The Curious Case of USS McCain

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Vulnerabilities of computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks: the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

On 21 August 2017, in the darkness of astronomical twilight, a destroyer USS John S. McCain bound for Singapore after a sensitive ‘freedom-of-navigation’ operation off one of China’s illegal man-made islands in the South China Sea, collided with a 30,000 ton, oil and chemical tanker ‘Alnic MC’, in the Eastern approaches to Singapore. Ten sailors lost their lives in the collision while the hull of the ill-fated McCain, was stricken by a large trapezium-shaped puncture on its port quarter abaft the after stack. The greater base of the trapezium was below the waterline and extended at least 40 feet along the hull to a height of 15 feet. Two months earlier a similar collision involving another Arleigh Burke destroyer could advance a more-than-accident theory.

Initial reports suggest loss of course keeping control caused the McCain’s fatal collision. That, and the computer aided nature of the ship’s steering and navigation system, has led to the conjecture that McCain’s manoeuvring system may have been “hacked” into and then manipulated to force a deliberate collision.

The Singapore Strait extends between the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea in the east. The strait is about 8 nautical miles (15 km) wide and lies between Singapore Island and the Riau Islands (Indonesia) to the south. It is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. The Port Authority of Singapore periodically warns mariners of the special rules applicable for safe pilotage in these waters. In its marine circulars (#20 of 14 November 2006) it draws attention to the traffic separation scheme (TSS) and the hazardous character of these waters. By law, the significant burden placed on vessels is: to proceed in the appropriate traffic lane in the general direction of flow; to keep clear of traffic separation lines or zones; cardinally, masters of vessels are warned to take extra precautions and proceed at a safe speed. In determining safe speed, experience advocates several factors be considered which in addition to traffic density include: state of visibility, manoeuvrability of the vessel, state of wind, sea and current, proximity of navigational hazards and draught in relation to the available depth of water. In the circumstance, the prudent mariner very quickly appreciates that the primary hazard presented by the narrows is not geography, but density of traffic and the perils of disorderly movement. On an average 200-220 ships transit this passage daily of which more than 100 are restricted in their ability to manoeuvre due deep draught.

The organisation on board a warship for negotiating such waters are the Special Sea Dutymen; a group of highly specialised and trained personnel charged with manning critical control positions involved in evolutions that potentially could endanger the ship, such as berthing, transiting pilotage waters and close-quarter manoeuvring. The key is the instancy of human judgement and failsafe control.

A standard fit on most USN warships is the Integrated Platform Management Systems (IPMS). It uses advanced computer-based technology comprising sensors, actuators, data processing for information display and control operations. Its vital virtue is distant remote control through commercial off the shelf elements (some may argue “its critical vulnerability”). Modern shipping, for reasons of economy and only economy, was quick to adopt the system. Warships systems, however, demand redundancy, reliability, survivability and unremitting operations; all of which militate against cost cutting expediencies. Incidentally, the Indian Navy, as early as May 1997, introduced the IPMS as a part of Project ‘Budhiman’ with the proviso that it would not intrude into critical control and combat functions.

It is not entirely clear the extent to which the IPMS had penetrated systems on-board the USS McCain but in the last two decades it is well known that USN has resorted to deep cuts in manpower and heavily invested in control automation. Inferences are evident.

On 21 August nautical twilight was at 0618h (all times Singapore standard) the moon was in its last quarter and moon rise at 0623h, it was dark, however, visibility was good and sea calm. Collision occurred at 0524h; USS McCain was breached on the port side causing extensive flooding. Examination of the track generated by the Automatic Identification System (AIS) video indicates the Alnic MC approaching Singapore’s easternmost TSS, about 56 nautical miles east of Singapore, at a speed of 9 knots when it suddenly crash stops and turns hard to port, which we may assume was the result of the collision. Unfortunately, military vessels do not transmit AIS data, so we do not have the track of the McCain. However, since the McCain was headed for Singapore it is reasonable to assume that she was overtaking the slow tanker from the latter’s starboard side when she lost steering control and effected an unbridled turn over the tanker’s bulbous bows. The trapezoid form of the rupture and elongation aft would suggest events as mentioned rather than a north south crossing by the destroyer at the time of collision (after all destination was Singapore).

Coincidentally, two Chinese merchantmen the Guang Zhou Wan and the Long Hu San were in close proximity through the episode; so, was that a chance presence? Or does it add to the probability of deliberate cyber engineering of the mishap? And, why else other than to damage the strategic credibility of the US Navy deployed in tense conditions in the South and East China Sea. Or was it, indeed, a case of gross crew incompetence? While, time and ‘sub-rosa’ inquiries could put to rest speculations, vulnerabilities of highly computerized warship systems to cyber-attacks may well remain the albatross around the operational Commander’s neck.

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“The World is Not Peaceful”

By

Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Addressing senior Communist Party and government officials in Beijing, at an event to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Premier Xi Jinping declared “We do not allow any individual, any organisation, any political party, at any time or by any means, to split any single piece of the Chinese territory. No one could expect us to swallow consequences that damage our sovereignty, security and developmental interests”. During the speech, Xi repeatedly emphasised that the “world was not peaceful and the military must forever stay unswervingly loyal to the Communist Party of China, as its absolute leadership over the armed forces is the PLA’s “unalterable soul and indispensable lifeline”. These comments came just two days after he addressed the PLA ground forces directly at Zhurihe in Inner Mongolia (was there symbolism attached since the geographic location was where Genghis Khan set off on his conquest of Eurasia in the year 1206 AD that cleaved political cohesion to the silk route). Here Xi announced “China must defeat all enemies that dare to offend”.

If now we were to establish who China’s enemies were, it would become amply clear who the target or targets are. No easy task this, as China has long been embroiled in a contest with Japan over the East China Sea island of Senkaku; with South Korea on rights over the submerged Socotra Rock; with Philippines on sovereignty over Spratly Island and Scarborough Shoal; Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei over the Spratly Islands; and Indonesia over control of Natuna Island. Beijing also threatens to use force to conquer Taiwan if peaceful enticements prove insufficient. And more importantly it has flouted the UNCLOS and conventions regarding establishing a new ADIZ in the East China Sea. China also demands title over nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea through which $5 trillion in annual shipping trade passes and is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. Its claim of possession over the waters within the so-called 9-Dash line (it was11-dash when relations with Vietnam were different) has brought it on a collision course with the USA and all the maritime stake holders of the region as the claim overlaps with those of ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan. And not forgetting, China was engaged in a two month-long border standoff with Indian forces over the latter’s security relations with Bhutan and its commitment to blocking a road being constructed across the Doklam Plateau (claimed by Bhutan) which could potentially act as a spring board to sever the strategically critical ‘Chicken’s Neck’ (the Siliguri corridor); it’s elites cogitated, that it would be a ‘Just-War’ to expel India. However, on 28 August 2017, the two governments announced that the crisis had been defused and troops were disengaging.

From the Indian stand point, solidarity of the Indo-Bhutanese security pact had weathered the crunch while China’s deployment of man and material for construction of the road was balked (it can hardly be a coincidence that China is to host the BRICS summit on 03 September, a dissolution of the conclave would have meant loss of face to Xi). While Indeed, China’s nuclear and strategic promotion of North Korea provides the context for alarming tensions in the entire region, the recent US and Japan imposed sanctions on a dozen Chinese companies and individuals accused of helping North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme; is perhaps, the first aggregation of a mounting series of strictures. So in near ‘epic’ terms, the question remains, who “dare offend Xi?”

Scholars in their wisdom have found three reasons for India earning the wrath of Xi. The first is India’s strategic snub to fall in line with Xi’s grandiose One Belt One Road (OBOR) scheme (never mind that it passes through disputed territory of Northern Kashmir). Secondly, the impending 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China provides a critical context for Xi to stamp his authority by “constituting his strategic policies”, in the mould of Mao when in 1964 he thrust his ‘Red Book’ and later used it during the Cultural Revolution to ram home ideological uniformity and to weed out adversaries; to have nations insouciant to Xi’s grand designs would tantamount to abasement at the highest political level. Thirdly, since sovereignty whips up the maximum nationalist emotions, it may provide some understanding to both the recent Doklam confrontation and the situation in the South China Sea. The three put together, may seem to an absolutist, such as Xi; ablation of the indices of his power.

An important symbol of political standing, clout and legacy of leadership since 1949; from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao, is to have their political theories written into the party constitution as guiding dogmas. Mao had his ‘Red Book’, Deng his ‘24 characters’, Jiang his ‘developmental dictatorship’ and even the bland Hu emblematized ‘pursuit of economic growth at the cost of legal and political reforms.’ But will Xi achieve the distinction – putting him in the same league as Mao – if his thoughts (conceivably titled, “Security, Development and Territorial Sovereignty on China’s terms) are accepted as the supervisory ideology while still in power? This, at the 19th Congress would give him the legitimacy and mandate, in a presumptive way, of the people to the exclusion of the politburo.

“The world is not peaceful” says Xi. Somehow, Chinese actions, Janus faced policies, coercive manoeuvres and rhetoric of recent times have only served to confound the script.

A Pug, a Terrier, & the Doklam Stand Off

By Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published on the Peace and Conflict Studies website.

Doklam

Doklam Sector source intoday.com  Scale:0 ——– ——-50km

William Moorcroft, a British veterinary surgeon of the East India Company, set off in 1816 on an expedition to the Kailas region of Tibet to search for that breed of Central Asian horses that would revitalise the blood stock of the Company’s cavalry. His quest took him to a Tibetan official, where to his astonishment he was greeted not by his fabled strain of mounts but by two familiar breed of dogs. One a Pug and the other a Terrier, both alien to the land. So where had they come from? The answer, took a while to sink in: Tsar Alexander’s army had got here before the British.

A shadowy war was underway for control of the strategic passes, plateaus and wastelands of Tibet and Central Asia that led to India. However, Russian intent on conquest then, seemed inconceivable to the Raj. It was not till the middle of the 19th Century when the Khanates along the route fell that the curtains lifted on the ‘Great Game’. As the frontiers of the two empires loomed, it exposed the ill surveyed and poorly guarded borders of Northern India. It took the British Empire four decades after Moorcroft’s ‘close encounter’ to fully appreciate the significance of the Pug and the Terrier.

The Great Game ended after two revolutions and another half century. Yet its legacy of where the Northern frontiers of India lay remained confused, as the British used little else than artful cartography and more of imperial disdain to redraw empire. The modern Indian state has yet to reconcile this dangerous historical equivocation. Early political leadership in India had a cavalier and sometimes Arcadian perspective of history. The absence of unprejudiced attempts at defining geography has left indistinct borderlands to this day that suppurate with disturbing regularity. The region of the Doklam plateau in the tri-junction of India, China and Bhutan is one such region.

Doklam is situated roughly 15 kilometres east of the Nathu La pass that separates India and China. On the western edge of the Doklam plateau is Doka La, which connects Sikkim with either Tibet (Chinese Government Claim) or links Sikkim to western Bhutan. In June 2017, China attempted to extend a road southward across Yadong county, the wedge at the mouth of the Chumbi valley, leading to the thin edge. So, on 18 June, Indian troops crossed into the territory to prevent construction of the road. China has criticised India for entering its “territory.” With Bhutan the dispute involves, a matter of 764 sq. km of territory on the Doklam Plateau. The ‘Wedge’ has enormous strategic significance for China, Bhutan as well as India. Recall in 1962, the real anxiety was that the thrust of China’s Army of Tibet would develop on a North-South axis from the Chumbi Valley to cut off the strategically vital Siliguri corridor (Chicken’s Neck). In 1965, again, China in support of Pakistan, threatened to open this front. If China were to ever get hold of this territory, the Northeast would remain in a state of unremitting peril.

The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 2007, successor to the 1949 Treaty of ‘Perpetual Peace and Friendship’, pledges close “cooperation on issues relating to national interests and security.” It mirrors Bhutanese trepidation of a Tibet encore.  Central to the current stand-off is the building of logistical infrastructure across the disputed plateau that would provide a spring board to drive across the Chicken’s neck. India along with Bhutan has stepped into the disputed area to block advancement of the road. So what has urged Beijing to incite this incident? There are three impulsions which have a bearing on the impasse: Firstly, India’s maritime manoeuvres (‘Malabar’) in the Northern Indian Ocean with the US and Japan underscores resolve to achieve cooperative security and control against an aggressive and revisionist China; India’s strategic disinclination to come on board on the OBOR for reasons of it being “long on politics and spare on economics” has not gone down well with China. Besides the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is offensive as it passes through the disputed POK; and lastly, the Indo-Bhutan security Compact is abhorrent to China and needed to be put to test.

And what of an improbable escalation to a hot conflict? Clearly the Indian military is prepared. It is also clear that conflict will be waged on terms advantageous to India. In addition to operational manoeuvres undertaken to check China’s land forces; the superior deployable Indian Air force will endeavour to assure a favourable situation in the skies to progress operations on the ground while the Indian Navy will strive to deny the northern Indian Ocean to PLAN exertions as it exercises control over shipping in the busiest lanes of the world located in Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal; targeting hulls bound for China. Obviously these missions are neither small in scope nor will they come without losses; an eventuality that both nations must be sensitive to will be to the detriment of their larger development goals.

And all this ado for the indifference to misplaced Pugs and Terriers.