The military is examining whether compromised computer systems were responsible for one of two U.S. Navy destroyer collisions with merchant vessels that occurred in recent months, Vice Adm. Jan Tighe, the deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, said on Thursday.
Naval investigators are scrambling to determine the causes of the mishaps, including whether hackers infiltrated the computer systems of the USS John S. McCain ahead of the collision on Aug. 21, Tighe said during an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Investigators are not, however, considering the possibility that the USS Fitzgerald collision, which took place on June 17, was the result of hacking.
“With the McCain incident happening so close to the Fitzgerald,” questions immediately arose about whether computer manipulation could have been the cause of the crash, Tighe said. The Navy has no indication that a cyberattack was behind either of the incidents, but it is dispatching investigators to the McCain to put those questions to rest, she said.
Tighe said the Navy plans to use the results of the McCain probe to look at cybersecurity in future investigations.
The two collisions left a total of 17 sailors dead and the Navy humiliated. Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson ordered a temporary halt to operations after the second collision and called on the service to review safety protocols for its global fleet.
While the idea of a cyberattack causing a collision remains purely speculative, U.S. intelligence officials have warned in recent years that this sort of digital threat could pose a major problem for the Navy’s sprawling armada. Tighe said on Thursday that the service has already set aside $1.5 billion between fiscal years 2014 and 2023 to improve defenses.
The Fitzgerald and the McCain, both Arleigh Burke-class destroyers outfitted with a suite of advanced sensors and weapons, represent two of the most capable ships in the Navy’s arsenal. The collisions have raised troubling questions about the readiness of the American Pacific fleet at a time when it faces a number of threats in the region, from North Korean missile tests to China’s territorial claims over disputed islands.
Early assessments of the two incidents have blamed both crew training and the growing demands of the Navy’s fleet of warships. Following the McCain collision in August, the Navy relieved the commander of the 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, citing a “loss of confidence in his ability to command.” The skipper of the Fitzgerald has also been dismissed, along with several of the ship’s officers, for losing “situational awareness” ahead of the June collision.
If hackers breached the McCain’s digital defenses, it would represent a startling development in naval warfare. American intelligence officials have theorized that hackers working on behalf of an enemy state could conceivably hack into a ship’s computer systems and blind its commander by, for example, displaying an inaccurate location of the ship on its charts.
Such a deception could conceivably result in a nighttime crash, such as the McCain‘s. The merchant vessel Alnic MC struck the ship’s left, or port, side and left a huge gash in its hull.
Tighe said the Navy is preparing for potential digital warfare and said the service has to “be able to fight through” a cyberattack. Ships must monitor their own computer systems, she said, and if one method of communication is knocked out, naval forces have to be able to rely on other methods to relay commands and information.
“Semaphores” — a system of communicating using hand-held flags — “are going to be really hard to hack,” Tighe said.
“That’s a joke,” she quickly added.
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