Port Security: A Mission Impossible for the U.S. Coast Guard?

On 11 September 2001, nineteen Al Qaeda terrorists commandeered four large U.S. passenger aircraft, crashed two of them into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, and one into the Pentagon. The terrorists who had seized control of the fourth aircraft, United Airlines Flight 93, crashed it into a field in Shanksville, Pa., after the passengers revolted and tried to take control back from the terrorists.

The four crashes killed more than 3,200 innocent people – more than died in the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The crashes also cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion, and led to the formal U.S. entry into the Global War on Terrorism.

Since that second date that will live in infamy, the U.S. armed forces, backed by an allied “coalition of the willing,” have overthrown two tyrannical governments, helped install a democracy of sorts in Afghanistan, and – despite a discouraging number of setbacks – seem well on the way to doing the same in Iraq.

On the American home front, the White House and Congress joined forces to create a reasonably workable new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), formed from 22 previously separate offices and agencies, and have funded it generously. Differences between and within a broad spectrum of U.S. intelligence agencies are being gradually resolved, there has been a demonstrable improvement in security at U.S. airports, and the nation’s land borders are better protected as well.

Several laws also have been passed that will facilitate additional improvements – e.g., the Aviation and Transportation Security Act of November 2001, which created the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), a major component of DHS.

Nonetheless, a number of “major vulnerabilities” still exist, according to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, more popularly known as “The 9/11 Commission.” Many if not most of those vulnerabilities are in the field of port and maritime security – where, the commission noted in its final report, the opportunities for terrorists “to do harm” are “as great [as], or greater [than]” at the nation’s airports. More than 90 percent of the approximately $5.3 billion appropriated annually for TSA, the commission also noted (with a strong editorial comment immediately following), “goes to aviation – to fight the last war.

By the Numbers – Missions vs. Dollars 

The U.S. Coast Guard, which supervised the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of terrified citizens from lower Manhattan on 9/11 – a remarkable achievement that is not even mentioned in the commission’s final report – is the DHS agency with primary responsibility for maintaining security in the nation’s 361 ports, throughout the 3.4 million square miles of America’s coastal waters, along the U.S. Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, and throughout the nation’s extensive system of inland waterways.

In the best of times, that is a daunting responsibility for an agency with fewer than 40,000 men and women on active duty, even when augmented by the several thousand Coast Guard reservists who have been called up for varying lengths of time since 9/11. The fact that, at any given time since September 2001, four Coast Guard cutters and approximately 500 active-duty personnel have been forward-deployed to the Persian Gulf cuts into the service’s homeland-defense capabilities. But that requirement has been more than offset by several major increases in funding over the past three years, and by the addition of more than 3,000 additional people to the active workforce.

Other offsetting factors include: (a) the requirement to train the enthusiastic and highly dedicated, but also inexperienced, young men and women now entering the Coast Guard; (b) the fact that, despite the increase in appropriations, it still will take several years, minimum, to upgrade and modernize the USCG’s outdated and maintenance-intensive inventory of ships, aircraft, and electronics/avionics systems and sensors of all types; and (c) the discouraging recognition that, even when the Coast Guard’s innovative Deepwater program – designed to modernize the service’s complete hardware inventory across the board – has been fully implemented, there still might not be enough people and equipment to carry out all of the missions the Coast Guard already has been assigned and the even heavier workload it will be facing in the foreseeable future.

A Bullish Report, But Major New Challenges 

Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thomas H. Collins obviously had the latter “challenge” in mind when he commented, during his annual “State of the Coast Guard” address last year, that the service’s “mission growth” had “outstripped, in many ways,” its budget growth. He listed a few specifics, focused primarily on the service’s port and maritime security mission, in what was otherwise a fairly bullish report.

From 2003 to 2004, Collins said, Coast Guard personnel had carried out “thousands of port-security patrols, air patrols, security boardings, and vessel escorts.” In addition, he said, the service had established and maintained a number of “new security zones” around the country; developed several “new capabilities” by increasing the number of Sea Marshals on the personnel roster and by creating and deploying several new Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs, each of which consists of 71 active-duty personnel and 33 reservists); and had transferred a number of cutters and patrol boats, and their crews, to the port and maritime security mission.

All of those changes, several of which must be categorized as “major,” translate into an increased overall workload. Some, a very few, of the service’s other important missions have been reduced modestly, but none can be handed over to another service or another agency of government. No government official would accept a decrease in the USCG’s lifesaving capabilities, and neither would the American people. A respite in the service’s interdiction of illegal aliens, and/or of illegal narcotics, also is unlikely. For one thing, terrorist organizations are known to have used the revenues from illegal drugs to finance their own operations. In addition, some of the illegal migrants who have been stopped in the past have beenentified as probable terrorists.

A Terrifying Fraction 

Several of the “numbers” problems confronting the Coast Guard are simply overwhelming – and beyond the USCG’s own organizational control. The illegal-migrants interdiction mission provides an illuminating example. The Coast Guard is becoming ever more efficient in stopping the flow of illegal migrants from the sea. U.S. air and ground ports of entry also are somewhat more secure than they were before the terrorist attacks. Nonetheless, as the 9/11 Commission pointed out, there are already “more than nine million people … in the United States outside the legal migration system,” and “another 500,000 or more enter illegally [each year] … across America’s thousands of miles or land borders or remain in the country past the expiration of their permitted stay.”

No one knows, of course, how many illegal migrants are terrorists, or potential terrorists, but even a small fraction – one percent of one percent, perhaps – would be a terrifying number.

There are two other numbers, directly related to the Coast Guard’s port and maritime security mission, of perhaps cataclysmic magnitude that the service must cope with as best it can. The first is the number of fishing vessels – approximately 110,000 – in the U.S. commercial fishing fleet. The second number is even more impressive: 16 million. That is the number of American “recreational craft” now distributed throughout the U.S. waterways system.

The point here is simply this: There already are tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of vessels now in U.S. waters that are as big as, or bigger than, the one used by Al Qaeda terrorists to attack, and almost sink, the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2000.

There also are thousands of potential targets in or near the water for terrorists. Approximately 8,000 large ships now call in U.S. ports each year. Some of them are cruise ships carrying as many as 3,000 passengers. Others are heavily laden with toxic chemicals or explosive substances of various types. A successful attack from the water on just one of those ships—or on an industrial complex or a large housing area ashore – could kill perhaps hundreds of people, and could cost the U.S. economy several billion dollars.

Several attacks, in different ports but all at the same time, could shut down the entire U.S. maritime system for an extended period of time and eventually cost far more, in both lives and dollars, than the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Following are a few specific examples, which Al Qaeda as well as the Coast Guard might already be considering as test-case scenarios, that illustrate the extent of the damage possible from just one attack:

  • On 6 December 1917 a French ammunition ship, the Mont Blanc, which was carrying 3,000 tons of TNT, collided with the Imo, a Belgian steamer, in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia. An estimated 1,600 people died in the resulting explosion, which destroyed one tenth of the city.
  • Not quite 30 years later, on 16 April 1947, another French cargo ship, loaded with an explosive nitrate fertilizer, exploded in Galveston Bay, killing hundreds of people and destroying most of Texas City, Texas.
  • On 17 July 1944, a huge explosion at the naval magazine in Port Chicago, Calif., killed more than 300 men, disintegrated the merchant ship E.A. Bryan, and even caused damage in San Francisco, almost 50 miles away. Less than three months later, on 2 October 1944, the accidental ignition (ashore) of liquefied natural gas leaking from a cork-insulated tank in Cleveland, Ohio, killed 130 people, injured several hundred more, and devastated a major industrial area of the city.

All of these were accidents. How much greater damage, including a considerable loss of life, might result from several well-planned and simultaneous deliberate attacks, either at sea or in port, on larger ships loaded with thousands of passengers, or laden with toxic chemicals or combustibles or both, can only be imagined.

The fact that Al Qaeda has already used small boats on terrorist missions is not comforting. Neither is the realization that the demonstrable improvement in security at U.S. airports probably would not have been funded if 3,200 citizens had not died not quite four years ago while the nation was looking the other way.

James D. Hessman

James D. Hessman is former editor in chief of both the Navy League’s Sea Power Magazine and the League’s annual Almanac of Seapower. Prior to that dual assignment he was senior editor of Armed Forces Journal International.



No tags to display


Translate »