The Forgotten Threat

By Captain Jim Howe, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

Promising Plans Go Adrift

With the full support of then-Secretary Michael Chertoff, in June 2007 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sponsored the first National Small Vessel Security Summit, bringing together more than 200 stakeholders from the maritime community to consider the issue. The summit generated a healthy list of recommended actions, the most important being the creation of a national strategy and an attendant implementation plan for countering such threats.

Disappointingly, the resulting “Small Vessel Security Strategy” issued in April 2008 was little more than a skeleton, listing fundamental principles, cataloging a number of existing programs, and containing almost no detail on how potential threats would be addressed. Independent oversight bodies panned the report: DHS’s own inspector general said the agency “has not provided a comprehensive strategy for addressing small vessel threats.” 1 Even more troubling, the follow-on implementation plan—arguably the most important piece of the notional strategy—languishes. As this issue went to press it had yet to emerge from the federal bureaucracy. There is, then, no road map to address terrorists’ potential use of small vessels.

Thus, four years after the topic was put on the front burner, three years after the national summit, and 30 months after the release of a threadbare strategy, the United States has seen no relative improvement in its ability to identify, thwart, or respond to waterborne terrorist attacks. Policymaking in that domain is adrift.

But the terrorists have not gone away, as seen in the slew of near misses and home-grown attacks in the past year: the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas; the attempted Christmas Day airline bombing near Detroit; and the amateurish (but nearly successful) attack in New York’s Times Square. In response, policymaking and agency leaders initiated many improvements to the nation’s security posture, primarily in intelligence-sharing and the protection of commercial air transportation. Unfortunately, almost none of that focus has been directed at maritime vulnerabilities. Nearly two years into a new administration, the spark behind the small-vessel security initiative seems to have been extinguished, demonstrating an ongoing inability to think beyond the contours of the most recent attack, be it a success or failure.

It is time to rekindle the effort to improve security on the nation’s waterways, before enterprising terrorists take advantage of existing weaknesses and use small vessels to reap a deadly harvest on American shores.

A Target-Rich Environment

The challenge is great: more than 17 million small vessels—roughly 4 million of them unregistered—operate in U.S. waters, and only minuscule segments of America’s 95,000 miles of navigable coastline are securely guarded or under constant scrutiny. In the words of Admiral Allen, “the water is different”: unlike driving or flying, boating allows for relatively free and unregulated travel across vast unguarded expanses. It is that very lack of regulation and control that makes deterrence and enforcement in the marine environment so difficult and makes development of a plan that balances security, the flow of commerce, and personal freedoms such a complicated undertaking.

Sitting along or operating in America’s expanse of coastal waterways are hundreds of potential terrorism targets: cruise ships, military vessels, chemical plants, highway bridges, oil terminals, and a plethora of other critical infrastructure. A waterborne bomb attack on any of those constitutes the first of four small-boat terror scenarios that DHS envisioned. Other scenarios are: Using a small vessel as a delivery vehicle for a weapon of mass destruction; employing boats to smuggle terrorists or materials into U.S. waters; and using a small vessel as a platform for an attack with a standoff weapon, such as a shoulder-launched missile. Each brings with it a host of challenges for deterrence and prevention. With so many small vessels in operation, so large an expanse of waterways, and such a paucity of law enforcement resources, it is extremely difficult to detect suspicious activity and conduct the needed intercept and protective activities.

The Small Vessel Security Strategy acknowledges those challenges and offers a basic recitation of the roles of federal, state, and local agencies, and the private sector, along with a list of existing efforts to improve awareness and information-sharing within the maritime community. Programs such as America’s Waterways Watch provide an effective means for relaying information from the boating public to the appropriate law-enforcement entity. Area Maritime Security Committees, established by law in 2002, provide a foundation for regional assessment of most likely targets and a forum for increased operational security efforts among all levels of government and private stakeholders. 2

Integrated Border Enforcement Teams, which cover the length of the northern border, allow greater operational synergy and information-sharing among U.S. and Canadian security agencies along the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Seaway, and Puget Sound. Augmenting those programs are ongoing research projects designed to develop better tools for detection of anomalous behavior, standoff intercept, and radiological detection capabilities.

The gist of the strategy document—and what it is envisioned to be as mapped in the implementation plan—calls for a comprehensive program that bolsters partnerships and interagency cooperation, creates a layered, innovative defense, and develops new operational and risk-assessment tools for use by the intelligence and law-enforcement communities. 3 It is posited that with improvements in cooperation, communications, and coordination, terrorists will find it increasingly difficult to plan or carry out a maritime attack using small vessels.

Strategic Omission: Resources

Sadly, much of that is smoke and mirrors, for a huge element is missing from the strategy document and the draft implementation plan—an element critical to any realistic attempt to craft an effective defense against small-vessel threats. That element—mentioned only in passing in those documents—is resources: The people, vessels, sensors, barriers, weapons, and other equipment needed to generate situational awareness and guard the nation’s waterways to any significant degree. Not only does the strategy document lack specific mention of needed resource levels, it neither contains nor recommends any analyses to determine what those levels should be.

Simply put, current strategic thinking does little more than make the best use of existing programs, processes, and assets, while steering clear of any effort to determine the levels of resources (and associated costs) needed to reduce vulnerabilities.

Maritime law enforcement professionals know that today there simply are not enough boats, aircraft, and personnel to provide an effective deterrent to a determined and savvy terrorist. Such resources are spread oil-sheen thin; in July, the Government Accountability Office said, “resource constraints limit the Coast Guard’s ability to meet security activity goals.” 4 By the Coast Guard’s own measures, it has only half the fixed-wing, rotary-wing, and patrol-boat operating hours it needs to carry out its statutorily mandated missions, including the suite of homeland-security functions. Coast Guard leadership estimates (informally) that roughly 10,000 more personnel are needed to adequately handle contemporary workloads. Other federal, state, and local agencies fare no better; if anything, in the current economic climate states and local agencies are even more resource-poor than their federal counterparts.

It all boils down to a situation where intelligence and early detection of anomalies are key to directing limited resources against potential threats. Intelligence- and information-sharing are key pieces to a solution, but cannot alone solve the problem. Even the most finely honed intelligence programs find it hard to burrow through the noise of the busy coastal environment to pick out the small vessel or operators requiring heightened scrutiny. A knowledgeable terrorist who stays off the grid and displays no unusual behavior is very likely to remain unmolested by a thinly stretched law-enforcement community. And even when intelligence does indicate a heightened or specific threat, resources—boats, aircraft, sensors, or people—must be available to react quickly.

Tactics of Deterrence

An infusion of additional resources would increase the odds for success under any of DHS’s four maritime terrorism scenarios, primarily by bolstering point-defense and general patrol operations. Point defense involves using sensors, vessels, and other resources to generate persistent protection of shore-side infrastructure or high-value shipping, such as deploying floating barriers around critical port facilities, maintaining localized surveillance with instant response capability to intercept unknown vessels approaching a sensitive area, or through armed escorts for high-value ships entering or leaving port. Point defense serves the dual functions of deterring potential attackers while having assets in place to provide an end game to a short-notice threat, be it identified through intelligence or directly observed actions.

A prime example of point defense is the ongoing effort to protect the crucial Khawr Al Amaya and Al Basra oil terminals in the northern Persian Gulf. With the vast majority of Iraq’s oil exports flowing through those terminals, their protection is vital to that nation’s economic vitality. Since the earliest days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Coalition and Iraqi forces have strictly enforced security zones surrounding the platforms to protect against terrorism.

Those security operations were successful—albeit tragically—in April 2004, when an attack was foiled by the crew of USS Firebolt (PC-10), which intercepted two approaching dhows and prevented them from closing on the terminals. Yet the terrorists in one dhow managed to detonate explosives prior to being boarded, killing three Americans—two Sailors and one Coast Guardsman. That failed attack and the consistently high level of security around the terminals has dissuaded subsequent attacks. That is a remarkable achievement, considering the level of violence that has coursed through Iraq in the past several years, including scores of attacks on the shore-side oil infrastructure.

While that obviously is an extreme example, the basic principles apply for homeland security. Visible presence and point defense act as a strong deterrent, denying terrorists the ability to strike at will and thereby greatly reducing the attractiveness of well-guarded targets.

Random patrolling is similarly a deterrent, incrementally increasing the probability that the terrorists’ use of the nation’s waterways will be interrupted and their plots uncovered. The enemy is kept off balance, uncertain of when or how they might proceed undetected. The Transportation Security Administration uses such tactics for mass-transit and airport security, surging teams of highly trained security personnel through subways, terminals, and bus stations. (There are 25 such teams, stationed in major cities across the country.) The unpredictability of such operations is aimed at skewing the terrorist’s calculus away from carrying out an attack, to interrupt and confuse planning, or to force an error in execution. Unfortunately, in many stretches of the nation’s waterways—including a number of approaches to critical infrastructure—law-enforcement resources are insufficient to present a credible deterrent through random patrols.

Unanswered Questions, Competing Priorities

Increasing the level of resources to improve point-defense and maritime-patrol operations, coupled with existing intelligence- and information-sharing programs, would yield a far more resilient, adaptive, and effective means for deterring or interrupting waterborne terrorist activity. Additionally, such increases could greatly enhance the effectiveness of other maritime missions, including search and rescue, drug-interdiction operations, and general law enforcement.

To guide resource improvements, however, a stronger policy framework must be established and basic questions answered. First, while it is clear that there are too few maritime assets today, how many are enough? A thorough assessment of the resources needed to provide adequate protection for the nation’s vulnerable waterways is long overdue. The handful of studies that have been conducted or are in progress address only specific slices of the maritime environment, and provide no holistic view.

Second, responsibility for the security of the nation’s high-risk maritime infrastructure must be assigned. Is it the burden of federal, state, or local government? Does it fall to the private sector? Or is it some combination thereof? Stated less elegantly, who foots the bill for enhanced security? The Small Vessel Security Strategy sheds no light and steers clear of that vital question. With a more robust and definitive framework in place, policymakers could determine the source of security forces and make better decisions on the allocation of existing resources.

While granting the difficult and complex nature of the challenge, it is unfortunate that the current administration has not made coastal security and defense against small- vessel threats a policy priority. Even more unfortunate is that there are no signs that it will become a top-shelf issue anytime soon. The policymaking establishment has been overwhelmed by a flood of other critical homeland-security matters, such as securing the Southwest border, improving immigration enforcement, strengthening the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and tending to shortfalls in airline security and intelligence. That may explain why the small-vessel security implementation plan remains in bureaucratic limbo.

This blind spot for the nation’s maritime vulnerabilities is seen starkly in the administration’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011. It called for the first post-9/11 decrease in the Coast Guard’s personnel end strength—a cut of more than 1,000 service members—and urged decommissioning of five of 12 Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSST), along with several cutters and aircraft. (MSSTs were created in the aftermath of 9/11 for the sole purpose of providing surge capacity to respond to coastal maritime threats; that is, they are exactly the type of specialized unit most effective in guarding against waterborne terrorist attacks.)

Congress to date has not gone along with all the recommended cutbacks. Before the budget process comes to a close it can only be hoped that the House and Senate provide the funds to maintain equilibrium in the Coast Guard’s security capabilities, and that the administration will take a fresh look at the policy and resource needs associated with the maritime security challenge.

Time Is Not on Our Side

Whatever happened to the small-boat threat? It still exists, as potent today as ever. The real question is whether our homeland-security leaders will recognize that it is only a matter of time before terrorists, having employed successful waterborne attacks overseas, exploit the maritime domain to stage similar attacks in the United States.

In today’s environment of budget austerity it will be difficult to find funding for:

• Improving maritime security by closing resource gaps;

• Developing—rapidly—technologies to improve anomaly detection and defensive capabilities;

• Increasing the number of “cops on the beat” to deter or stop brewing threats.

Nonetheless, it is a challenge that must be faced. Somewhere today—right now—terrorists are brainstorming with the intent to bring great harm to our nation. We can only hope that, until improvements to maritime security are embraced at all levels, our enemies remain obsessed with trains, planes, and automobiles and steer clear of waterborne attacks.

1. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General, “DHS’ Strategy and Plans to Counter Small Vessel Threats Need Improvement,” September 2009, p. 5.

2. The Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, P.L 107-295.

3. Department of Homeland Security, “Small Vessel Security Strategy,” April 2008, pp. 16-21.

4. Government Accountability Office, “Maritime Security: DHS Progress and Challenges in Key Areas of Port Security,” testimony of Stephen Caldwell before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, GAO-10-940T, 21 July 2010, preface.


Captain Howe was a career cutterman with 11 years of sea duty, five of those in command. He recently served as deputy assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the Department of Homeland Security. He currently works in the nuclear power industry.

Jim Howe Captain, U.S. Coast Guard (Ret.) works in the homeland security arena. Prior to his recent retirement, he served for three years as the Chief of Coast Guard Congressional Affairs, overseeing all Coast Guard activity related to Capitol Hill. He has extensive experience with the Coast Guard serving as a career Cutterman, with 11 years at sea. Prior to his assignment as Chief of Congressional Affairs, Captain Howe served in the Office of the Vice President as a Special Advisor for homeland security, focusing on border and transportation security issues. The Proceedings author and USNI editorial board member is a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. His academic accomplishments include having earned a master of arts degree in Government from Harvard University, and a Master of Strategic Studies degree from the Marine Corps War College.

More by this Author

None found for this author.

Events and Conferences

None found for this author.


Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2016-07-08

You are cordially invited to: Delivering on the Vision for the Future of Submarine Warfare A discussion with Rear Admiral Charles...

2016 Naval History Conference

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership