Speed Reads

Crash Logs

Human error or navigation hacking? Outside experts disagree on cause of repeated U.S. Navy collisions.

On Monday, the U.S. Navy announced that divers had recovered the remains of all 10 sailors killed when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker in the Strait of Malacca, near Singapore, last week. The crash was the second such deadly incident this summer for the U.S. Seventh Fleet, based in Japan, and the fourth accident since January. Right after last week's collision, the Navy relieved Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin of command of the Seventh Fleet, a rare punishment for a three-star admiral. But the Navy is still unsure why two high-tech Navy destroyers got blindsided by giant, slow-moving cargo ships, or whether the incidents are connected. There are several preliminary theories.

The first is human error, fed by a grueling schedule for junior officers that leaves little time for sleep plus a lack of training, exacerbated by a shrinking naval fleet asked to perform the same duties as before, The New York Times reports. These systemic errors were highlighted in at least two 2015 reports, which led to a change in scheduling on submarines but not ships. The Navy destroyers have multiple redundant radar and other systems to avoid collisions and other mishaps, plus officers with binoculars stationed at all sides of the bridge, but fatigue can still lead to mistakes.

The other theory is that someone is tampering with, or "spoofing," the navigational system, a form of cyberwarfare that misdirects ships while making the computer readouts appear normal. "There's something more than just human error going on because there would have been a lot of humans to be checks and balances," Jeff Stutzman, chief intelligence officer at Wapack Labs and a former Navy information warfare specialist, told McClatchy, suggesting " electronic issues" as the culprit. Admiral John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, tweeted that there's "no indication right now" of "cyber intrusion or sabotage," but the Navy review "will consider all possibilities."

The fear of navigational spoofing was heightened by a June 22 incident in which roughly 20 ships in the eastern Black Sea found that their GPS signals indicated they were 20 miles inland, next to an airport in Russia, the first confirmed case of GPS spoofing. The Navy doesn't use commercial GPS service, but spoofing of commercial ships can now be accomplished by off-the-shelf hardware and readily available software, says Todd E. Humphreys, a satellite navigation expert at the University of Texas.