A deadly collision between the Philippine-registered container ship ACX Crystal and Navy destroyer USS Fitzgerald that left seven sailors dead earlier this week occurred while the ACX was on autopilot, according to a report in the Washington Free Beacon.
While investigators say they’ve found no evidence the collision was intentional, that the ship was relying on its computerized navigation system at the team of the collision means hackers could’ve infiltrated into the ship’s navigation system and steered it into the Navy ship – though the collision off the coast of Japan could’ve just as easily been caused by a malfunction, or human error if the system’s warning signals were ignored.
“The Philippines-flagged cargo ship ACX Crystal was under control of a computerized navigation system that was steering and guiding the container vessel, according to officials familiar with preliminary results of an ongoing Navy investigation.
Investigators so far found no evidence the collision was deliberate.
Nevertheless, an accident during computerized navigation raises the possibility the container ship's computer system could have been hacked and the ship deliberately steered into the USS Fitzgerald, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer.”
The ship’s tracking data, particularly a part of the record showing how the ship reacted after the collision, is the most telling piece of evidence that it was on autopilot, sources told the Free Beacon that it’s clear the container ship was on autopilot.
Commercial ship autopilot systems normally require someone to input manually the course for the ship travel. The computer program then steers the ship by controlling the steering gear to turn the rudder.
The system also can be synchronized with an electronic chart system to allow the program to follow courses of a voyage plan.
Tracking data broadcast from the Crystal as part of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) shows the ship changed course by 90 degrees to the right and slightly reduced its speed between around 1:32 a.m. and 1:34 a.m. After that time, the data shows the ship turned to the left and resumed a northeastern coarse along its original track line.
Private naval analyst Steffan Watkins said the course data indicates the ship was running on autopilot. "The ACX Crystal powered out of the deviation it performed at 1:30, which was likely the impact with the USS Fitzgerald, pushing it off course while trying to free itself from being hung on the bow below the waterline," Watkins told the Free Beacon.
The ship then continued to sail on for another 15 minutes, increasing speed before eventually reducing speed and turning around.
"This shows the autopilot was engaged because nobody would power out of an accident with another ship and keep sailing back on course. It’s unthinkable," he added.
Speaking at a news conference earlier this week, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin said the impact crushed berthing cabins below the waterline and ripped open a large hole in the vessel. Bodies of the missing sailors were found in the berthing cabins. Aucoin declined to say how many of the seven missing sailors had been recovered, but Japanese media said all had died.
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The damage to the ship was significant, Aucoin said.
“There was a big gash under the water," Aucoin said at Yokosuka naval base, home of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, the docked Fitzgerald behind him. "A significant portion of the crew was sleeping" when the destroyer collided with the Philippine-flagged container ship, destroying the commander's cabin, he said.
The Fitzgerald is salvageable, he said, but repairs will likely take months. "Hopefully less than a year. You will see the USS Fitzgerald back," Aucoin said.
The rarity of such crashes has also raised questions about what caused the collision, and who might be at fault.
As the WSJ notes, collisions at sea involving Navy ships are extremely uncommon, according to Bryan McGrath, a former destroyer captain, who said they occur only once or twice a decade, if that. He said he couldn’t remember a recent collision that was this consequential.
“There are 275 ships in the Navy and 100 are under way all over the world,” navigating “millions and millions of miles” every year, said Mr. McGrath, who retired in 2008 and is now a consultant. “This is very, very rare.
US naval history includes a few notable accidents. In 2005, the USS San Francisco, a Los Angeles-class submarine, hit a seamount or underwater mountain, injuring dozens of crew. In 2001, the USS Greeneville, another Los Angeles-class sub, performed an emergency ballast blow for special visitors aboard the vessel, surfacing quickly and hitting a Japanese fishing ship on the surface near Hawaii, killing nine crew members of the Japanese vessel.
In one of the Navy’s worst incidents, the aircraft carrier Wasp in April 1952 collided with the destroyer Hobson in the North Atlantic, killing 176 men.
Mr. McGrath declined to speculate as to what occurred or who or what might be to blame in the Fitzgerald incident. The collision occurred in darkness in a high-traffic area of the Pacific, he said. The most concerning aspect of the collision, from the destroyer’s point of view, is the damage to the Fitzgerald’s starboard side below the waterline, resulting from the container ship’s construction and the way its bow hit, he said.
the Fitzgerald collided with the merchant vessel, which was more than three times its size, some 56 nautical miles southwest of Yokosuka early on Saturday. Three people were evacuated to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka after the collision, including the ship's commanding officer, Bryce Benson, who was reported to be in stable condition. According to Reuters, Benson took command of the Fitzgerald on May 13. He had previously commanded a minesweeper based in Sasebo in western Japan.
The Fitzgerald limped into port on Saturday evening, listing around 5 degrees, a U.S. Navy spokesman in Yokosuka said. The flooding was in two berthing compartments, the radio room and auxiliary machine room, he said. There were 285 crew onboard.