Everyone remembers when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a merchant vessel of the coast of Japan in June. Seven sailors lost their lives, and three top leaders were relieved of duty (“detached with cause”).
Today we are looking at the causes of the wreck of the USS John S McCain in the Strait of Malacca on Monday that has likely led to the deaths of 10 sailors. Reports have surfaced that there was a steering failure, and as of yesterday, Adm. John Richardson has ruled the 7th Fleet will cease operations in the Pacific until an investigation can be completed, according to Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
“He has put together a broader inquiry to look into these incidents and to determine any of the causal factors to determine what’s going on,” Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters while traveling in Amman, Jordan. – The Hill
But these are only half of the incidents in the area this year. as ABC reports, there have been 4 incidents involving US Navy vessels.
It seems odd that in the 21st century, with all of our beloved technology, that so many of the most advanced vessels are having such trouble navigating Pacific waters. Is it possible that the technology is not so advanced?
Radar is not a new technology by any means, and while it has improved some over the years, the basics are still the same.
Planes Drop Off of Radar
The most famous case of a plane vanishing in mid-flight is the crash of MH 370, the Malaysian Air plane that lost traditional contact over the South China Sea. The aircraft was tracked by a variety of military and civilian radar stations for quite some time, and it was seen that MH 370 had changed course and instead of flying toward Beijing, its listed destination, it was flying over the Strait of Malacca and heading south-southwest. Over the next several hours a variety of contacts were established with satellites and radar stations. The aircraft sent log-on requests with one eventually being picked up. Attempts to contact the plane via this connection were unsuccessful. Wikipedia has a surprisingly detailed account available.
While it is apparent that someone switched off the transponder on purpose, that only takes the aircraft off the secondary radar system. The plane could, of course, still be tracked by radar stations on the ground. Satellite uplinks also can send “ping” attempts to check to see if equipment is still operational.
CNN’s Richard Quest says that turning off the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS) requires a high level of know-how, so while no official determinations of fault have been made, it is clear that someone wanted this plane to vanish.
13 Planes Vanish from Radar Over Europe
In June 2014, on two separate days, aircraft flying over Austria simply vanished off of radars screens. No planes actually disappeared, and all were eventually reconnected to the system and landed safely. The events still ruffled some feathers.
On June 5, 2014, ten aircraft vanished from air traffic control stations in Austria as well as neighbor nations’ screens. Five days later, 3 more aircraft vanished in the same way.
No explanation has yet been agreed upon. Slovakia reported that NATO had been conducting radar-jamming exercises that week in Hungarian airspace. NATO claimed all testing was “localized and low-power” and therefore could not have been the cause of the outages.
Whether the result of testing by the US and NATO, or the mechanism of another agency, it seems possible that someone has the technology to selective “disappear” objects from radar.
The concern grew so much that more and more planes stared being reported as “vanishing” from radar, even if the eventual causes of failure were found, and were not connected to loss of contact in any way. This July 2014 and this December 2014 incident are good examples.
Could Radar Jamming Be An Act of Sabotage?
The crew of the USS Donald Cook certainly have considered the possibility. On April 10, 2014, two months before the planes that would vanish over Austria, the ship entered the Black Sea on a routine mission. On the 12th of April, an unarmed Russian Su-24 buzzed over the Cook.
The USS Donald Cook was a technological marvel, equipped with the Aegis Combat System capable of tracking and destroying hundreds of targets at the same time. It was armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, capable of being mounted with nuclear armaments. In short, the vessel was a beast.
The Su-24, by comparison, was equipped only with a Russian electronic warfare device called Khibiny. An electronic counter measure (ECM) system with the capacity to deflect reflected signal parameters. This can delay the detection of incoming aircraft or mask the craft entirely. It also diminishes range-finding abilities leading to increased time to lock-on to an object in real-time.
Upon approach, the Su-24 engaged its device, and the USS Donald Cook’s mighty Aegis system was disabled as if someone had flipped a switch. The ship was blind and incapable of defending itself.
The Su-24 then simulated 12 separate missile attack runs before leaving. The Cook headed back to port in Romania.
After the scare, the US kept its distance from Russian territorial waters for years.
Recent forays into the region have met with similar action, as this video from from April 2016 shows, this time in the Baltic, the USS Donald Cook is again buzzed by two Su-24s.
So it seems the US is testing, or has some form of radar jamming system, as evidenced by tests in Hungary. It is clear that someone took MH370 off the map purposely, though we may never know who that was. And we know that Russia has the technology to utterly shut down our Aegis systems.
If the US Navy and Air Force cannot rely on their own technology to safely get them to their locations, find their targets, deliver their payloads, and safely escape, I feel quite certain that gives all US leaders pause.
Americans seem to happily get behind the military in every winning encounter, but lack the stomach for protracted engagement. The lack of regular progress in VietNam clearly created tensions and helped build anti-war sentiment. Even the Korean War is frequently mentioned as a waste, with the phrase “die for a tie” being used for decades after.
If the US military is not as dominant as our leaders would have us believe, this may well be a good thing. The US has not had a substantial force invade its borders since Pearl Harbor. That is not to say the US has not been attacked and damaged, but those attacks were by small units or individuals, not massed armies or naval forces.
Since it seems the rest of the world avoids aggression against the US directly, the nation’s ability to engage in warfare is almost entirely offensive.
It is clear the US cannot prevent these maneuvers, and can only send formal complaints. In this video, multiple events are recorder on video by US sailors. In one event, a KA-27 helicopter hovered within 100ft snapping photos for as long as they pleased.
If Russia has the technology to jam the targeting and tracking systems of US warships, can someone now shut down the steering systems of those same vessels? If so, it would definitely be a cause for concern.
Why We Needn’t Be Afraid
While some may be concerned with American inability to negate Russian ECMs, others may take hope. It may be there are limits to the US ability to defend against an incoming invasion. Even if true it seems highly unlikely, at this point in history, that any nation possesses the wherewithal to not only conquer, but to hold any sizable US territories. And since no nation seems to be pushing for a world-wide conflict, any attacks were unlikely to begin with.
Other Americans express frustration with the seeming over-aggressive nature of the US military, at least since 9/11, and the never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Wars that we now learn will continue even longer.
Many have been highly concerned about the potential for a US preemptive strike on North Korea and the outcome of such aggression. With the 7th Fleet ceasing operations for the time being, and the evidence that some agency may be continuing to negatively affect US tracking and position monitoring, it has become much less likely that the US will be very aggressive in the near future.
This gives the world time to breathe, even if briefly. Border tensions are likely to be high with Russia’s “West 2017” exercising kicking off this week and the joint US-South Korea Ulchi Freedom Guardian events taking place as well.
But if neither side is sure whether they are tracking active potential enemy targets or merely ghosts, it makes one think everyone will be slow to respond for fear of being tricked into starting open conflict.
Now we must actively engage our leadership and demand they seek peaceful resolutions to the issues facing the nation and the world. The American people are not prepared for war, and lucky for us, it seems our military may not be either.
At the very least, it seems an invasion of North Korea is off the table for now.