The American flag is not the only flag flying after the USS John S. McCain was rammed by an oil tanker near Singapore. Red flags are flying everywhere as well. Some are questioning whether the incident, which is the fourth involving a Seventh Fleet warship this year, was a target of a cyber attack.
The collision occurred near the Strait of Malacca, which is a crowded 1.7-mile waterway that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. This channel accounts for roughly 25 percent of the world’s shipping.
“When you are going through the Strait of Malacca, you can’t tell me that a Navy destroyer doesn’t have a full navigation team going with full lookouts on every wing and extra people on radar,” said Jeff Stutzman, chief intelligence officer at Wapack Labs, a New Hampshire cyber intelligence service. “There’s something more than just human error going on because there would have been a lot of humans to be checks and balances,” said Stutzman. He is a former information warfare specialist in the Navy.
Adm. John Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations, has not ruled out cyber intrusion or sabotage as a cause of the collision which led to fatalities. “No indications right now … but a review will consider all possibilities,” Richardson said in a tweet on Monday.
On January 31st, the USS Antietam ran aground off the coast of Japan. On May 9th, the USS Lake Champlain was struck by a South Korean fishing vessel. And on June 17th, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship. The Fitzgerald is a $1.5 billion ship that is outfitted with strategic electronics. Seven sailors were killed in the collision, and the commanding officer and two other officers were formally removed from their duties.
“I don’t have proof, but you have to wonder if there were electronic issues,” Stutzman said.
This concern was reinforced by Todd E. Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas. He is an expert in satellite navigation systems. “Statistically, it looks very suspicious, doesn’t it?”
There seems to be cyber attacks aimed at the shipping industry as well. On June 22nd, someone manipulated GPS signals in the eastern part of the Black Sea. It left 20 ships with very little situational awareness. Their navigation equipment reported their location 20 miles inland from where they actually were. This became the first known instance of GPS “spoofing” or misdirection.
“We saw it done in, I would say, a really unsubtle way, a really ham-fisted way. It was probably a signal that came from the Russian mainland,” Humphreys said. This kind of misdirection used to require expensive equipment and high coding skills, but Humphreys said that now it can be done with off-the-shelf gear and easily attainable software.
“Imagine the English Channel, one of the most highly trafficked shipping lanes in the world, and also subject to bad weather. Hundreds and hundreds of ships are going back and forth. It would be mayhem if the right team came in there and decided to do a spoofing attack,” Humphreys said.
What do you think about the possibility that these U.S. Navy incidents might very well be cyber attacks?
Credit: McClatchy DC Bureau