Complicated Web of Technology, Human Error and Funding Questions May Be to Blame for USS McCain Collision

(U.S. Navy photo by Master Chief Joshua Dumke/Released)

Ten sailors lost their lives last week when USS John S. McCain collided with a Liberian chemical tanker near Singapore. Early reports blamed a possible steering failure in the McCain vessel, and the question of cyber attack is still under investigation by the Navy.

While the problem may have been related to the ship’s integrated bridge navigation system (IBNS), the recipe for disastrous collisions at sea is more complicated than a single technological failure.

As Ars Technica reports, human error or a lack of “situational awareness” may be equally at fault: Extreme traffic congestion on marine highways like the Strait of Malacca where the collision occurred makes it hard to maintain comprehensive awareness, while complicated navigation and propulsion systems—often a mix of digital, analog and human effort—make quick adjustments difficult to execute when a navigational threat arises.

Questions are also surfacing about fatigue in sailors who work long hours under the pressure of steering in crowded waters in the employ of an American military dealing with funding uncertainty. Another stop-gap budget measure may be on the table this fall, and naval experts are asking if defense spending might be to blame for a summer of disaster on the water (see the Washington Examiner article: Deadly military crashes, collisions raise fears ahead of possible stop-gap budget).

Image: 170823-N-OU129-002 SINGAPORE (Aug. 23, 2017) U.S. Navy and Marine Corps divers provide support to the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) at Changi Naval Base in Singapore Aug. 23, 2017. John S. McCain sustained significant damage following a collision with the merchant vessel Alnic MC while underway east of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore on Aug. 21, 2017. 

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