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21.8.17

John McCain Takes It In The Rear

Related to nothing in particular, I find it rather peculiar that three US Navy ships - all high-tech destroyers - have been put out of service in the past few years.  One of them, the USS Cook, was shut down and mock-strafed a dozen times in the Black Sea in 2014.  The other two, USS Fitzgerald and USS McCain (har!) both collided with merchant ships this year.  The Fitz in the Sea of Japan last June, and now the McCain (har!) in the Strait of Malacca over the weekend.

These three incidents don't include the USS Antietam, which ran aground in Tokyo Bay, and the USS Lake Champlain, which hit a South Korean fishing boat, both earlier this year.  And let's not forget the USS San Francisco, a nuclear submarine that hit an undersea mountain (according to the Navy) back in 2005.

Any one of these in isolation seems like a accident, even command incompetence.  But   But six of the US Navy's prize toys in the past 12 years, and all but one in the Pacific Ocean?  And all having catastrophic navigation failure, with the Cook's entire weapon system down, as well?

Now, my aunt worked for the Secretary of the Navy for decades in Washington, D.C.  My dad was a merchant marine for a time in his youth.  My uncle was a reactor tech on a nuclear submarine for a decade.  I worked in the offshore petroleum industry for a decade, as well.  I've seen the bridges of a lot of ships, both US Navy and merchant.  I know the RADAR and GPS systems, the automated avoidance systems, and the trained crews who can spot a floating pelican a mile away in 20-foot swells.

This sort of thing just doesn't happen.  The global shipping network is every bit as sophisticated as the one used for aircraft.  Ships regularly ping satellites to both get their position, and to broadcast it to the global network.  In recent years, the ship autopilot does most of the work, tracking other vessels and adjusting course to maintain safe maneuvering distance.  In busy shipping lanes, such as the Sea of Japan or the Strait of Malacca, electronic buoys put out reference signals that ships use to align their course and maintain a fairly wide berth with other vessels.

In the case of the Fitzgerald, the ship was T-boned by a merchant ship, causing (get this) half a billion dollars in damage and requres the ship to be dry-towed back to the States for repair.  The ship cost $1 billion brand-spanking new, complete with that new-ship smell and everything.

Early reports on the McCain (har!) say that it sustained damage to the rear port quarter after colliding with a merchant oil tanker.  So, um...did she back into the tanker?  I'm just trying to imagine a scenario in which it would take damage in that location.

In all three cases, the only thing that can explain these "mishaps" is for the ships to be completely blinded and their computer guidance systems shut down.  In the case of the Cook, the ship's defensive system crashed and it was unable to track and/or respond to an old Russian bomber making a dozen strafing passes directly over the vessel in the course of half an hour.

There are only a few ways these things can happen:

1) Gross Negligence - this is obviously the preferred story of the US Navy.  While certainly not good, one gets the impression that there is an easy fix - fresh leadership and some public floggings to raise morale.  The Fitz' commander has been blamed for the incident and is now pushing a pen.  The Cook was deeply hushed up, but some reports had a significant number of crew resigning once they docked.  The McCain (har!) is still fresh, but odds are favoring this excuse.  The Strait of Malacca is busy and relatively narrow at some points, but traffic is fully automated through the area and thousands of vessels pass through every year without incident.

2) Equipment Failure - without access to the procurement logs, it is a safe bet that at least some of the electronics on all three vessels were manufactured in China.  If I were China, I could hardly pass up the opportunity to put back doors into every chip and board I supplied to the US Navy.  Imagine that scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Kirk broadcasts a remote code and turns off the opposing ship's shields.  Also think about Boeing's tech that allows ground crews to take remote command of aircraft in emergencies.  Jamming satellite signals would also be quite effective.

3) EMP Weapon - use of a MASER or GASER of sufficient power and portability would make an effective weapon against even hardened computer cores.  One good blast and the entire ship's electronic system would be fried beyond repair, thus blinding (at minimum) and rendering harmless modern naval weapons.  Considering these toys were fairly well advanced under the 1980s Star Wars program in the US, it's not inconceivable that China and/or Russia have mastered them by now.

When taken together, there is a preponderance of issues with the 7th Fleet in the Pacific.  With two previous black eyes this year, however, it seems rather unlikely that it is a leadership problem.  That would be remedied after one incident, but certainly after two, and it is rather inconceivable that three in the span of six months would occur due to gross negligence.

The one caveat to this thinking is that the US Navy is corrupt and mismanaged from the top down to the Oilers and Stokers.  If that is the case, then the US is hardly able to project force in its own territorial waters, much less 10,000 miles away.

It is no secret that China is a tad upset with the US meddling in the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan, both locations with significant petroleum deposits and both disputed by neighboring countries.  Options 2 and 3 both allow China the opportunity for some mischief in order to make a point.

In Option 2, Chinese chips and/or boards could be hacked through carefully hidden exploits that allow mirroring the ship's systems back at headquarters.  The problem I see with this option, though, is that it might work once, maybe even twice, but I imagine the Navy has scoured their computer cores looking for such weaknesses and would have remediated the problem by now, or at least recalled vulnerable vessels for a refit.  It is conceivable that China's vaunted "quantum computing" systems can get in and out without a trace, but it seems that technology is still too young to account for all six incidents spanning the last 12 years.

That leaves Option 3.  If you are not familiar with MASERs and GASERs, click the links above to catch up.  They are hardly new technology, but making them portable would be a major advancement, as would space-based systems if atmospheric distortion could be compensated for to maintain beam coherence.

A bit of lead shielding might stop even a fairly powerful MASER (microwaves), but a GASER (gamma rays)?  Gamma rays hitting any metal would create a shower of X-rays inside a shielded compartment - one of the main issues with astronauts passing through the Van Allen Belts on the way to the Moon.  With sufficient power and focus, a GASER could fry a computer core almost instantly with little or no concomitant damage, unless a human happened to be standing in the precise line of fire.

On that last note, there is the issue of seven dead and dozens injured on the Fitz, and as of this moment, a dozen injured and 10 missing on the McCain (har!).  Quickly hiding sailors with severe radiation burns would be first order of business in an incident like this, if one was trying to hide the cause.  Certainly, the US Navy would be highly motivated to hide such an attack, as it wouldn't want enemies to learn of such weakness, much less the folks back home who think all these toys are protecting them.  In fact, the latter motive might be a higher priority to keep those tax dollars flowing into the war biz.

In the civilian world, MASERs and GASERs require lots of support equipment, large power sources and heavy cooling apparatus.  With a little tinkering and bottomless budgets, though, who knows what could be achieved.  Messing up tracking and navigation systems would be a major priority for someone trying to shut down the most feared navy in the world.  The inability to maneuver and target effectively renders such a navy harmless.  Not something you would want to get around.

Better to make it look like incompetence, shuffle some faces around to look like people are getting their wrists slapped, and work like hell to try and develop some kind of defense.

I happen to think this morning's incident with the McCain (har!) was a message, purposely louder than the five previous ones, given the name of the vessel and the identity of the loudest War Hawk in the US Congress (John McCain of Arizona - party loyalty unknown).  It is also of note that the Strait of Malacca is the primary waterway between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, running between Malaysia and Sumatera, directly into the northeast coast of Singapore.  Also, this incident occurred just as the US and South Korea are beginning war games.  Three otherwise curious fingerprints on a clear message.

Taken on the whole, it seems reasonable to conclude that China has a pulsed-energy weapon that can scramble hardened computer cores.  While the Trump Administration makes all kinds of noise on the public stage, China is quietly sending messages through action, by targeting US Navy vessels around its coastal interests by knocking out their navigation (and presumably targeting) systems seemingly at will.

If all this speculation is correct, we should see the US tone down its war rhetoric in North Korea and quietly back down from the South /China Sea and Sea of Japan challenges to China's hegemony in the region.

If not, we can assume that the US Navy is completely hollowed out and/or they are a lot stupider than any of us previously thought possible.