Tells us what we know already:
Naval vessels are hard for commercial ships to see
With four collisions between US navy vessels this year, the New York Times has observed that the moonless night when USS John McCain was struck by an oil tanker could have been only one factor in the causes of the accident Navy vessels are designed to be hard to see and hard to track electronically, and have therefore long posed special perils to night-time navigation.
The report said that this issue had prompted growing alarm in the commercial shipping industry — which has started to warn merchant vessels to be extra careful around warships — and in the US Navy.
Captain Raymond Ambrose, president of the Singapore Nautical Institute, said that “we need an attitude of defensive driving out at sea.”
Naval ships are exempt from an international requirement that vessels automatically and continuously broadcast their position, course and speed. They also tend to have fewer lights than commercial vessels. They are painted grey to blend into the sea, making them even harder to spot at night. Finally, a growing number of modern naval vessels, including the John S McCain, are designed to scatter incoming radar signals.
The destroyer collided with tanker Alnic MC early on Monday August 21st in waters east of the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, one of the world’s most congested shipping lanes. After the collision, the McCain proceeded to Singapore under its own power. In June the USS Fitzgerald, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer with the 7th Fleet, collided with a merchant vessel off the coast of Japan, killing seven sailors. In January the 7th Fleet’s Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground near Yokosuka, Japan, where the fleet is based. In May another Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser, the 3rd Fleet’s USS Lake Champlain collided with a fishing boat in international waters off the Korean Peninsula.
The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told The Singapore Straits Times that the Singapore government’s vessel traffic information system was unaware of the presence of the John S. McCain until the Alnic MC, carrying 12,000 metric tons of fuel oil, smashed into the destroyer’s port side.
Spotting naval vessels becomes even harder in busy waters such as those around Singapore, as the congestion causes both military and commercial crews to turn off the early warning systems that alert them to potential collisions, simply because if they did not, the warnings would be going off all the time, according to Captain Harry Bolton, director of marine programmes at California State University Maritime Academy and a merchant marine officer.
However, relying on sight and radar can be problematic with vessels such as the John S McCain, which are low to the waterline, with equipment masts tilted to the ship’s stern, rounded edges and no large “citadels” rising high off the deck, as would be seen on cruisers. Commercial vessels traversing the Strait of Malacca illuminate their hulls and the waters immediately around them so that they can spot any pirates who may be trying to climb aboard, but heavily armed naval vessels with large crews do not need lights to discourage pirates.
Unlike with modern airplanes, collision avoidance systems in ships do not have the ability to coordinate actions with each other, and introducing that capability would be difficult, as ships are built all over the world, with limited coordination.
The NYT said that the International Maritime Organization had been cautious about imposing requirements that shipowners in developing countries might struggle to meet, although efforts were underway to develop such systems as part of the development of autonomous ships.
Captain Andrew Kinsey, a senior marine risk consultant for Allianz, told the New York Times that “we’re dealing with larger and larger vessels, and the confined waters are not getting any bigger”.