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Naval Vessels, Shadowy by Intent, Are Hard for Commercial Ships to Spot

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore told The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, this week that the government’s vessel traffic information system had not even known the John S. McCain was there until the tanker, the Alnic MC, carrying 12,000 metric tons of fuel oil, delivered a crushing blow to the warship’s left side. Two sailors from the ship, a guided-missile destroyer, and eight more are listed as missing, as divers have begun discovering human remains inside the vessel’s mangled decks.

The Singaporean agency told The Straits Times that it had not detected the destroyer on radar and that its traffic information system had not picked up data on the ship. In addition to radar, traffic information systems rely on data from the so-called Automatic Identification Systems that all but the smallest commercial vessels are required to use to broadcast information about their whereabouts.

Military vessels typically carry the systems but often turn them off because the captains do not want to reveal so much information. The Maritime and Port Authority had no immediate comment or elaboration on its statement to The Straits Times. A United States Navy spokesman declined to comment on what systems were operating aboard the John S. McCain at the time of the accident, saying that the Navy’s focus remained on finding the missing sailors.

The difficulties with spotting naval vessels are amplified in busy waters — and those around Singapore are among the most crowded in the world because the city-state lies at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, through which nearly all of East Asia’s oil imports and a large share of its seaborne exports move.

The congestion prompts military and commercial crews to turn off the early warning systems that alert them to potential collisions, said Capt. Harry Bolton, the director of marine programs at California State University Maritime Academy and a merchant marine officer who has traversed the waters near Singapore dozens of times.

Modern ship radars automatically calculate the closest point at which other vessels will approach them. The ship’s officers program the radars with a certain radius — typically one or two miles — and if any other vessel passes inside that radius, a beep begins sounding on the bridge.

The beeping can be switched off only when someone on the bridge hits a button to do so, acknowledging that the warning has been received. But bridge crews commonly turn off the systems near Singapore because other vessels are frequently less than a mile away, so the beeping would be almost continuous.

“You turn them off,” Capt. Bolton said. “I can see everything, and I can look on radar.”

But ships like the John S. McCain, a Burke-class destroyer, are considered among the Navy’s best examples of vessels with a smaller radar signature, according to several former officers. They 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, like those on cruisers.

While 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, heavily armed naval vessels with large crews have little to fear and are less lit up. Sometimes they appear like shadows moving among immense freighters resembling bright Christmas trees.

To better negotiate the Strait of Malacca, commercial ship captains sometimes dispatch two crew members to the bow with radios to tell bridge officers about hazards ahead, said Tim Huxley, the chairman of Mandarin Shipping, a Hong Kong shipping line.

Unlike the aviation industry, which also has to worry about congestion and collisions, the shipping industry has not instituted emergency avoidance systems.

Regulations in the United States, Europe and other large aviation markets require that the newest planes have electronic systems that communicate with each other almost instantly when a collision appears likely and recommend a coordinated response to the pilots. One pilot might be told, for example, to “climb, climb,” while the other might be told to “descend, descend.”

By contrast, collision avoidance systems in ships do not have the ability to coordinate actions with each other, experts said. Introducing that capability would be difficult.

The United States and the European Union have worked closely with Boeing and Airbus to push for more sophisticated collision avoidance systems aboard aircraft, and are now working with China as Beijing starts building its own commercial aircraft. But ships are built all over the world with limited coordination.

A United Nations-affiliated organization, the International Maritime Organization, does regulate international shipping. More than 170 countries are members, and the group has been cautious about imposing requirements that shipowners in developing countries might struggle to meet. But efforts are underway to develop such systems, as part of an industry effort to develop autonomous ships.

Many commercial shipping experts say that the difficulty of seeing Navy ships is just part of the picture. They suggest that the John S. McCain, with its powerful engines, advanced electronics and nimbleness, should never have moved into the tanker’s path, and they have been asking whether steering difficulties or poor bridge communications aboard the destroyer may have been factors. The Navy has said the ship’s steering system showed no signs of failure, though it has cautioned that the cause of the accident is still under investigation.

Aboard the John S. McCain, “you’ve got power and maneuverability — if you want to get out of the way, you can do it pretty quickly,” said Arthur Bowring, who retired in November after 20 years as managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association.

Recent trends in commercial ship design have made the danger of collisions much more serious. Shipowners have been ordering larger and larger freighters and container ships in the past decade. Since most ship controls are now electronic and practically no muscle is required, it takes about the same number of crew members to operate a medium-size freighter as a very large one.

But big vessels can be hard to maneuver. “We’re dealing with larger and larger vessels,” said Capt. Andrew Kinsey, a senior marine risk consultant for Allianz, the big German insurer, “and the confined waters are not getting any bigger.”

Source: NYT > World

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