One (maritime) perspective on U.S. military losing the next fight to China (Part II)

One (maritime) perspective on U.S. military losing the next fight to China (Part II)
USS Princeton (CG-59) faces the giants. Pixabay background; USN image (MC1 Ace Rheaume); LU Staff

In Part I, Another reason a woke U.S. military hunting ‘systemic racism’ will lose the next fight to China, we set the stage for Part II by reviewing the depredations of woke politics on U.S. military leadership, and setting that unfortunate trend alongside the recent history of war games in which U.S. “Blue” forces lose badly to “Red” teams representing China as a the opponent.  The thread running through each iteration is a decisive loss of “information advantage” for U.S. forces, a problem that affects every aspect of warfighting.  At a zoomed-out level, we considered one “ping” on that thread: our own-force perception of unity, cohesion, and morale, both as a force and as a people.  Making it policy to keep the top brass absorbed in divisive social theory will have a significant impact on that facet of our information posture, and any warfighting advantage we seek for it.

The second “ping,” promised in Part I, concerns a more particular slice of the information layer cake.  This one would affects us most directly at the operational and tactical levels.  But if it were misdiagnosed over time, it would have the potential to undermine our information advantage and confidence to a fatal degree at the strategic level.  And we have reason to know that it is a capability China can already compass, and is likely to seek to wield.

Herewith Ping Two.

Will this presidential election be the most important in American history?

The slice: A second “problem ping”

Unseemly political obsessions (e.g., “systemic racism”; see Part I) can’t be ignored when our military leaders are being asked to focus on them, and apparently are willing to.  I’m sorry we had to ponder the recent examples of it to introduce this information topic – but we did have to.

There’s another key information problem that has gotten rather short shrift in the public discussion of the military’s information environment.  This one relates specifically to China, and thus is especially important to a projected conflict with China.

It may be that the particulars of this information problem are more than the DOD is prepared to talk about in public.  That’s not a bad thing.  At least, it’s not bad if we do indeed recognize the nature of the problem, and don’t want to show our hand as regards making the necessary repairs.

Simply stated, the problem is this: we know, even out here in the public, from following the news on the matter, that China can do an awful lot to degrade our combat performance and make it look like accidents and system failures.

In other words, China can make things go wrong that we don’t even realize China is causing.

That doesn’t necessarily mean China is doing it, or would be in every case.  It means China has the capacity to, and that must factor into our understanding of the information environment.  I’m not sure it does.

In the war games, it sounds as if it was clear to the Blue force leadership that the Red team (“China”) was behind our loss of information systems in their many guises.  (Re-upping the links from Part I, see here, here, here, here, and here.)  But what about when it isn’t so clear?  Are we ready to think in those terms?

That question came sharply to me in 2017 – here comes the slice, promised in Part I – when the U.S. Seventh Fleet, homeported in Japan, suffered not one but three instances of collision by its warships with civilian vessels.

I want to strongly emphasize that I do not argue here that China was behind these collisions.

What I do point out is that China had the ability then, and still has it, to have potentially been behind them.

There were three collisions in 2017.  The first, which no one remembers now (because it did little damage), was by the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) with a South Korean fishing ship.  The Lake Champlain collision, which occurred in May 2017, is properly included in this group because its geometry was exactly that of the other two, except that it was in mirror image relative to USS Fitzgerald‘s.  The Korean vessel hit Lake Champlain bow on, on the cruiser’s port beam.

The incident report depicted the collision thus:

Depiction of the USS Lake Champlain (CG-57) collision with a S. Korean fishing vessel on 9 May 2017. Note that Lake Champlain is shown bow on in the schematic on the right; hence, the F/V is colliding with her port beam. See p. 7 of collision incident report, link in text.

The other two collisions involved commercial ships hitting the Navy warships bow on, in the beam, as well.

The first was USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62), an Aegis destroyer, being hit by a Philippines-flagged container ship on 17 June 2017 during a nighttime transit toward Yokosuka in the approaches to Tokyo Bay.  Fitzgerald was badly damaged and seven American sailors were killed in that collision.  Fitzgerald absorbed the hit to starboard.

The second was USS John S McCain (DDG-56), which was hit off the coast of Singapore on 21 August 2017 by a Liberian-flagged oil tanker.  McCain also suffered tremendous damage in her case on the port side, like Lake Champlain, and lost ten sailors in the collision, with five more injured.

Damage to USS Fitzgerald from collision at sea, 17 Jun 2017. (Image: USN, Yokosuka, JA; MC1 Peter Burghart)

Both Fitzgerald and McCain were out of the operational order of battle for years to undergo major repairs.

The investigations of each incident returned much the same findings.  The colliding civilian vessels were noticed by the Navy crews on collision course and did not respond to radio calls.  The navigation bridge crews on the U.S. warships had very sluggish responses, in some cases facing the loss of automated systems and failing to adjust promptly.  (In some cases auxiliary positions were not being manned for just such contingencies.)

On Fitzgerald and McCain, in particular, morale was reportedly very poor, the extent of how bad it was reaching beyond loss of confidence in the ships’ leadership.  The crews were exceptionally fretful, discouraged, bad-tempered.  There was already prior documentation of how this was affecting crew performance.  While anyone with a full Navy career probably has a memory of a “problem” unit, the pervasiveness of the morale deficiencies on Fitzgerald and McCain was shocking and out of the ordinary.

It’s not my purpose here to throw doubt on the conclusions the Navy ultimately came to.  It isn’t surprising that the quality of the numbered-fleet leadership (U.S. Seventh Fleet) itself came into question, as well as the surface ships squadron leadership and that of the individual ships.

Nor is it surprising that the investigative focus was on the obvious first-order issues of basic seamanship, watchstanding, manning standards, and responsiveness to the unexpected, including loss of automation.  The Navy has to focus on those things.

Moreover, the Navy stated early in the investigation that it had found no evidence of automated systems being hijacked or hit with malware by off-ship actors just prior to or during the collision events.  There was no indication that ships’ systems were receiving direction (or under attack) from a malign party acting remotely.

What China could do, even if she didn’t in 2017

That was one of two things that bothered me about the events, however.  The Navy never said there was no possible form of evidence of remote interference.  It said, in very careful language, that there was no evidence of interference being wielded directly, from off-ship, at the time of the incidents.

The other bothersome feature was the bow-on collisions, each one directly abeam on the Navy warship.  All things being equal, such collisions should be rare – not even because of a standard for timeliness or excellence of crew responses, necessarily, but because the movement of the sea itself works against setting up such perfect collisions.  Three in less than four months is noteworthy in any context.  If it weren’t impolitic to engage in speculation, we would have to notice that it’s unlikely there would be three such collisions without the colliding ships being deliberately steered to hit bow on.

USS John S McCain (DDG-56) displays ugly gash on her port side from from 21 Aug 2017 collision; putting into Singapore. USNI News video, YouTube

Again, it’s the Navy’s job to reach conclusions, and I don’t propose to do it for them.  That the surface Navy has suffered from an unusual level of neglect and deficiencies in training and maintenance over the last decade is also argued, apart from the 2017 collisions, in a report on the fleet recently prepared for Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR).  The report is soundly laid out and convincing.  It’s not merely the evidence from the collision investigations that raises alarms.

The two particular points above about the collision events caused me to think hard, however, about what it would have required for China to engineer these events – without detectably intruding on IT and/or ships’ systems at the time, but with promoting the feature of poor morale and crew performance.

It turns out China has done notable spadework relevant to preparing for such engineering feats, and appears to have the requisite capabilities to bring off quite a semblance of such incidents, if the capabilities were to be applied.

To begin with, China has done considerable espionage against U.S. Navy as well as other military systems (see here, here, here, here, and here as well).  The press coverage always goes to new and high-profile weapon systems, but China has had a handful of known spies working for years to ship out eye-bleedingly basic, tedious information on how the workhorse warships of our fleet – the Arleigh Burke destroyers and the Ticonderoga cruisers – are put together.  Some Chinese planners may know better than our own mid-grade officers and NCOs what systems talk to each other on a U.S. Navy warship, and how.

Schematic drawing of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), lead unit of her class. Extensive Chinese espionage has sought to document the class’s attributes in much greater detail. Via Fed. of American Scientists

The Chinese government has also been behind mass cyber intrusions on U.S. military systems (see also here, here, here, and here) which include Navy systems that may not run ships’ equipment, but still interact with clients on board ships.  Knowing what the system points of contact and vulnerabilities are on our warships – and in the shore-based systems that routinely communicate with them – would facilitate turning these intrusion-created opportunities to good use; i.e., to map and analyze our network connections.

Malware, after all, doesn’t have to be introduced at the last minute, directly into the target system.  It can be introduced indirectly and lie dormant for long periods before being activated:  on a timed schedule, in response to an anticipated event, or via communications that look routine.

Recent reporting has also indicated that Chinese-manufactured semiconductor chips, which have been incorporated in some U.S. military systems, are engineered with the ability to accept remote modification and, to a limited extent, new “instructions,” sent by those with the key to activate these features (more here).


This is just one of the concerns that surround the U.S. use of Chinese-made chips in military systems, but it’s a significant one.  Another concern is the thousands of Chinese-made chips that were purchased for U.S. military systems in the late 2000s and early 2010s.  They were referred to at the time as “fake” chips, but that’s not what mattered for cybersecurity.  It mattered for prosecuting sellers who represented the chips fraudulently as U.S.-made, but the security problem is simply that the chips were made in China, and were being knowingly sold to defense consumers.

China can be confidently assumed to have been behind that operation.  We can assume China’s leadership intended it not only to create the possibility of chip failures at critical times, but to infect U.S. military systems with triggerable malware.  Congress has expressed concern a number of times about Chinese interests in U.S. suppliers of basic parts for our defense systems, and the problem doesn’t seem to go away.

A similar, more pervasive role in supplying chips and communications components to the commercial shipping industry and its institutions could have enabled China to embed intrusion capabilities that could be activated against the navigation and steering equipment on civilian ships.  In the case of the three collisions in 2017, it’s possible China would have needed only a regional “reach” in the Far East (e.g., access to the comms between ships and their operators and shipping agents) to bring it off.

Commercial shipping traffic in the Singapore Strait. Videotel video, Govts of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, YouTube

For the geometry of the 2017 collisions, a remote planner would have needed to actively steer the civilian vessels, and limit the agility and reactions of the Navy warships.  The planner didn’t need to steer both ships; just the colliding vessel that was to hit bow on.  Systems that facilitate quick reaction could be disabled on the target ship, to slow down its maneuvering responsiveness.

China appears, just from what we know, without additional speculation, to have the realistic potential to do that.  If the enemy planner knows our communications routines, the final IT blows could be administered through unclassified updates that look legitimate, and perfectly … routine.

The other piece of the puzzle is the extraordinary loss of morale, especially with Fitzgerald and John S McCain, resulting in what almost looks like a peculiar “sickness” of mind and cohesion in the crew.

Every Navy jack thinks immediately of the conditions on USS Caine in the Herman Wouk novel The Caine Mutiny, turned into a movie in 1954 with Humphrey Bogart as Captain Queeg.  That’s very natural, and that resonant, well-known example of failures in morale, discipline, and leadership will obviously color the perspective of anyone reviewing the investigative report.

“Uh, Captain, we’re steaming in a circle…” Humphrey Bogart (Queeg) reacts as USS Caine cuts her own tow line after a target exercise. Fred MacMurray as LT Keefer on the right. The Caine Mutiny clip, YouTube

We may even assume such factors were involved, but also recognize that they could be sharpened and amplified through a means we know China has been implicated in.  The means in question is using sound as a weapon to attack the mental and physical health of humans.

The beauty of a Navy warship for such an application is that there is no need to introduce sound from off the ship.  A Navy warship is nothing if not a giant steel-encased gallery of noise-making equipment.  It carries its noise hazards with it, and the crew lives inside and beside them 24/7.

Mitigating and dampening equipment noise so that the crew can have mental and physical peace is a key task of naval engineering.  Turning the noise against a crew would be a matter of engineering for the opposite purpose, and getting the right systems and components to accept malign commands.

As always – let me reiterate this – I am not asserting that China did this in the case of any of the three warships in the 2017 collisions.  I’m saying China could do this to interfere with health and morale on a U.S. Navy warship.  The opportunity has been there to plan and execute such an operation, based on things we know about the scope of Chinese espionage, China’s study of our systems, experiments with IT intrusions, and the planting of components in our military systems.

Add that to known instances of probable sonic attacks engineered by China (which include reported attacks on Indian troops at the Chinese border as well as the alleged attacks on Americans and Canadians in Cuba, and Americans in China), and there is enough evidence to make this possibility feasible and not at all fanciful.  If we are unsuspecting, an attack might well be in operation for months, with increasingly debilitating effects, before we recognized it as something out of the ordinary.

U.S. Embassy Havana. Wikipedia, U.S. Dept of State


Once more, my point is not that China did this in 2017.  It’s that China could conceivably do this as a warfighting effort against our forces.

In fact, the three incidents in 2017 could very well have inspired vision in the People’s Liberation Army, if it was not there already.  What a way to achieve an objective: not just to take warships out of our order of battle, but to deceive and demoralize us in doing so.  It’s not far-fetched to imagine us spending months blaming ourselves for morale, training, and equipment problems that may have been exacerbated or even induced by Chinese cyber interference.

That point sends us circling back to Ping One on the information problem set: the inadvisability of setting the U.S. military to obsess over socially divisive theories of human relationships.  Such an anxious, self-doubting posture can only sap our confidence and our force cohesion.  Imagine how it would set us up for a comprehensive meltdown of confidence, certainty, and focus – a loss of touchstones and basic common sense in the face of confusing, ambiguous information about how our combat ships kept colliding with other vessels.  Who can doubt how quickly any forensic and remediation effort would devolve into a blame game, especially if infused with politically-instigated interpersonal suspicion?

And that would all be outside of live-fire situations, in which the loss of life, equipment, and warfighting objectives could be even more disastrous.  China could – and would – seek to affect those situations too, by the same methods that could be used to induce a rash of collisions at sea.

Perhaps China hasn’t already simulated or otherwise tested capabilities of this kind.  But if we’re not alert to them, and already planning how to counter them, we’re behind the power curve and need to step up our game.  I hope we are doing so.  Should China try such measures in the real world, she needs to peek around the corner and find us already there, waiting to pounce.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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