Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd’st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed boundaries keep
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
— “Navy Hymn”
Peril on the sea can appear out of nowhere.
Years ago, a starless night, 0315 hours, the South Atlantic seas ink black. No blinking airplanes, no commercial shipping traffic, just a single Navy ship slicing through the ocean en route from Recife, Brazil, to the Cape of Africa.
Then, the faintest glow, unexpected light on the horizon. As the Navy ship came closer, the glow dissolved into individual pinpoints of light, a few at first, then dozens, then hundreds of blazing spotlights, the working lights of a commercial fishing fleet, dead ahead.
“Should we wake the Old Man?” the junior officer asked the officer of the deck. “Night orders said to wake him for any contact within three miles — these fishing boats are going to be close enough to touch.”
“Let’s not bother him. We’re going to be past these boats in a couple minutes. He’ll never know.”
But he did. Because two minutes later, unable to sleep, our captain decided to check out the bridge. Expecting to find a black-void seascape, he instead was astounded and then enraged to find the ocean around him lit up like a shopping mall, bright lights and small boats everywhere.
“Call your relief!” our captain thundered at the OOD — and worse consequences followed.
A small example, but it demonstrated our captain’s acute awareness of the centuries-old Navy dictum: The commanding officer has total responsibility and accountability for the welfare of the ship, even for things that happen through no fault of his own, even while he is asleep. A harsh rule, virtually without parallel: A Navy captain can be 100 percent right, yet still be held accountable.
Fast-forward to the Aug. 21 collision of the Navy destroyer John S. McCain and an oil tanker near Singapore. Ten sailors are missing. The Navy has already launched an aggressive investigation, and it is premature to assume the conclusions at this point, but already, the commander of the Seventh Fleet has been summarily relieved of duty.
In seeking possible causes for the collision — as distinct from the accountability for it — investigators are likely to focus on three possibilities:
Cyber-threats and/or electronics failures. The McCain collision occurred just weeks after the Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan, killing seven Americans. Are the two tragedies related? Possible electronics failures will also be explored, although electronics redundancies minimize that possibility. The Navy has also said it will review “cyber intrusion or sabotage” in the McCain collision.
Two other Navy accidents in the area this year — a guided-missile cruiser running aground Jan. 31 and another cruiser colliding with a South Korean fishing vessel — have fueled inevitable conspiracy theories, but there is no supporting evidence at this point.
GPS “spoofing.” The Navy’s deep reliance on GPS systems for both navigation and weapons targeting has long been a concern, because of GPS vulnerability to “noise jamming.” But noise jamming is easy to detect — some GPS systems even sound an alarm. “Spoofing” — tricking the GPS into believing it is in a fictitious location — is more complicated. As one expert put it: “Jamming just causes the [GPS] receiver to die; spoofing causes the receiver to lie.”
A dramatic GPS spoofing incident was buried in an obscure June 22 report of the U.S. Maritime Administration. It described a Russian ship in the Black Sea with a seemingly correctly functioning GPS system, but showing the ship’s location to be more than 15 miles inland. The Russian captain contacted 20 other nearby ships, and all of their Automatic Identification System signals had been “spoofed,” placing all 20 ships in an airport.
Nevertheless, experts reject GPS spoofing as the cause of the McCain collision in the teeming Strait of Malacca, simply because any spoof signal there would also have affected dozens or perhaps hundreds of other vessels — which did not happen.
Old-Fashioned screwup. Nearly 81,000 vessels, military and civilian, went through the Strait of Malacca in a recent year, making it one of the world’s busiest waterways. In such a pressurized maritime environment, even a relatively minor human error — momentary inattention by a watch-stander, failure to notice a blip on a screen — could have catastrophic consequences.
More than two centuries of Navy history instill confidence that the McCain investigation will provide answers and closure for “those in peril on the sea.”
David Marston, a former U.S. attorney, served as a Navy gunnery officer/legal officer on the Norfolk. firstname.lastname@example.org