Return to

Sept. 21, 2017
Notes from the Pentagon

‘Steering casualty’ behind USS McCain collision
Investigators probing the deadly collision between the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain and an oil tanker last month believe the primary cause was a loss of steering control and the crew’s failure to compensate.

Preliminary results of the investigation into the collision show that the two ships hit as the result of what the Navy calls a “steering casualty,” a Navy official tells Inside the Ring.

Navy ship drivers and crews routinely practice what to do when steering controls on a warship are lost. The first step is immediately shifting to secondary, manual steering, where sailors in the stern of the ship are directed by internal phone commands from the bridge to manually turn the rudder a number of degrees right or left.

“In this case, it looks like the crew probably didn’t do what they needed to do [to avoid the collision],” the official said.

The Aug. 21 collision between the McCain and the tanker took place in the early-morning darkness in the heavily traveled Strait of Malacca near Singapore. Ten sailors died when the tanker crashed into the warship, leaving a large hole in the side of the hull.

Normally warships operate with manual steering controls manned during passage through high-traffic shipping areas. It does not appear that the McCain crew was in place for those controls.

“On a DDG, you should have secondary controls manned, and then, if you do lose steering, the ship should be able to quickly regain control. That’s what has folks baffled,” the official said. DDG is the Navy acronym for guided missile destroyer.

The McCain incident was the second deadly collision in two months in the Pacific. Seven sailors died when a freighter collided with the destroyer USS Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan on June 17.

Three senior Navy officials were fired as a result of the mishaps, including 7th Fleet commander Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin; Rear Adm. Charles Williams, commander of Combined Task Force 70; and Capt. Jeffrey Bennett, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 15.

The Navy has largely ruled out a cyberattack from outside as the cause of the McCain collision, as the steering is not linked to networked systems that could be impacted by a hacker. Still, Navy officials announced last week that a special cybersecurity team was dispatched to the McCain investigation team to look into potential cyberattacks related to the collision.

The cyberteam includes specialists from the Cyber Command 10th Fleet and technical experts from Naval Sea Systems Command and Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

“They are taking the opportunity to look into how a cyberattack on ships would take place. This is likely to happen in a future conflict,” the official said.

Navy information networks have been attacked at various levels, and the cyberteams want to investigate how quickly a cyberattack could be detected and shut off.

“There are no signs the collision was the result of a network intrusion by an outside party,” the official said.

Suspicions were raised that China may have hacked the guidance and radar on both the McCain and Fitzgerald, causing the collisions. Both destroyers were involved in recent freedom of navigation operations near disputed South China Sea islands claimed by China.

Who sold North Korea its IRBM launcher?
North Korea’s latest missile test involved the firing of a road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) dubbed the Hwasong-12.

Photographs of the missile provided by North Korean state media reveal the IRBM is carried atop a Soviet-era design transporter erector launcher that was either acquired from the Minsk Automobile Plant, known as MAZ, or copied and built by China.

A photo analysis indicates the Hwasong-12’s launcher is either a variant of the MAZ launcher used to fire the Soviet SS-20 IRBM or a Chinese reverse-engineered model of the MAZ produced for the People’s Liberation Army’s Wanshan mobile missile launchers.

Chinese knockoff launchers are made by the Wanshan Special Vehicle Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of China Aerospace Sanjiang Space Co. Ltd. that is a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. (CASIC), a major state-run military manufacturer. A similar transporter erector launcher was exported to Pakistan to carry Islamabad’s Shaheen II IRBM and shown off in recent military parades in the country.

A special United Nations panel of experts confirmed in a report several years ago that CASIC-made Wanshan missile launchers were sold to North Korea in 2011 by China, although Beijing claimed the vehicles were sold to haul lumber. Instead, the North Koreans modified the trucks for their new KN-08 road-mobile ICBM.

Rick Fisher, a China military affairs analyst, suspects the same company that sold the KN-08 launchers may have provided the launchers for the Hwason-12.

“In its brochures, the Sanjiang Special Vehicle Co. says it entered into a joint venture with MAZ,” said Mr. Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Moscow in the 1980s would have been unlikely to permit its then-satellite Belarus to transfer such strategic missile technology to China. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Belarus could have shared the know-how.

“So the crucial point is that Wanshan/Sanjiang would have been very familiar with MAZ TEL designs if they wanted to conceal the real origin of some of the TELs now in North Korea and Pakistan,” Mr. Fisher said.

Engineers from Belarus or Ukraine may have assisted the North Koreans with the launchers, “but the likely main source for the Hwasong-12’s TEL is China,” Mr. Fisher added.

Despite a recent campaign of tightening diplomatic pressure on North Korea and suppliers in China and Russia, the Trump administration so far has not imposed sanctions on CASIC or MAZ for the missile transfers.

China’s plan for world economic domination
China’s new economic and development plan for the Asia-Pacific region is getting high-level attention inside the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.

The program is called “One Belt, One Road,” producing the awkward acronym OBOR. It is the brainchild of President Xi Jinping, who has amassed more power in the past few years than any communist leader since Mao.

A Pentagon official tells Inside the Ring that close examination of the program has revealed an ominous side: China’s government has set its sights on global domination through economic means, backed by its diplomatic, intelligence and military power.

Internal strategic analysis of OBOR indicates the ultimate objective of Beijing is to undermine and ultimately replace the current American-led international order based on democracy and free markets. Beijing instead is working to create a new Chinese-led economic and political order combining anti-democratic governance combined with socialist, state-directed economic and financial policies.

Mr. Xi announced the OBOR program in 2013 as an aggressive development and economic initiative formally known as the combined Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-First-Century Maritime Silk Road.

To finance the program, the Chinese then created Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which the United States did not join and is opposed by the U.S. government — but which attracted major European states.

A Chinese study published in January, “China’s Strategy for a New Global Financial Order,” suggests that OBOR was based in part on the theories of early 20th century geographer H.J. Mackinder, who wrote about the central geostrategic importance of what he called the “World-Island” of the Eurasian land mass.

In Mackinder’s telling, the earth’s land area is divided into the World-Island of Europe, Asia and Africa, with its strategic “heartland” stretching from Russia’s Volga River to China’s Yangtze, and from the Arctic to the Himalayas.

In 1919 Mackinder wrote: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island. Who rules the World-Island commands the World.”

For China, the new economic and trade initiatives are aimed at becoming the world financial superpower by first dominating all of Europe, Africa and Asia, and then the rest of the globe.

For the Chinese, dominating the World-Island also will represent the end to what Beijing’s communist rulers regard as the domination by foreigners and a return to Chinese global supremacy as the Middle Kingdom between heaven and the rest of the world.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

  • Return to