More cyber threat concerns following fourth incident involving U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet

The Pentagon won’t yet say how the USS John S. McCain was rammed by an oil tanker near Singapore, but red flags are flying as the Navy’s decades-old reliance on electronic guidance systems increasing looks like another target of cyberattack.

The incident – the fourth involving a Seventh Fleet warship this year – occurred near the Strait of Malacca, a crowded 1.7-mile-wide waterway that connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea and accounts for roughly 25 percent of global shipping.

“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,” said Jeff Stutzman, chief intelligence officer at Wapack Labs, a New Boston, New Hampshire, cyber intelligence service.

“There’s something more than just human error going on because there would have been a lot of humans to be checks and balances,” said Stutzman, a former information warfare specialist in the Navy.Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, did not rule out cyber intrusion or sabotage as a cause of the fatal collision. “No indications right now … but

Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, did not rule out cyber intrusion or sabotage as a cause of the fatal collision. “No indications right now … but review will consider all possibilities,” Richardson said in a tweet on Monday.

Source: McClatchy

Analysis: As we noted in Watchfloor Monday, there are legitimate concerns that someone — likely a nation-state actor, and perhaps even China — may be ‘spoofing’ U.S. Navy ships of the 7th Fleet. An accident here or there can be chalked up to the law of averages, but four incidents less than a year indicate something else is most likely responsible.

As we noted in the August 18 Executive Summary (to subscribe, click here), similar electronic spoofing, or misdirection, occurred in a little-noticed June incident in the Black Sea involving at least 20 commercial ships. Shipboard navigation equipment, which appeared to be working properly, reported the location of the vessels 20 miles inland, near an airport.

The fact is, the U.S. Navy is arguably the most competent naval force on the high seas and certainly the most powerful. And the Navy utilizes encrypted signals for geolocation of vessels, rather than commercial GPS. But four “accidents” in the span of several months and all occurring within the same fleet is the result of some sort of outside influence. We very well could be seeing the opening salvos of a new form of covert electronic warfare. 

Jon E. Dougherty is a political, foreign policy and national security analyst and reporter with nearly 30 years of experience in both fields. A U.S. Army veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he holds BA in Political Science from Ashford University and an MA in National Security Studies/Intelligence Analysis from American Military University.

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