Lessons From The USS Fitzgerald’s Collision



2017 was a terrible year for the US Navy in which they saw four warships collide with cargo vessels in the Asia-Pacific waters. June 17, 2017, would herald the third such incident involving the USS Fitzgerald a U.S. Navy destroyer and a Philippine-flagged container ship 80 nautical miles of the coast of Japan. Another crash would follow two months later leading to the dismissal of Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin.

Internal investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTBS) on the USS Fitzgerald collision revealed shocking negligence by the US Navy and failure to follow standard maritime safety guidelines such as the use of automatic identification systems (AIS). This recklessness led to the death of 7 sailors while 300 were seriously injured.

An important revelation from the NTBS report was that the US Navy in practice does not broadcast its presence to other ships which may be one of the underlying reasons for so many crashes. This disclosure has made many question whether US Navy ships should in fact start alerting other vessels of their presence on the waters.

Why so many US Navy ship collisions?

The US Navy was accused of practising poor maritime safety not once but four times in 2017. In January when a cruiser ran aground in Yokosuka, Japan; in May when a guided-missile cruiser crashed into a South Korean fishing vessel; in June this incident with the USS Fitzgerald, and lastly in August when the USS John S McCain collided with a Liberian oil tanker off the coast of Singapore.

NTBS Office of Marine Safety acting director Morgan Turrell had this to say, “This tragedy [of the USS Fitzgerald collision] highlights the importance of keeping a vigilant watch, determining the risk of collision, and the role of the automatic identification system. If you are in doubt of another vessel’s intentions, you need to use proper sound and visual signals, and then take early and effective action to avoid a collision.”

The case for use of automatic identification systems

What could have been done to prevent these unfortunate incidents? Certainly, adoption and use of automatic identification systems (AIS) would have helped. These systems are designed to provide real-time data that allows vessels to be monitored and tracked thereby improving maritime safety.

The information obtained through AIS includes a ship’s current position, its identity, its position, course, and speed among other variables. This information would be transmitted to ships within close proximity and maritime authorities through radio transmissions.

One key benefit of AIS use is the monitoring of maritime traffic so collisions can be avoided. First introduced in 2002, AIS has been a welcome innovation that’s assisted in accident investigations as well as search-and-rescue operations.

However, AIS has not been spared from cyber threats. Cyber terrorists have been known to deliberately switch off AIS remotely which can be exceedingly dangerous for crews. The most common threats on AIS are in the form of radiofrequency manipulation. Cybercriminals can cause spoofing which is the broadcasting of a fake collision alarm. This forces a ship off course where it can run aground or onto the path of another oncoming vessel.

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