August 14, 2019 By Joseph P. Farrell

Do you remember the USS Donald  Cook, USS Fitzgerald, and USS John McCain incidents? In the two USS Donald Cook incidents - one in the Black Sea and one in the Baltic - the Aegis class ship's electrical and computer systems went entirely dead, just as an obsolescent Russian Sukhoi 22 fighter bomber approached it, low and fast. The Russian aircraft then made no less than a dozen mock attack runs on the ship, which beat a hasty retreat to the Romanian port of Constanza for "rest", or so we were told. Later, on patrol in the Baltic, the Russians repeated this performance on the Donald Cook. At the time of the first incident, I blogged that it was my belief that in the tensions created by the West's meddling in The Ukraine, that the Russians had demonstrated a capability to interfere with and shut down sophisticated US electronic systems. It was a clear message: don't start something you can't finish. And in the wake of the strange explosions at Russian munitions plants in the past couple of weeks, I've also offered the speculation that we might be watching some sort of electromagnetic and/or cyber warfare playing out between Russia and the USA, although Russia has now offered the explanation that the most recent explosion near Archangel was due to a small reactor explosion. That's prompted some commenters on the internet to conclude "more Russian incompetence" Chernobyl-style. I'm not so sure, quite frankly, and have always had the suspicion that perhaps Chernobyl was also some sort of cyber warfare along the lines of the gas pipeline explosion caused by deliberately faulty software that the USA tricked the KGB into stealing as a part of the famous Farewell case, the French mole being run inside the KGB's technical acquisitions branch by the French DST.

But in any case, back to the subject at hand. After the Donald Cook incidents, we then had the two strange cases of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John McCain, similar ships to the Donald Cook, which both collided with freighters, the first in the waters off Japan, and the second in the busy waters near Singapore. Again, at the time, my suspicion meter was in the red zone that these incidents may have been examples of more electronic warfare, and that the collisions had been deliberate messages. The US Navy at the time of these incidents wrote them off to poor crew training, fatigue, and irresponsibility of the ships' captains and bridge officers. A friend of mine and a former US Navy officer confirmed this view, and told me -- politely of course -- that my speculations were nonsense.

Well, in case you haven't guessed by now, there's an "update" to those stories, and particularly to the Fitzgerald and McCain incidents, in this article that was spotted and shared by N.:

The US Navy will replace its touchscreen controls with mechanical ones on its destroyers

What's intriguing here is that the article confirms my naval officer friend's views, for it rehearses the "poor training" and fatigue memes once again, with some new telltale clues:

The US Navy will replace the touchscreen throttle and helm controls currently installed in its destroyers with mechanical ones starting in 2020, says USNI News. The move comes after the National Transportation Safety Board released an accident report from a 2017 collision, which cites the design of the ship’s controls as a factor in the accident.

On August 21st, 2017, the USS John S. McCain collided with the Alnic MC, a Liberian oil tanker, off the coast of Singapore. The report provides a detailed overview of the actions that led to the collision: when crew members tried to split throttle and steering control between consoles, they lost control of the ship, putting it into the path of the tanker. The crash killed 10 sailors and injured 48 aboard the McCain.

The report says that while fatigue and lack of training played a role in the accident, the design of the ship’s control console were also contributing factors. Located in the middle of the McCain’s bridge, the Ship’s Control Console (SCC) features a pair of touch-screens on both the Helm and Lee Helm stations, through which the crew could steer and propel the ship. Investigators found that the crew had placed it in “backup manual mode,” which removed computer-assisted help, because it allowed for “more direct form of communication between steering and the SSC.” That setting meant that any crew member at another station could take over steering operations, and when the crew tried to regain control of the ship from multiple stations, control “shifted from the lee helm, to aft steering, to the helm, and back to aft steering.”

The NTSB report calls out the configuration of the bridge’s systems, pointing out that the decision to transfer controls while in the strait helped lead to the accident, and that the procedures for transferring the controls from one station to another were complicated, further contributing to the confusion. Specifically, the board points to the touchscreens on the bridge, noting that mechanical throttles are generally preferred because “they provide both immediate and tactile feedback to the operator.” The report notes that had mechanical controls been present, the helmsmen would have likely been alerted that there was an issue early on, and recommends that the Navy better adhere to better design standards. (Emphasis added)

In other words, in addition to poor training and fatigue, you may now add faulty and overly complicated design to the list, a design which, in effect, led to several consoles responsible for the throttles and wheels. It would be like a bridge on a ship in, say, 1912, having two wheels, and two sets of mechanical throttles, each canceling out the other. In this case, the cancelling-out systems were digital-manual.

So the navy has, in effect, ordered a return to more analogue and intuitive systems, in effect, a wheel, and throttle levers. Turn the wheel right to make the ship turn to starboard, turn the wheel left to turn it to port, push the levers forward to make it go faster, pull the levers back to slow it down. Simple, and much easier to execute under stress than this: "Select File. Under file, select 'Bridge.' Under Bridge, open 'Steering controls,' type in the number of degrees for the turn in the first box, check "starboard" or "port" in the second box, hit enter, and then type in the speed in knots in the third box, hit enter. Then select file, and then "save file" Hit enter..."  You get the idea; several non-intuitive steps, versus one step, and with the latter, comes immediacy of execution. Instead of "Ensign, why aren't we turning yet?" and "I'm working on it sir," we get, "Thirty degrees to port, aye aye sir."

All of this makes me think, once again and in spite of my officer friend's input, that we're not being told the full truth about those incidents, and my context here is the Donald Cook incident once again. Cyber systems simply aren't secure; they can be hacked into, or simply taken down. Not a good thing to have happen if massive freighters are bearing down on a collision course. Digital solution: frantically type in numbers after opening all the correct windows. Analogue solution: turn the wheel of the ship. I suspect that what we're looking at is a general trend, something being done to secure national security, and of a piece with the sudden interest in the last two decades with finding, repairing, and making fully operable those old steam locomotives that I've occasionally blogged about, with all their huffing, puffing, hissing, and clanking, their levers and wheels and analogue gauges, because there's one thing a steam engine can do that a diesel-electric locomotive cannot: it can still run during an electro-magnetic pulse incident, and its analogue levers and wheels gauges are utterly immune to hacking...

... and that raises another important point, one to watch for if my theory is correct: watch for the railroads to bring back manually operated semaphor and switching systems along the rail lines, or for the navy to start emphasizing and training in the all-but-lost art of celestial navigation once again, or the use of flag signals and semaphors for inter-ship communications in task force formations. And the simple reason is: analogue is impervious to hacking and EMP... GPS can be hacked and "spoofed" and taken out, but the stars, astrolabes and sextants don't lie.

After all, the US Navy isn't going to the expense of "going manual", nor is the Union Pacific railroad going to the expense of restoring steam locomotives and learning how to actually build and operate them again, just for kicks and giggles. Of course, what we're really looking at is at a new kind of integration of analogue systems with digital ones, but that's a whole other story...

See you on the flip side...