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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Maritime Security: Mines, Small Boats of More Concern than Shipping Containers?

A "Coast Guard expert" tells Congress it has its priorities for maritime security mixed up here:
Members of Congress should be more concerned about the threat of terrorists using mines and small boats to attack multiple U.S. ports and disrupt the economy, according to a U.S. Coast Guard expert.

Lawmakers should grant more funding to port surveillance to counter the threat, Guy Thomas, science and technology adviser for maritime domain awareness at the Coast Guard, said in an interview.

Instead, lawmakers are focusing port security spending on scanning shipping containers for a nuclear bomb, which most experts in the Coast Guard and intelligence community agree should be less of a priority than maritime domain awareness, he said.
Lawmakers have preferred to fund container scanning technology because “it’s visible and your congressman gets points for doing something” that is more dramatic and TV-friendly than installing cameras, radars and sensors, according to Thomas.

A scenario that greatly troubles him is that terrorists might use multiple small boats — carrying chemical, biological or nuclear weapons and coordinated via inexpensive satellite radio — to attack several U.S. ports at one time. Or the terrorists might use the boats to disperse anthrax all over a city, he said.

Terrorists “could also drop mines in the harbor as they entered to really slow seaborne relief operations to the port,” Thomas said.

He was reluctant to talk about a multiple port attack scenario until recently, when he found others openly discussing it.

He is concerned about mines because there are “hundreds of thousands” of them potentially available to terrorists. The mines could be easily hidden underwater and “lie in wait” until a ship passes by and is hit, leading to closure of a port.

An attack by mine on a port would be harder for authorities to manage than an attack by an improvised explosive device or truck bomb near a port, as it would be harder to know if additional mines had been planted, Thomas said.

After witnessing several war games, Thomas believes the Navy lacks the mine dispersal capability to deal with more than one mine attack on a port. However, it might be able to handle two such attacks if they were located close together, he added.
Thomas favors using airships such as blimps, aerostats, or tethered lighter-than-air aircraft, and satellites to surveil ports.

Airships and aerostats can be used to monitor up to 100 miles from shore at a lower cost than manned aircraft.
Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, has said he wants to focus on increasing the security of small vessels.

The Coast Guard will hold a summit in June on improving security of small boats.

“We’ve done a great deal in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to secure our ports from potential threats posed by commercial ships, but we know very little about the 77 million U.S. boaters or the 13 million recreational vessels that ply U.S. waters,” Allen said in March.

“This leaves us extremely vulnerable to a U.S.S. Cole-style attack within one of our ports or waterways,” Allen said.
The National Strategy for Maritime Security summarizes a variety of tactics commonly mentioned as maritime security risks:

“Terrorists can also develop effective attack capabilities relatively quickly using . . . explosives-laden suicide boats and light aircraft; merchant and cruise ships as kinetic weapons to ram another vessel, warship, port facility, or offshore platform; commercial vessels as launch platforms for missile attacks; underwater swimmers to infiltrate ports; and unmanned underwater explosive delivery vehicles. Mines are also an effective weapon. . . .Terrorists can also take advantage of a vessel’s legitimate cargo, such as chemicals, petroleum, or liquefied natural gas, as the explosive component of an attack. Vessels can be used to transport powerful conventional explosives or WMD for detonation in a port or alongside an offshore facility.”

The United States has more than 360 ports.
Of course, there is an argument that the Port of Bullfrog, LA is at less risk than a spectacular hit in Los Angeles or New York, Cheasapeake Bay, Houston and the other big ports. An analysis of such risks is available here in a paper titled "A Critical Vulnerability, A Valid Threat. U.S. Ports and Terrorist Mining" by CDR Michael Sparks, USN. CDR Sparks sets the scene of multiple mine hits in geographically distant ports and notes:
The U.S. is again the target of terrorism. What is different is that this time, it is not the rampant loss of life and the devastating images of planes crashing into the World Trade Center or the buildings crumbling to the ground that will impact our way of life. We will not see the smoldering rubble or the countless pictures of people in mourning the loss of loved ones. It is the second and third order effects caused by the terrorist mining that would have an impact on every citizen of the country by straining resources and the economy.
Why the economic effect?
The volume of goods and trade imported and exported through United States ports is expected to more than double over the next twenty years. Currently, fifty ports in the United States account for approximately 90 percent of all the cargo tonnage shipments while twenty-five ports account for 98 percent of all container shipments
History should guide us in assessing the risk- the mining of U.S. ports is not a new idea:
...over the period 14 May 1942 to 1 April 1944 German U-Boats planted a total of 338 mines in the approaches to Western Atlantic ports running from St. Johns, Newfoundland to Panama. Of these, 130 were planted in the approaches to U.S. East Coast ports inflicting 9 ship casualties and closing ports for a combined total of 30 days (New York - 2 days; Chesapeake Bay - 3 days; Jacksonville, Charleston and Savannah - 3 days; Wilmington and Charleston - 8 days). In their attempt to stem the flow of critical materials to England and then Europe, the Germans elected to concentrate on torpedo attacks against East Coast shipping and the Atlantic convoys instead of continuing the mining operations. And yet, with only 11 submarine sorties and the expenditure of 120 mines they inflicted 9 ship casualties and interrupted the vital flow of war materials for a total of 30 days (A Misplaced Strategy).
CDR Sparks' piece with its recommendations can be downloaded and read as an Acrobat document. In sum, though, he asserts that the Department of Homeland Security lacks the assets to "do" counter-mining operations and would have to call upon the Navy. When the thesis was written, Navy assets were not located in the optimal ports to provide quick services to the DHS and the US Coast Guard. CDR Sparks makes some sensible suggestions to rectify these imbalances. While there is some cost involved, the old slogans "Be Prepared" and "An Ounce of Prevention' come to mind. The Commander also points to the possibility of "IED" type improvisation for creating mines for use in U.S. ports -- whihc might rely on decidely unsophisticated "command" detontation instead of fancy electronics - but command detontations work just fine.

Discussions by a vendor of equipment to locate sea mines, the Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS). Discussion of UUV in mineops here,

Wikipedia article on Naval mines here.

Aviation Week article on Naval mine threat here:
The U.S. Navy, for example, is embracing new concepts such as modular capabilities incorporated as an organic part of the combat system of major warships and submarines, while getting rid of many dedicated mine countermeasure (MCM) vessels, particularly the Italian-designed Osprey-class. Most European navies, on the other hand, still put their money on the proven 1980s concept of the dedicated minehunter, despite the complexity and expense, on a cost-per-ton basis, of these vessels.

Meanwhile, industries in various parts of the world are proposing their own concepts and technologies for the detection, classification, identification and destruction of mines. Some even claim that a small support vessel and a rigid-hull inflatable boat are all that's needed to take a containerized MCM system to sea and operate it effectively. In all these approaches, unmanned and autonomous underwater vehicles are emerging as critical components of operations.

Whichever approach prevails, the threat of naval mines is real.
Lots of options, but the need to do something is upon us...

UPDATE: Of course, Congress is busy with other matters, like taking care of victims of the Japanese occupation of Guam in WWII.

UPDATE2: And then there's the Wal-Mart issue.

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