with the Philippines-flagged container ship, ACX Crystal. The container ship is three times the size of the Fitzgerald. The damage to the Fitzgerald on the starboard side flooded berthing compartments, resulting in the drowning of seven crewmen. On May 9, the USS Lake Champlain, a guided missile cruiser, collided with the South Korean fishing vessel 502 Namyang in the Sea of Japan. There was no loss of life after the collision, which resulted in damage to the Lake Champlain’s port side. The collision occurred in calm seas. On January 31, the guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay, an incident that damaged the ship’s propellers and caused an oil spill.
The McCain suffered waterline damage to its port side, with the resulting flooding of crew berthing, machinery, and communications rooms. The ship is home ported at Yokosuka naval base, Japan, the headquarters of the Navy’s 7th Fleet. Upon hearing of the McCain collision, President Trump responded, “That’s too bad,” to reporters’ questions. The McCain is named after Senator John McCain’s father and grandfather, Admirals John S. McCain, Sr. and John S. Mcain, Jr.
The McCain incident follows, by a week, the Navy’s decision to relieve the Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, executive officer, and senior master chief petty officer of their duties for mistakes leading to the collision. The crew of the ACX Crystal was also blamed in the Navy’s official inquiry report into the collision. However, no blame was assigned to the Fitzgerald’s sophisticated and expensive electronic systems, which should have alerted the crew of the proximity of the Crystal. The McCain possesses the same advanced navigational and surveillance systems as the Fitzgerald. The Navy’s official inquiry report also contains entire blacked out pages, an indication that the Navy may be covering up significant information pointing to other factors resulting in the mishap.
There are reports from around the world of increased problems with Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that may result from electronic “spoofing” of satellite signals by hostile actors. Such spoofing attacks cause “fake” GPS signals to be transmitted.
On June 28, 2017, WMR reported that the Navy was heading into its usual “cover-up mode” with regard to the Fitzgerald incident. We reported: “Significant questions have been raised internally within the U.S. Navy about the Crystal’s pre-collision series of bizarre maneuvers, including ‘corkscrew’ turns. Such maneuvers are practically unheard of for merchant vessels, particularly container ships, which follow direct routes in order to save time and money. After the odd series of turns, the Crystal struck the Fitzgerald amidship.”
Our report continued, “The Crystal waited for almost an entire hour before it reported the collision to the Japanese Coast Guard, a factor that may have led to the seven fatalities aboard the Fitzgerald. The Crystal, which was heading east toward Tokyo from Nagoya, turned around off the Izu Peninsula, completing a full circle, before making a sharp right turn and striking the Fitzgerald. Plainly put, the container ship, which is three times the size of the Fitzgerald, appears to have turned around purposely in order to collide with the Navy destroyer. There is also the curious fact that the Crystal engaged in approximately the same circle pattern before making the same series of turns just prior to colliding with the Fitzgerald. It is as if the Crystal was making a dry run test some 45 nautical miles to the west of the impact point before making the actual fatal right turn into the Fitzgerald.”
The Navy’s official inquiry into the Fitzgerald-Crystal collision did not delve into the points raised in our article. These included: “Why did the Fitzgerald not know of the Crystal’s close proximity via the container ship’s Automatic Identification System’s (AIS) repeated VHF radio transmissions? Although U.S. Navy ships have similar AIS systems, they often disable them when on sensitive missions. However, Navy ships routinely turn on their AIS systems when under the control systems of local vessel tracking services (VTS), such as the Tokyo Bay VTS. AIS systems are installed on some 400,000 ships, navigation buoys, lighthouses, and offshore oil drilling platforms around the world. If the Fitzgerald’s AIS was activated, there should have been a warning on both vessels of the Crystal’s close proximity. The Crystal’s AIS was squawking its location at the time of the collision, as evidenced by its track being transmitted to various websites, including Marinetraffic.com.”
Crystal may have fallen victim to maritime cyber-hijacking of its Automatic Identification System and Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS). Some “white hat” hackers have previously hacked AIS systems, causing them to cease broadcasting their locations. In one case, hackers corrupting an AIS system managed to have a tug boat disappear from the Mississippi River. Not only did the tug disappear, but the hackers manipulated the AIS data to have it reappear on a lake in downtown Dallas, Texas. ECDIS, which replaces paper nautical charts, can also be hacked because its components of AIS, Navtex (navigational telex), radar, and depth sounders are all vulnerable to data manipulation. The satellite-based GPS has fallen victim to similar cyber-hacking attacks. In June twenty vessels in the Black Sea off the Russian city of Novorossiysk reported that their GPS systems placed them some 20 miles inland at Gelendzhik Airport in Russia.
These same questions are germane to the collision of the McCain and Alnic MC. However, given the Navy’s traditional cover-up mode when reacting to disasters, we will likely be left with the same questions after the McCain collision board of inquiry issues its “findings.”
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).