U.S. Navy considers possibility of cyber attack after another ship collision

After the collision of the USS John S McCain and a Liberian-flagged tanker near Singapore on Monday, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered an operation pause while the U.S. Navy investigates the cause, including any possible cyber attack angle.

Richardson announced “an operation pause” to “be taken in all of our fleets around the world.” He tweeted that the investigation would include considering the “possibility of cyber intrusion or sabotage” even though there were no indications of that being true right now.

However, an unnamed U.S. Navy official told CNN that the warship experienced “a steering failure” as it approached the Strait of Malacca and that caused it to collide with the commercial oil tanker. “The official said it was unclear why the crew couldn’t use the ship’s backup steering system to maintain control.”

Officials on record such as Admiral Swift have gone out of their way to say there is no sign of cyber attack. Swift, according to The New York Times, said there were no signs of failure in the ship’s steering system or of a cyber attack.

Retired Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby told CNN that the Navy’s review would look at leadership, training, shipboard watching and even “consider the degree to which the budget uncertainty of the last few years has likewise affected any of those factors.” Yet Swift swatted down theories that the McCain crew had been overworked or underprepared.

The possibility of a cyber angle being the cause for multiple collisions is picking up steam. Former Navy information warfare specialist Jeff Stutzman told McClatchy, “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.” He added, “There’s something more than just human error going on.”

Todd E. Humphreys, a professor at the University of Texas and expert on GPS, said: “Statistically, it looks very suspicious, doesn’t it?”

Vulnerability in GPS makes ship hijacking possible

Humphreys’ name may be familiar because he has long warned that a critical vulnerability in GPS could be exploited to hijack ships and UAVs. Back in 2013, his team used a $3,000 GPS spoofer, a small antenna and a laptop to steer a $80 million private yacht off course. The captain of the vessel told Fox News that he and his team on the bridge were “gobsmacked” and unaware the ship was being steered off course.

At the time, Humphreys said, “I didn’t know until we performed this experiment just how possible it is to spoof a marine vessel and how difficult it is to detect this attack. The ship actually turned, and we could all feel it, but the chart display and the crew saw only a straight line.”

According to McClatchy, on June 22, “Someone manipulated GPS signals in the eastern part of the Black Sea, leaving some 20 ships with little situational awareness. Shipboard navigation equipment, which appeared to be working properly, reported the location of the vessels 20 miles inland, near an airport.”

Humphreys added, “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.”

The Navy, Humphreys said, does not use commercial GPS, and “there is no indication that faulty satellite communications were a culprit in the USS McCain accident.”

Some ships rely on Automatic Identification System (AIS) to avoid collisions, but AIS is also vulnerable.

China would have us believe the collisions are a result of the U.S. being inept. The state-run China Daily newspaper suggested the U.S. Navy was “becoming a hazard in Asian waters.” The bashing continued, saying, “It may be hard for people to understand why U.S. warships are unable to avoid other vessels, since they are equipped with the world’s most sophisticated radar and electronic tracking systems, and aided by crew members on constant watch.” Read the whole thing if you feel like getting ticked.

Itay Glick, who formerly worked as for an Israeli intelligence agency in a cyberwarfare unit, told Fox News he believes the USS McCain collision may have be the result of a hack.

“I don’t believe in coincidence. Both USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald were part of the 7th Fleet; there is a relationship between these two events, and there may be a connection,” he said.

That, of course, doesn’t mean the connection is hacking. This is the fourth accident involving U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific this year.