USCG's Small-Vessel Security Strategy Ready for Launch

Attacks by small vessels around the world are increasing in intensity against both larger vessels and shore-side facilities. In addition, piracy against vessels of all types is spreading to different parts of the world.  Pirates currently hold over 30 vessels and 700 mariners.  Over the past weekend, pirates hijacked a U.S.-flagged sailing vessel and killed the four Americans onboard. Pirates successfully use small vessels to carry out their attacks.  Islamist extremists have used small vessels in many attacks in the not-too-distant past, including the attack in Yemen on the USS Cole and, more recently, in the terrorist plan to go ashore and wreak havoc in downtown Mumbai, the largest city in India. 

These types of attacks and others highlight the general vulnerability – throughout the world – of ports, cargo vessels, cruise lines, and coastal facilities. Moreover, such threats continue to increase worldwide.  An attack by a small vessel on a port, vessel, or coastal facility will have a negative worldwide economic impact. Further complicating the situation is that detection of small-vessel threats in many regions is very difficult because attackers use vessels that would normally be seen in the particular area or region being attacked.  Pirates use local fishing vessels, in fact, to carry out many of their attacks, and larger vessels have troubleentifying which fishing vessels are legitimate.  

The same would be true, of course, of an attack in a U.S. port and/or in the nation’s coastal waters, where the attackers would probably use yachts or other pleasure vessels to carry out their attacks, making it extremely difficult for law-enforcement agencies toentify them.  The U.S. Coast Guard and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have worked with various stakeholder groups throughout the United States to understand and develop an effective strategy to counter the potential small-vessel security threat to the nation’s ports and waterways. 

Completed, But Not Yet Approved or Promulgated That strategy has recently been finalized, in draft form, and is now awaiting formal approval from DHS and the White House. It seems likely, though, that the ified and unified versions of the final document should be out within the next few months. Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials have been working with various stakeholder groups across the country to develop implementation plans and policies.  Much of the input has come from state and local law-enforcement agencies, recreational boating organizations, and other marine and maritime groups and associations, both public and private.

Congress, DHS, OIG (the Office of the Inspector General), and other federal agencies haveentified the small-vessel security threat as one of the greatest dangers facing the U.S. maritime industry and the nation as a whole.  Many experts believe, in fact, that a small-vessel attack similar to the one against the USS Cole could easily be carried out in a number of U.S. ports against cargo vessels or even cruise ships. Making the security task immensely more difficult is the fact that the perennially undermanned U.S. Coast Guard has approximately 95,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways to protect, and numerous other responsibilities, so obviously cannot handle the job alone.

Nonetheless, over the past four years the Coast Guard has been meeting with various stakeholder groups – ranging from local law-enforcement agencies to pleasure boating groups to shipping companies – to develop a collaborative strategy to deal with the small-vessel threat.  “We have conducted hundreds of meetings and briefings on the subject of the small-vessel threat and how we can mitigate that threat with various stakeholders,” comments Robert Gauvin (Executive Director of Piracy Policy, Technical Advisor, Office of Vessel Activities, at Coast Guard Headquarters).  “The stakeholders are an important part of the small-vessel security strategy because they possess local knowledge and will know and see what does not seem to fit.” 

Gauvin has been the Coast Guard’s lead in developing the new strategy and in working with the key stakeholder groups.  “We held a stakeholder summit in Washington, D.C., to bring as many of the stakeholders together as possible toentify a strategy that will not put undue economic stress on the recreational boating public,” says Gauvin.  “We walked away from the first summit in 2007 feeling good about moving forward.  We had over 78 percent participation in the post-conference survey, which gave us a goodea of the stakeholders’ viewpoint.”

The Global Impact of a Successful Attack in U.S. Waters It is currently estimated that there are over 26,000 small vessels (under 26 feet) registered throughout the United States.  Moreover, the nation’s marine industry has an estimated $742 billion economic share of the overall U.S. economy. For that reason alone, if there were a small-vessel attack “on a port within the United States,” Gauvin commented, “the negative economic impact of that attack … would be felt worldwide.

“Sometimes people do not realize,” he continued, “the importance of the [U.S.] commercial and recreational marine industry and its economic impact worldwide.”  Close to 99 percent of the world’s cargo is moved aboard commercial ships, and many U.S. ports are located within major metropolitan areas. Moreover, most of the direct law-enforcement and emergency-response operations within U.S. ports are handled by local law-enforcement departments, fire and rescue agencies, and private-security companies.

“Developing the final strategy has been a hand-in-hand partnership with local, state, and federal response agencies and the recreational boating public,” says Gauvin.  “Agencies across the board have been working together, better than ever before, in developing the new strategy.”

Officials said that the DHS leadership will continue to work with local, state, and other federal agencies, along with the recreational boating industry, to implement the final strategy after it has been approved by DHS and the White House.  Gauvin said he believes that the final strategy will probably be released sometime this spring. 

Corey Ranslem

Corey D. Ranslem, chief executive officer of Secure Waters Security Group Inc. – a maritime-security and consulting firm heavily involved in maritime training, maritime security, and a broad spectrum of other security programs in the maritime field – is the former regional manager of Federal Government Operations for Smiths Detection. He has received numerous awards and citations from the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies and organizations active in the field of maritime security. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication and Political Science from the University of Northern Iowa and an MBA in International Business from Georgetown University; he has almost 18 years of experience in maritime law enforcement and security.



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