Two recent collisions in the South China Sea involving US warships and merchant vessels operating legitimately in the area have led to the US Navy cancelling all operations and standing down its fleet. What could have caused such a dramatic action, you might well ask. We wish we had a definitive answer but governments tend to remain tight lipped on such embarrassing stories.
When the USS John S McCain limped into Singapore, holed on the waterline after colliding with a tanker however, we were reminded of a story that resurfaced concerning a strange incident in 2014 involving a United States warship.
The most disturbing part of this story for US military strategy was not the fact that ten American sailors were lost, although that is what grabbed the headlines. More sinister was that the incident came only two months after the US Destroyer The Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan, with seven deaths resulting from the accident. And in May 2017 the cruiser Lake Champlain crashed into a South Korean fishing boat, fortunately no lives were lost on that occasion.
USS John McCain after collision (Image source: worpress)
So what is going on. US Navy ships should have the most advanced naval technology in the world - apart from the British Navy of course :-) - and ought to have been aware of other vessels in the area in ample time to take evasive action.
According to a report first published in 2014, the USS Donald Cook experienced a total failure of its electronics systems, disabling weapons, tracking technology and navigation equipment after being buzzed by two Russian air force Sukhoi Su24 aircraft. Now the Su24 is an old design and by today's standards not a sophisticated warplane. According to Russian sources however, the attack jets carry electronic weapons that can cripple the US Navy's missile defence system.
Russia-1 television's Vesti programme claimed an electronic warfare device called "Khibiny" was used by a Russian pilot to completely deactivate the defence systems of the USS Donald Cook in a 2014 encounter in the Black Sea. In the past this blog has reported that we learned from an Iranian nuclear scientist who is a friend of one of our contributors that Iran had jointly developed with Russia and China, a range of Electronic Weapons based on technologies first proposed by the scientist Nikolai Tesla, after whom the Tesla car company was named, whose work was sidelined in the west because of the threat it posed to commercial interests.
Reports coming out of the weapons and military technology industry more recently have suggested there was substance to that claim.
The US' Aegis system, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, and carried by most modern American ships, is designed to protect a fleet against attacks by aircraft, and cruise and ballistic missiles. Other systems are in place to protect ships against less sophisticated weapons such as a boat pack with explosives being set on course to ram them.
But the Vesti broadcast (on Russian state controlled TV it should be noted) claimed the pilot of a Sukhoi Su-24 jet was able to deactivate "the whole ship's systems" with "powerful radio-electronic waves" during the fly-by incident three years ago, around the time of Russia's annexation of Crimea.
"You don't need to have expensive weapons to win [a war], powerful radio-electronic jamming is enough," the report concluded. At the time this was dismissed as kremlin propaganda in response to Obama's boasts about US technical superiority.
At the time the US military confirmed the Donald Cook, a guided missile destroyer, had encountered a pair of Su-24s that repeatedly flew near it in the Black Sea. But a spokesman, Army Col Steve Warren, said then: "The Donald Cook is more than capable of defending itself against two Su-24s."
Both President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, have hinted that relations between the countries hitting a low point may be in some way connected to these incidents.
During a meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, earlier this month, Tillerson said the world’s "two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship".
And before an off-camera meeting with Tillerson, Russia's President Vladimir Putin commented in an interview that "one could say that the level of trust on a working level, especially on the military level, has not improved, but rather has deteriorated".
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