The recent collision between the USS John McCain (DDG-56) and a merchant ship has prompted speculation that the collisions are the result of the ships being hacked. Some early reports indicated that the McCain had lost its ability to steer before the collision but subsequently regained it. All four of the Navy’s ship incidents this year occurred to ships of the Navy’s 7th Fleet, headquartered at Yokosuka, Japan. The 7th Fleet is involved in patrolling waters in East Asia, including the disputed maritime territories of the South China Sea, prompting some to wonder whether the Chinese military has developed the ability to hack into US Navy ships.
Before the McCain’s collision, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) was involved in a collision with a merchant’s vessel in July, the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) collided with a South Korean fishing boat in May, and the USS Antietam (CG-54) ran aground in Tokyo Bay while trying to get underway in a storm after dragging its anchor.
Because of the spate of incidents, the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, was relieved of his command. While there are indications that these incidents are occurring because of poor seamanship on the part of ship captains and their crews, the allegations of hacking should be taken seriously. While the Navy has not commented publicly on those allegations, it undoubtedly is looking into the possibility, which would be a highly sensitive national security matter if any hacking were undertaken by a foreign power such as China.
Given the demonstrated ability of hackers to take control of automobiles, the ever-greater networking of military hardware, and the increased sourcing of electronics from China, the hacking hypothesis cannot be fully discounted. Cyber attacks on commercial shipping companies earlier this summer caused severe disruptions to global shipping, so it is obvious that ships and shipping companies are targets of hacking.
Particularly as autonomous ships are about to be deployed, the dangers of cyber attacks must be defended against. If it can be proven that hackers were able to get into a ship’s systems and defeat its navigation or steering abilities, that would be a very dangerous new development that could threaten not only the ability of naval ships to engage in routine operations but also the 90% of world trade that relies on shipping.