Navy officials aren’t worried about ship enthusiasts’ online speculation on the location of the Navy’s combatant ships.
That hobby has become a bit more popular lately in the wake of the Navy mandating the use of Automatic Information System ID beacons while navigating heavily trafficked areas.
The increase in online activity comes after a Sept. 16 message from Vice Adm. Tom Rowdan, head of naval surface forces, who said, “AIS shall be transmitted while transiting any traffic separation scheme and/or any high density traffic area.”
Following Rowden’s order, multiple news organizations reported an increase in online speculation on the whereabouts of some of the Navy’s most important ships, but Navy officials say there is nothing to worry about from a security standpoint.
“We had, I think, a distorted perception of operational security that we kept that system secure — off — on our warships,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Congress on Sept. 19. “One of the immediate actions following these incidents is that, particularly in heavily trafficked areas, we’re just going to turn it on.”
AIS uses beacons installed on commercial and military vessels to broadcast vital details such as a ship’s speed and direction, all while receiving the same information from other ships.
A warship’s size, however, can be deceiving. Stealth technology, which helps protect Navy ships from being identified, often results in a ship appearing smaller on radar than the vessel’s actual size.
“It wouldn’t surprise anybody that we design our warships to have a low radar cross-section, some even designed to be very low, so that degree of stealth makes us more effective from a war-fighting standpoint,” Richardson told Congress.
But in high traffic areas, this distortion can be dangerous to those navigating nearby.
Stealth technology “imposes a burden,” Richardson said, “on the crew of that ship to understand that they are low-observable, to understand that they might not be seen as something that is as large as a destroyer.”
Even the most generic identification can therefore greatly improve safety.
The beacons, initially designed for avoiding collisions, can broadcast a commercial vessel’s name and its country of origin.
That’s not the case for active combatant Navy ships. Those with “USS” in front of their name broadcast only a generic “US GOV VSL” identification.
Non-combatant Military Sealift Command ships also use AIS and follow the same rules — with some exceptions — as their regular Navy counterparts, according to Tom Van Leunen, spokesman for MSC.
“In the absence of specific fleet guidance, MSC ships will transmit AIS when operating in coastal waters and/or congested marine traffic waterways,” he said.
“When transmitting, MSC ships routinely use the ship name and the vessel’s international maritime organization number; however, they have the ability to change that if required.”
Many websites and mobile applications have the ability to tap into the system, allowing nearly anyone to track a ship’s international location.
A source familiar with the issue said the Navy’s combatant ships have operated the beacons in receiving mode for years, but whether or not to broadcast their own signal was left up to an individual CO’s discretion — until now.
“This message just standardizes the practice across the fleet and makes AIS mandatory in certain situations, provided the CO doesn’t have a good reason or higher guidance to the contrary,” said Cmdr. John Perkins, spokesman for Naval Surface Forces.
Operating tactically as a single ship or as part of a battle group could be such a scenario. But entering or leaving port, or transiting some of the world’s most highly-trafficked sea lanes, such as the Malacca Strait, won’t be done sans AIS anymore.
Despite the visibility increase of Navy ships in those settings, Navy officials are not concerned about being tracked by foes.
“If they’re a potential adversary, then they most likely are already tracking us with a lot of other technology and human intelligence,” the Navy source said. “The benefits of broadcasting AIS in these situations far outweigh any advantage that information would bring to others out there.”
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.