Not Just a Bad Hair Day

By Commander Robert W. Witzleb, U.S. Navy, and Scott C. Truver

When the U.S. markets open, the price of oil soars and stocks plunge. There is speculation of a worst-case scenario of an indefinite shutdown to U.S. maritime commerce that carries more than 90 percent of America's trade. The Securities and Exchange Commission closes the stock markets to stave off a catastrophic selling spree. The President asks: "How did this happen and what's our plan to reestablish traffic through our ports?" The answers are unsettling. It had been all too easy—far easier than the events of 9/11—and the terrorists who carried it out are still at large. Worse, such events had been widely speculated in a variety of forums, but preparations and plans were only modestly supported.

Not Available at Home

The reality is that, in response to capability gaps identified during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the U.S. Navy has a robust program for countering mines in overseas operating areas. This program is tailored to clear a predetermined percentage of mines over a large area, however, and not to ensure mine-free domestic ports and waterways. Even with the Navy's enhanced capability, an expeditious search for other mines will be impossible because of a lack of advanced analysis of individual ports. It will be weeks before the most important ports are reopened and months or even longer before the rest are declared mine-free. Ultimately a retired military talking head will appear on television to remind all that the historic mission of the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard is the protection of commerce.

The case of the Devonshire Trader is fictional, but not unrealistic. The mining of U.S. waterways with cheap, effective, and hard-to-detect influence bottom mines or underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs) has yet to happen, but is no longer fantasy. 1 We remain inadequately prepared to respond efficiently and effectively to a mine threat that could easily disrupt maritime commerce. For example, the April 2008 Department of Homeland Security Small Vessel Security Strategy and the Coast Guard's 2007 Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security and Stewardship nowhere mention mines or UWIEDs, and the 2007 tri-service A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower is likewise silent on this emerging threat.

A 2007 classified study indicates that coordinated terrorist mine-strikes against just four oil ports on the West and Gulf coasts could result in some $400 billion to $800 billion in direct and indirect effects, reverberating throughout the U.S. economy and to our major trading partners. In 2007, importers moved more than $1 billion of cargo value per day through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach equaling more than 50 percent of commercial goods entering the United States.

Taking prudent measures of preparation and improving our capability and capacity to respond to such a threat would be an inexpensive insurance policy considering the magnitude of the potentially adverse economic impacts. Critically important for all counterterrorist mine-crisis planning is knowing the oceanographic environment, and the only way to know that is through a program of comprehensive mine warfare surveys.

Required: Proper Planning

The terrorist threat of mining U.S. ports and waterways includes both conventional naval mines that are widely available on the international arms market and unconventional devices that can be rather easily fabricated from widely available materials. While the likelihood of a terrorist mine-strike continues to be assessed, the ease by which mines and UWIEDs can be acquired and surreptitiously deployed and the potential severity of even an isolated incident demand immediate and deliberate preparations.

Well-established hydrographic survey capabilities exist in the United States to develop charts for safety of navigation that focus on water depth and obstacles. Mine warfare surveys instead focus on the advanced collection of environmental data to facilitate future expeditious and efficient mine countermeasures (MCM) operations—defeating explosive devices intentionally placed to cause damage to or sink ships. In the case of U.S. ports and waterways, hunting a large area for distinct objects will be the most likely MCM method. Mine warfare surveys use systems and techniques similar to mine hunting to develop an effective response plan before hostilities and its constraints of time, access, or threat of mine. Essential to this plan are the implications of the seafloor characterization on MCM including the number and location of objects on and within it. This is a primary thrust of the naval oceanography mine warfare survey program.

The survey program consists of primarily Combatant Commander-identified open-ocean lanes which are surveyed for high-confidence rapid clearance if confronted with a mine threat. These routes terminate at the sea buoy and do not extend into ports, harbors, inland rivers and waterways such as the St. Lawrence Seaway. Additional capabilities exist, however, for MCM data collection within ports and waterways.

American naval oceanography has demonstrated an increased commitment to support for global mine warfare operations through the Naval Oceanography Mine Warfare Center. In addition to supporting MCM operational commanders, the center has the capability to survey and analyze ports and waterways in advance of MCM operations, as it did with Explosive Ordnance Disposal Operational Support Unit 7 in April 2007 to prepare for the San Diego harbor experiment. 2

Despite the team efforts of the center, explosive ordnance disposal, and other Navy MCM units, there is insufficient Navy capacity to survey every U.S. port and waterway. The solution will require the help of other government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and probably require private contractor assistance.

Once data are collected, however, the formal process for analysis to increase the efficiency of a Navy response resides solely with naval oceanography. If the Navy must shoulder the crisis-response burden, it is paramount that the Naval Oceanographic Office remains the center for analysis and the repository for distribution through its Mine Warfare Data Center. As a critical step forward, in May 2007 naval oceanography published an instruction setting the data priorities and standards that can be analyzed to support Navy MCM operations. 3 The document provides insight into the peculiarities of mine warfare survey and introduces other organizations with specialized equipment and technical expertise to methods they can incorporate to increase the chance that their data might support analysis for MCM. Anyone gathering environmental data would be equipped with the handbook for collection procedures and data quality. The long-term solution for collection will require participation from other federal, state, and local agencies, but capability, capacity, and training gaps currently limit their contributions. 

Again . . . Who's in Charge?

The President's Maritime Operational Threat Response plan identifies the Department of Defense as the lead agency for mine countermeasures. 4 With the only credible MCM capability, all eyes will be on the Department of the Navy for a response. Yet, the many considerations for domestic MCM, including mine warfare surveys, are spread across multiple government agencies. Central among these agencies is the Coast Guard, in the Department of Homeland Security, and NOAA, in the Department of Commerce. Interagency dialogue on these issues has reached the Deputy Administrator of NOAA and the Vice Chief of Naval Operations who have discussed the need of a formal agreement to outline mine warfare survey requirements including priorities, funding, and oversight, as have the Chief of Naval Operations and Commandant of the Coast Guard. 5

Issues and discussions are plentiful, but moving from rhetoric to reality will continue to challenge the services. Current channels within ports and waterways are determined based on navigable water with no consideration of the implications for MCM operations. Mine hunting operations in the formally maintained ship channel could be a nightmare for an MCM commander while other waters, within the port but outside the channel, may be navigable and present an alternative for a more expeditious search. Additionally, priorities for clearance operations within and among ports must be established via interagency dialogue. Last, although naval oceanography developed the national capability to conduct mine warfare surveys, the Homeland Security port and waterway mission exceeds existing capacity. The vast scope of the survey problem will not be fully understood until each port has been carefully examined to determine its idiosyncrasies and subsequent interagency dialogue determines the best courses of action.

The Art of the Possible

Although alternatives to Navy participation in support of U.S. homeland security have been suggested, no one has demonstrated a comprehensive capability for the gamut of MCM operations from survey through response that is comparable to the Navy's proven program. Also, although the Devonshire Trader scenario focuses on U.S. economic impacts, the Navy has global force-protection concerns that require a global maritime partnership MCM/UWIED port and waterway survey program beyond U.S. waters. These realities suggest that the Navy will have a critical role for the foreseeable future. Indeed, formal data collection and analyses of ports and harbors to support Navy MCM operations must begin soon, if not immediately. "Game day" will be too late!

The Navy must continue on a course that produces a program from survey-through-response to provide rapid clearance of mines and UWIEDs in ports and waterways for the safety of naval forces and maritime commerce within U.S. waters and, perhaps equally important, globally. This presents the greatest opportunity for results now and will provide a program to build on as we pursue interagency national and international solutions. It will also demonstrate to an America that may be out of touch with and discounts the tangible public benefits of the Sea Service, a U.S. Navy that is proactive and engaged against domestic threats. (Last year, only 9 percent of Americans rated the Navy as "the most prestigious" service.) 6 Many interagency conferences and working groups have resulted in near-unanimous recognition of the problem. Yet, there has been little progress beyond PowerPoint presentations.

More than 90 percent of America's commerce—including Suzie's hair gel—transits U.S. ports and waterways. If an underwater device were used to disrupt shipping, Suzie's not going to be the only one who will have a bad hair day.


1. Scott C. Truver, "Mines and Underwater IEDs in U.S. Ports and Waterways: Context, Threats, Challenges and Solutions," Naval War College Review , Winter 2008, pp. 106-127.

2. The Surface Mine Countermeasures Unmanned Undersea Vehicle User Operational Evaluation Systems demonstrated effective response detection capability during a fall 2008 San Diego Harbor experiment. During Talisman Saber 07, systems detected exercise mine shapes that were undiscovered by ship-employed mine hunting sonars initially assigned to clear the area.

3. Commander Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command signed CNMOC Instruction 3142A "Mine Warfare Port and Harbor Survey in Support of Maritime Homeland Defense—Technical Specification."

4. The October 2005 plan delineates U.S. agency roles in response to maritime threats—including mines—within waters subject to U.S. jurisdiction, and also enumerates Department of Defense responsibilities.

5. November 2007 letter from VADM Conrad C. Lautenbacher, USN (Ret.), the Deputy Administrator, NOAA, to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, ADM Patrick M. Walsh, underscored the need for an interagency memorandum of understanding. Zachary Peterson, "Effort Aimed at Protecting Ports: Coast Guard, Navy Working to Standardize Domestic Port Surveys," Inside the Navy , 16 April 2008.

6. Scott C. Truver, "U.S. Navy in Review," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , May 2008, p. 62.

Commander Witzleb is the COMNAVEUR/COMSIXTHFLT Staff Oceanographer. Dr. Truver is executive advisor, National Security Programs, Gryphon Technologies LC, a Washington, D.C. based high-technology and engineering firm.

Mr. Maxwell is the Deputy Commander, Human Systems Integration Directorate, Naval Sea Systems Command, and Mr. Bost is the Technical Director, Human Systems Integration Directorate, Naval Sea Systems Command.

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