USS Porter Collides with VLCC M/V Otowasan Near Strait of Hormuz – the Disturbing Implications

Photo: Defense Video and Image Distribution System

The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Porter collided with the Japanese owned, Panamanian flag, Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC)  M/V Otowasan in the the Strait of Hormuz at around 1 am Sunday, local time.

While few details are currently available, the report of the collision is disturbing.  The M/V Otowasan is roughly 40 times larger than the destroyer by displacement and travels at less than half the destroyer’s speed.  The USS Porter is fitted with an Aegis Combat Missile Defense System which, through complex radar tracking and telemetry, is designed to shoot down an incoming missile with another missile. It is one of the highest-tech systems in service in the US Navy.  The ship is also fitted with conventional radar and navigational aids.  Nevertheless, the destroyer failed to avoid colliding with a much larger and much slower oil tanker.

What is worrisome is that the region around the Strait of Hormuz has been a militarily hot-spot for decades. Approximately 20% of all of the world’s petroleum and 35% of all oil traveling by sea transits the strait, which is 21 nautical miles wide at its narrowest point.  The US Navy has had difficulty in identifying and reacting to threats to its ships in the region.

In July, the navy oiler USNS Rappahannock  opened fire on an unarmed fishing boat off Dubai, killing one fisherman and wounding three. The United States paid a compensation of $9,100 to the family of a dead fisherman and $910 to the three survivors.

During the Iran/Iraq in May 1987, the guided-missile frigate USS Stark was struck by two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi jet, killing 37 U.S. sailors on board, while on patrol in the Persian Gulf.  The Iraqis were considered US allies at the time and Stark‘s missile defense system was not turned on at the time of the attack.

In the 1988, the Ticonderoga-class Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes operating in the Strait of Hormuz mistook an Iranian commercial airline, an Airbus A300B2-203, for an attacking jet fighter and shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 onboard, including 66 children and 16 crew.  The United States agreed to pay $61.8 million, an average of $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims. However, the United States has never admitted responsibility, nor apologized to Iran.

In a region where misunderstood intentions and misidentified threats has the potential to start a new war,  it is worrisome that one the the Navy’s high-tech ships could not avoid a collision with a slow moving tanker.

Note: A previous version of the post referred to the “Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.”  It should have referred to the “Aegis Combat Missile Defense System.”

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21 Responses to USS Porter Collides with VLCC M/V Otowasan Near Strait of Hormuz – the Disturbing Implications

  1. Phil says:

    Just watched ABC TV News at 18:30 est.
    According to them the navy ship turned left instead of right and hit the tanker. The tanker is OK and the damage is to the missile destroyer.
    The captain may be relieved of duty because of this.

  2. Phil says:

    I wonder?
    Was the Japanese tanker carrying Iranian oil?

  3. One should always be wary of reports that purport to speak with the voice of authority, viz.:

    “The USS Porter is fitted with an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System …”

    Argis is not a “ballistic missile defense system.” It is a guided missile defense system. The difference between ballistic and guided missiles is fundamental. The first is used to deliver nuclear warheads over intercontinental distances, using the principal of a gravity-determined, and therefore unavoidable, trajectory. The second is used to fly missiles like airplanes without pilots, using airfoils to direct its delivery. Although Aegis can be used for both surface-to-surface guided missiles (as in a ship-to-ship attack like an old-fashioned broadside of cannon) and surface-to-air guided missiles (as a countermeasure to airplane or missile attack, like an old-fashioned ack-ack gun), it has nothing whatsoever to do with ballistic missiles. The only seaborne ballistic missile platforms in the U.S. Navy are submarines, and they are used (rightly or wrongly) as nuclear deterrents.

    The problem here is not one of potential military escalation because of the inappropriate use of arms. It is a matter of stunningly incompetent seamanship, which is damaging enough. You don’t need to ring the alarm by bringing up weapons, which played no part in the collision at all.

  4. Dirk Bal says:

    During the Iran/Iraq wars in the eighties, I passed a couple of times through the strait of Hormuz with a rather small gas-tanker, and noticed that US warships had the custom to pass at very close distance ( 35 knots), a small mistake at such a short distance would result in huge damage, as happened in this case.

  5. Dirk Bal says:

    ~a part of the text is missing in my previous post, here follows the complete text~

    During the Iran/Iraq wars in the eighties, I passed a couple of times through the strait of Hormuz with a rather small gas-tanker, and noticed that US warships had the custom to pass at very close distance ( less then300 yards) at high speeds ( at about 35 knots), a small mistake at such a short distance would result in huge damage, as happened in this case.

  6. Rick Spilman says:

    You are right. That was my mistake. The system on the ship is the Aegis Combat system not the Aegis Ballistic system. I’ve fixed it.

    The point remains the same, however. There are a significant number of naval vessels in a relatively confined area and the potential for stupid mistakes escalating into a larger conflict is very real. The same incompetent seamanship that allowed a destroyer to run into a VLCC bodes poorly for the operation of deadly systems like the Aegis or even the 50 caliber machine gun used by the the sailors on the USNS Rappahannock who shot the unarmed Indian fisherman. The issue is not simply weapons, but the competence of those in command of the weapons.

  7. Measure twice and cut once goes for publishing as for woodwork!!
    Bearing that in mind as a marine accident consultant until the full IMO report, not just a USN report, on this incident is released it would appear to be a clear violation of RULE 15, with of course several other RULES being applicable (see my Post in NAUTICAL LOG)
    One could state that there is an appearance, judging from various incidents, of lack of judgement in Officer selection, weapons discipline and Bridge Watchkeeping. An independent study of the USN may well be needed. It should be conducted by investigators from outside the USN but with deep draft maritime command experience.
    One would further concur with Dirk Bal’s remarks having sailed many times over a period of 50 years in the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. The behaviour of USN warships was in sharp contrast to the RN warships which latter exercised great courtesy and kept well clear of merchant shipping. One must remember that they are under the Command and with OOW’s of the RN Officers Seaman Branch in all cases not as the USN does promoting ex-fighter pilots full of attitude to Command aircraft carriers.
    So with that in mind one wonders just who Commands and who stands OOW at the destroyer level these days.
    One suspects IMO investigators will find out, once again, that too much dependence on technology and too little seamanship is a root cause for this incident as with most ship incidents in modern times.
    Good Watch.

  8. ed weglein says:

    Rick, you’re absolutely right. One must question the competency of the training regimen in place aboard US Navy ships when incidents such as this occur. The commander of the USS Porter will surely lose his or her command, but at the same time, the OD and the entire bridge crew should be held accountable for what happened, if, as suspected they are at fault. The question is, did they turn the wrong way or did the Tanker crew and pilot not follow instructions properly.

  9. Dirk Bal says:

    Ed, a VLCC tanker cannot change its course and speed immediately. Just because of its huge mass, every maneuver has to be planned in advance and takes up to several minutes before you can notice the change of course or speed. Although no further details are known about the circumstances, the one to blame for the collision is the USS Porter, as its maneuverability is many times higher (and faster) than the Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC) m/v Otowasan.

  10. JUAN MARIANO F. BARCENAS says:

    You are right Mr. Dirk Bal!

    During the Persian Gulf War in 1980s, we used to board Kuwaiti Oil Tankers to clean its cargo holds, which happened to be registered under U.S. Flag, as a matter of right to get US Navy protection.

    Whilst passing the strait of Hormuz, the distance of a USN destroyer and a frigate was just about two (2) furlongs and the most dangerous of the passing was when the PG was going on low tide, it was most dangerous to navigate against the current.

    And so the accidents that happened in that part of PG were attributable to natural conditions.

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  12. Being a lifelong seafarer with over 100,000 hours as an OOW “two furlongs” is 440 yards to me, not even a quarter (1/4) of a nautical mile. Thus as Snr. Barcenas states it is clearly too close particularly when tank cleaning at which time a tanker is in its most dangerous condition.
    The VLCC should have a two (2) nautical mile safety distance from other ships (when possible) and the destroyer should keep two (2) nautical miles from other ships. With basic seamanship knowledge of an OOW would know the difficulty of handling a VLCC and its limitations. Putting this together there is little or no excuse for the USS Porter DDG 78 not to have manoeuvered early in the meeting between the two vessels and have avoided a close quarter situation at 0100. They would have therefore kept a distance of at least four (4) nautical miles apart.
    All told very bad seamanship and disgraceful watchkeeping practices in the USS Porter DDG 78.
    All told one gets the impression that the USN Officers have no understanding of conditions in these other vessels and need considerable instruction and practical training as quickly as possible. Perhaps having USN Watchofficers make passages in the VLCC’s and seeing at firsthand would be a simple and quickly effective training method.
    Good Watch.

  13. Steven Vilardi says:

    We must not forget that on 14Apr1988 FFG-58 the Samuel B Roberts hit a mine in that same area as per Wikipedia. Why are there not any photos of the tanker damage shown on the Internet? Where is the tanker? Was the M/V tanker Otowasan full of oil and did it continue on it’s journey?

  14. Steven Vilardi says:

    The Strait of Hormuz is about 20 miles wide. I am not sure of the depths. Long Island Sound is 19 miles at its widest point, Chesapeake Bay is about 17 miles at its widest point and from Provencetown to Plymouth is about 17 miles. There has to be more to the story.

  15. Rick Spilman says:

    The Otowasan was reported to have been in ballast at the time of the collision and to have continued on her way to Fujairah where she had been scheduled to load.

  16. David Kaysen says:

    On the contrary, most of the reports I have seen indicate that the M/V Otowasan had a full load of crude on board.

  17. It was my understanding that the MT Otowasan was sailing between terminals in a partially loaded condition. She was most likely “topping off” at a final terminal at Fujairah before departing to sea. This would explain that being at such a deep draft the tankers bulbous bow was deep enough in the water to miss the underwater structure of the destroyer it being a relatively shallow draft vessel. The damage to the destroyer looks from the photos to have been caused by the upper straight and angled bow of the tanker.
    Of course this is just conjecture on my part as I do not have any reports yet and am basing possibilities on seagoing experience.

    Good Watch.

  18. Just to clarify my speculation, which is the beginning of any investigation actually (ie. what the hell happened), the MT Otowasan is 333 metres in length with a summer draft of 20.4 metres. The USS Porter DDG 78 is 154 metres in length with a draft of 9.3 metres. Thus the bulbous bow could be as much as 10 metres under the destroyer’s keel.
    Good Watch.

  19. Collin W says:

    This incident stinks real bad. if you google this accident the last article posted Aug 13th, it’s now Oct 19th. thats over 2 months with nothing. i find it hard to believe that a ship like the Porterman can get hit by a slow oil tanker. i find it even harder to believe that it was an accident given that there is little if not no media coverage. i would find it more believable that something else happened and our Govt has asked the media to stop reporting on it. let’ see how long it takes the govt to release a report.

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  21. Allencos says:

    Simple solution since China, India, and Europe are hurt more by clinosg the straits, let them defend it. The US should focus “war time efforts” on developing North American oil and gas. That means streamlining regulatory and environmental constraints so wells, pipelines, and refineries can be built in months not years. During WW2 thousands of miles of pipe was laid in minimal time due to a sense of common purpose that our foes on the left just don’t understand.

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