Friday, June 19, 2009

Regaining Contact, the Hard Way

Galrahn has the latest on the story of USS John McCain and her towed array collision with a Chinese submarine:

These details tend to confirm what many of us previously speculated regarding the incident. It is kind of obvious that when a submarine accidentally rams a towed sonar array, the submarine is being tracked by the ship, although it also suggests the submarine was tracking the ship as well.

This is all interesting from a technical Navy point of view, but one point in the Navy Times' latest article piqued my curiousity because it didn't make sense.
The Associated Press reported that the collision took place 144 miles from Subic Bay, potentially placing it in the Mindoro Strait.

If the incident was in international waters, why would AP conclude that it took place in a strait that is inside the Philippine Archipelago? Where did this incident really take place?
Knowing that Google holds the answers to all questions, I decided to break out my trusty copy of Google Earth. Also, it wasn't clear if AP was reporting statute or nautical miles, so a little plotting was in order:

[Click to enlarge]
The red circle in this plot is 144 nautical miles, while the white is 144 statute miles from the center of Subic Bay. The Mindoro Strait is off to the south, and in my mind was probably not the location of this incident. Interestingly, there appears to be a feature located right on the 144 nautical mile ring, just a bit north of due west from Subic. That's Scarborough Shoal, a small clump of atolls and reefs claimed by both The Philippines and the People's Republic of China.
So, could there be more than just a little BUMPEX going on here? It gets curiouser as you look closer - literally. Take a look at this zoomed-in image of Scarborough Shoal from Google Earth:

Google and its imagery providers don't generally obscure things unless they've been asked to do so by a government. Is there some relationship between this incident and something a government doesn't want people to see? I certainly can't answer that question, but I hope someone else can.