USS John S McCain incident, some experts speculate it was a cyber attack

Pierluigi Paganini August 23, 2017

On Monday, the USS John S McCain collided a Liberian-flagged tanker near Singapore, some experts speculate the incident was caused by a cyber attack.

On Monday, the USS John S McCain collided a Liberian-flagged tanker near Singapore. The incident had serious consequences on the US operation, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered a pause, at the same time the U.S. Navy started an investigation. US Military fears the incident might have been caused by a cyber attack.

This is the fourth accident involving U.S. Navy ships in the Pacific this year.

Richardson explained that the investigation aims to exclude  the “possibility of cyber intrusion or sabotage.”

According to an unnamed U.S. Navy official quoted by the CNN, the USS John S McCain destroyer experienced “a steering failure” while it was sailing the Strait of Malacca. The problem was the root cause of the collision.

“The McCain suffered a steering failure as the warship was beginning its approach into the Strait of Malacca, causing it to collide with a commercial tanker, a Navy official told CNN.
The official said it was unclear why the crew couldn’t use the ship’s backup steering systems to maintain control.” reported the CNN.
“Earlier, another US Navy official told CNN there were indications the destroyer experienced a loss of steering right before the collision, but steering had been regained afterward.”
USS John S McCain incident

Admiral Swift said there is no sign of cyber attack, according to The New York Times, the official confirmed that there were no signs of failure in the ship’s steering system or of a cyber attack.

Anyway, some experts like former Navy information warfare specialist Jeff Stutzman believe that the incident was not caused by human errors.

“According to McClatchy, other recent incidents include one Jan. 31, in which a guided missile cruiser, the USS Antietam, ran aground off the coast of Japan, and another May 9, when the USS Lake Champlain was struck by a South Korean fishing vessel.” reported McClatchy.

“The USS Fitzgerald, a $1.5 billion vessel, collided with a container ship June 17, resulting in the deaths of seven sailors. The commanding officer and two other officers were formally removed from duties.” “I don’t have proof, but you have to wonder if there were electronic issues,” Stutzman told McClachy.

“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.” He added, “There’s something more than just human error going on.”

According to professor Todd E. Humphreys, an expert on GPS, “Statistically, it looks very suspicious.”

Humphreys and his team conducted several studies focused on vulnerabilities in GPS and the way they could be exploited to hijack ships and UAVs. In 2013, demonstrated that just using a cheap apparatus composed of a small antenna, an electronic GPS “spoofer” built in $3,000 and a laptop he is able to take total control of sophisticated navigation system aboard a 210-foot super-yacht in the Mediterranean Sea.

GPS spoofing could have a serious effect on the vessel navigation.

“In a little noticed June 22 incident, someone manipulated GPS signals in the eastern part of the Black Sea, leaving some 20 ships with little situational awareness. Shipboard navigation equipment, which appeared to be working properly, reported the location of the vessels 20 miles inland, near an airport.reported McClatchy.

“That was the first known instance of GPS “spoofing,” or misdirection.”

“We saw it done in, I would say, a really unsubtle way, a really ham-fisted way. It was probably a signal that came from the Russian mainland.” said Humphreys.

The Navy, Humphreys said, does not use commercial GPS, and “there is no indication that faulty satellite communications were a culprit in the USS McCain accident.”

Even if some ships used on Automatic Identification System (AIS) to avoid collisions, there is the concrete risk that someone could hack the AIS.

According to Chinese authorities, the USS John S McCain incident was caused by the ineptitude of US Navy.

“The latest incident occurred just two months after the USS Fitzgerald and a Philippine container ship collided in waters off Japan, killing seven US sailors.” states the China Daily.

“It may be hard for people to understand why US warships are unable to avoid other vessels since they are equipped with the world’s most sophisticated radar and electronic tracking systems, and aided by crew members on constant watch. But investigations into the cause of the USS Fitzgerald collision shed some light on the way US warships tend to sail without observing maritime traffic rules and the sloppiness of their crews.”

Itay Glick, who worked as for an Israeli intelligence agency in a cyberwarfare unit and founder of cyber security firm Votiro believe that the incident could be the result of a cyber attack.

“I don’t believe in coincidence,” Mr Glick told

“Both USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald were part of the 7th Fleet, there is a relationship between these two events and there may be a connection.”

Mr Glick believes foreign states like Russia and China may have the capability to launch an attack on the warships.

“China has capabilities, maybe they are trying things, it is possible,” he said.

He explained that such kind of attacks could be the result of GPS spoofing or a malware based attack on its computer network.

“I don’t believe in coincidence. Both USS John S McCain and USS Fitzgerald were part of the 7th Fleet; there is a relationship between these two events, and there may be a connection,” he said.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – USS John S McCain Crash, GPS spoofing)

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