James Holmes

USS Porter Collision: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery

Things to watch as the investigation into a mysterious collision unfolds.

Over the weekend the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter collided with the Japanese-owned, Panamanian-flagged tanker Otowasan. Details remain extremely sketchy. News accounts indicated that the Porter was transiting the Strait of Hormuz on its way into the Persian Gulf, and that the Otowasan was outbound toward the Gulf of Oman. But the destroyer suffered damage to its starboard (right) side, approximately amidships. Since ships normally pass port (left) side to port side, much as cars do on highways (in countries where you drive on the right-hand side, anyway), the sequence of events remains a tad mysterious. You would expect the damage to be on the port side, much as it would be if someone sideswipes you on the road. The redoubtable Raymond Pritchett over at Information Dissemination took a screenshot of the ships track around the time of the mishap, and confirms that something appears to be askew. The silver lining: no injuries were reported among either crew.

Let’s venture a few general thoughts about how these things can happen. The U.S. Navy has launched an inquiry into the collision. The puzzle of the ships’ courses, speeds, and positions relative to each other represents the most obvious avenue of inquiry. Equipment failure could have played a role, although the Porter sports the latest sensor technology. Beyond that, it’s worth monitoring what investigators report about communications—both within the Porter’s watch team and between the destroyer and the tanker. The Strait is not an intrinsically difficult seaway to navigate. It is reasonably wide, albeit heavily trafficked. Accordingly, one question leapt out at me from the reportage: was the commanding officer on the bridge overseeing the passage, or was he elsewhere? The accident took place at 1 a.m.  He may well have been asleep.

Since ship captains cannot be on the bridge all the time, vessels establish watch teams made up of more junior officers and enlisted sailors. The “officer of the deck” superintends navigation, piloting, and most everything else in the skipper’s absence. The captain issues “night orders” each night out at sea, specifying conditions under which the officer of the deck should call him. This constitutes an extra layer of oversight. For instance, the night orders generally state that if another ship will pass within a certain range, the officer of the deck should phone with a description of the situation and a recommended course of action. The skipper typically sanity-checks the recommendation, approves it, and goes back to sleep. The vast majority of encounters are routine. What happened in the Porter? Did the crew follow standard procedures? Something to watch.

What about communications between the two ships? Communicating with merchantmen out at sea can be a trying affair. These ships are highly automated and sparsely manned. Many nationalities comprise their crews. You can imagine the potential language barriers that sometimes inhibit U.S. and foreign ships from exchanging information about their intentions and planned maneuvers. I remember transiting the Strait in the dead of night in 1990, much as the Porter was, and calling up a commercial vessel that utterly failed to reply. In that case it was easy. We were both heading into the Gulf on the same general course, so I just slowed the engines and let him pull ahead; the guy who appears to be paying no attention to the road gets the right-of-way. Miscommunications clearly can happen. Whether one did happen in this case will be something else to look for in the final investigation report.

And finally, news reports dwelled on whether the Iranian factor came into play. Tehran and Washington have been waging a war of words over Iranian nuclear endeavors. Threats to close the Strait by force have become a staple of Iranian rhetoric. Did this play any part? Sure, it’s possible. Potential adversaries like to play games with each other during times of uneasy peace. Think about U.S. submarines playing cat-and-mouse with the Soviet Navy during the Cold War, or about the Chinese sub that surfaced within torpedo range of the carrier USS Kitty Hawk a few years back. Speedboats often crisscross the southern Gulf at breakneck speed. Maybe an Iranian radar site illuminated the destroyer. Or maybe lookouts sighted something in the water that looked like a sea mine. Such anomalies could explain erratic maneuvers. With any luck, the deck logs kept by the ships’ crews will shed light on this aspect.

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I have no answers, obviously, but these are some questions I hope the investigation will clear up. Have I missed anything?