Thursday, May 01, 2008

Port Security: Sea mines, UWIEDs and other threats

The 2004 terrorist attack on the Philippine Superferry 14 resulted in the deaths of 116 people and the loss of the ship. In that case, the damage was wrought by a bomb planted inside the ferry. Increased security for ships and ferries may cause terrorists to look to other ways to cause such damage to ships and to vital shipping lanes, including those in ports or inshore areas.

As noted in a recent post, the Department of Homeland Security recently unveiled a "Small Vessel Security Strategy" (SVSS) warning of the threat potential of small vessels:
Small vessels are, however, readily vulnerable to potential exploitation by terrorists, smugglers of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), narcotics, aliens, and other contraband, and other criminals. Small vessels have also been successfully employed overseas by terrorists to deliver Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIEDs).
The SVSP points out the critical nature of U.S. ports, through which flows 20% of "annual world ocean-borne overseas trade." This trade, so vital to our economy is moved through 8 high volume ports, 352 lesser ports, along 95,000 miles of coastline and about 10,000 miles of rivers, canals and other internal waterways. In addition, territorial and economic zone waters are vital to the American economy:
In 2005, offshore activities contributed over $120 billion and two million jobs to American economic prosperity. Approximately 30% of U.S. oil supplies and 25% of its natural gas supplies are produced in offshore areas. Nearly 700 ships arrive in U.S. ports daily, and 8,000 foreign-flag ships, manned by 200,000 foreign mariners, enter U.S. ports every year. Annually, the nation’s ports handle more than $700 billion in merchandise, while the cruise industry and its passengers account for $35.7 billion in direct and indirect economic output. All told, the U.S. MTS (Maritime Transportation System) supports a global chain of economic activity that contributes more than $700 billion to America’s economy each year. In addition to the global maritime trade contributions, the economic role of ocean industries provides tremendous value to the domestic economy. The MTS supports the commercial fishing industry and its 110,000 fishing vessels. In 2006, it contributed approximately $35.1 billion to the U.S. economy, while the recreational saltwater fishing industry was valued at $30.5 billion. (footnoted omitted)
Ports and water transportation are big, important businesses.

The Small Vessel Security Strategy does a good job of identifying historic threats posed by small vessels:
The four scenarios of gravest concern in using small vessels in terrorist-related attacks have been identified as: a. Domestic Use of Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIEDs); b. Conveyance for smuggling weapons (including WMDs) into the United States; c. Conveyance for smuggling terrorists into the United States; and d. Waterborne platform for conducting a stand-off attack (e.g. Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) attacks).
See pages 11 through 14 of the SVSS (available for download here) for descriptions of how these scenarios have or could be played out. Of the four, terrorists around the world have already engaged in all of them except, to my knowledge, transport of a WMD.

Absent from the SVSS discussion is another potential threat to our maritime security - the potential use by terrorists or others of sea mines or underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs) (hereafter such objects will be referred to as "mines") in our vital internal waterways. That small vessels have the potential to deliver mines or mine-like objects is a topic that deserves mention among the other things that government agencies, small vessel owners and operators, whether business or recreational, ought to keep in mind while they are keeping an eye out for suspicious activity along the waterways.

While this potential mine problem was not mentioned in the SVSS, it has been receiving attention - at least in some circles. Dr. Scott Truver, co-author of book Weapons that Wait (Gregory K. Hartmann, Scott C. Truver, Weapons that Wait: Mine Warfare in the U.S. Navy, USNI Press, Annapolis, 1979), has been actively writing and speaking about his concern that this threat not be forgotten. Dr. Truver's articles have appeared in National Defense Magazine as far back as April 2007 in a piece titled (incorrectly, I believe) "Mines, improvided explosives: a threat to global commerce?" (should read "improvised", I think). He points out a problem - the chain of command is not clear in dealing with mine threats:
In U.S. coastal waters, the responsibility for security falls to the Coast Guard. The Justice Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also figures prominently in investigations involving explosives. The Navy is the lead agency for mine countermeasures expertise and operations.

The lines of responsibility in an actual attack, however, are murky.

The federal government has a lead role under the national response plan. But regional, state, local, and commercial partners must also be closely integrated and informed. Indeed, a multi-agency team is needed for each U.S. port — or at least the 17 “tier-one” facilities having significant military or economic importance.

The Coast Guard’s “captains of the port” play a crucial role as local federal maritime security coordinators.

But the Coast Guard has no capabilities — and perhaps even no desire — to conduct countermine operations. Retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. James D. Hull, who served as Atlantic area commander, said that countermine is “primarily the Navy’s responsibility … The Navy has the expertise and equipment to do the job. The real question is whether the Navy’s forces can respond in the appropriate time to neutralize a threat.”
“I’m not sure we’ve done all our homework concerning who could or should hunt for real weapons,” said retired Navy Capt. Thomas B. Davilli, a former commander of countermine forces. “One thing I do know, [the Navy’s] assets are designed to operate safely in the presence of the threat. Whether others will have the capability is doubtful.”

Participants in a recent war game, he said, “pointed to a local law-enforcement organization that has an EOD-like response dive team.” But the presence of an anti-tamper countermeasures device on the mine or underwater explosive device certainly complicates matters, he added. “Others have suggested hunting for actual mines from small craft towing commercial side-scan sonars. … The thought of sending crewed assets into a mined threat area without signature silencing or some sort of ‘safe track’ procedures is foolish.”

Exacerbating the challenge for federal, state, and local actors is the fact that no two ports are alike. Each differs in geography, channels, bathymetry, winds, tides, currents, bottom sediments, turbidity, climate, and critical infrastructure — piers and wharves, moorings, navigation markers, cables and pipelines.

The best strategy is to interdict the minelayers before the mines can be put in the water. If that fails, the Coast Guard, Navy, FBI, ATF, and other federal- and non-federal first responders will need to understand what is known as the “intelligence preparation of the environment.”

Agencies must be aware of potential mining areas, at least for each of the 17 “tier-one” ports.
There also is "Mines and Underwater IEDs in U.S. Ports and Waterways: Context, Threats, Challenges and Solutions" by Dr. Truver in the Naval War College Review, Winter 2008, Vol.61, No.1, pp.106-127 (the entire Winter 2008 issue can be downloaded in pdf format here - just select the issue). This article is worth reading for many reasons, but some of it contains information that will be eye-opening to many Americans who are unfamiliar with the mine threat - including reports of domestic mine terrorist acts that have already happened in this country. One such incident involved the "patriotic SCUBA diver:"
The “patriotic scuba diver” mine crisis of January 1980 showed that a terrorist threat of mines—in this case “mining” the Sacramento River during the Soviet grain embargo announced by President Jimmy Carter—could have dramatic effects on maritime trade. An unknown person identifying himself as the “patriotic scuba diver” claimed by telephone to have placed a mine in the waterway; all shipping movement ceased almost immediately. Once on scene, the Navy minesweeper USS Gallant required four days of intensive minehunting to
determine the channel was safe. No mines were discovered, but the cost in merchant
vessel lay days caused by the hoax was estimated in the hundreds of thousands
of dollars.
Another incident occurred during the last presidential election:
...on 21 April 2004 a tugboat operator on Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, spotted a suspicious floating bag and called the Coast Guard.18 The Coast Guard contacted the Jefferson Parish bomb squad, which fished the bag out of the water. It proved to be a UWIED, a couple of pounds of explosive in plastic pipes with a timer, wrapped in trash bags to keep it afloat. One possible target was Senator John Kerry, a presidential hopeful who had been scheduled for a campaign trip on the lake. The bomb squad used a water cannon to neutralize the device.
Dr. Truver mentions many more examples of the mining of restricted waters by "merchant" ships of terrorist supporting nations, including the mining of the Suez Canal by Libyans in 1984 (see page 111 of the article). Mines do not require a sophisticated delivery system. Dr. Truver also prepared an interesting presentation to the American Society of Naval Engineers "Naval Mines and Underwater IEDs...The Threat is Real!"which can be seen in pdf format or html. See also National Defense Magazine January 2008 article Improvised Explosive Devices: Could They Threaten U.S. Ports? Not surprisingly, the answer is "yes:"
“Underwater improvised explosive devices are a credible threat,” said Rear Adm. John Christenson, vice commander of the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command.
Another layer of the mine threat pops up in discussing the Armed Forces Journal March 2008 edition, in retired Navy Captain Karl Hasslinger's "Undersea warfare: The hidden threat" in which the author posits an al-Qaeda inshore and offshore threat occurring in the not too distant future (he suggests 2011):
Over the past year, al-Qaida used a combination of merchant ships, commercial submarines and remotely operated vehicles to place explosives in U.S. ports and adjacent to seabed infrastructure, including transoceanic telecommunications cables, and oil and gas pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.
Simply add recreational boats to his list of threat delivery platforms and he and Dr. Truver are fishing in the same waters.

I do note that "limpet" mines have been used to sink a number of vessels in port,
including vessels belonging to the Greenpeace, though in all fairness, many of these sinkings were the work of governments. Most major ships are now inspected for such mines before they depart for deep water. The mines of concern are not attached to the hulls of ships like limpets, but rather the sort of mines placed on the floor of a ship channel or area of restricted maneuvering.
That the threat has caught the eye of active duty problem managers is evident from this Navy Times comes article:
America’s maritime security forces plan to devote more attention to the threat of terrorist mines in U.S. ports, top Navy and Coast Guard commanders said Wednesday, even as the Navy scales back its mine warfare ships before its new mine countermeasure systems enter the fleet.

Vice Adm. Evan “Marty” Chanik, commander of 2nd Fleet, said this year’s “Frontier Sentinel,” a joint U.S.-and-Canada maritime security exercise scheduled for June, will include a harbor mine scenario, and he cited requests by the Department of Homeland Security for funding to conduct detailed surveys of prominent ports. Commanders hope that having detailed charts of ports would be a good start towards helping with responses if terrorists mined them.

And Coast Guard Vice Adm. D. Brian Peterman, commander of the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area command, cited the monthly “warfighter talks” that take place between Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, at which the harbor mine problem is a frequent topic, Peterman said. The fact that the mine challenge is discussed “at the highest levels” shows that it’s “getting the right attention.”
Well, maybe. I've been in a lot of exercises where the "mine problem" is truly a show-stopper, gets acknowledged as such and then gets "assumed" away.

It was a fairly common part of some of the Naval Control of Shipping exercises (as far back as the early 1980's and presumably before then, too) to start the problem of getting essential shipping from Port A to Port B with reports of someone observing someone rolling a mysterious object off the fantail of some foreign flagged ship (aren't most of them?) into some U.S. restricted waterway.

As any naval officer knows, the answer to the question "How many mines does it take to create a minefield?" is - "None - it just takes the threat of a mine."

The issue then became one of treating said object as a potential mine and beginning the process of working through the "de-mining" process. In case you are wondering, there were variations on this theme, including scuttled ships in narrow shipping channels, explosively dropped bridges, etc, etc.

De-mining, for those of you unfamiliar with the process, can be a painfully slow task indeed.

The exercises were very unrealistic, in that someone always seemed to have been watching the "bad guys" at exactly the right minute, recognized there might be a problem and dialed the right telephone numbers to get the attention of the appropriate authorities before multi-million dollar ships with multi-billion dollar cargo actually started their transit through the now potentially dangerous waters.

Because sinking the ships alongside the pier was not conducive to convoy planning, the Naval Control of Shipping exercises didn't deal with that issue so much.

I suspect in real life that one of those big ships might become the "flaming datum" that demonstrates the existence of a mine problem in the channel.

Real experts in mine warfare know that the thing that takes time is getting to know the underwater terrain. As reported here, vice commander of the Naval Mine and Anti-Submarine Warfare Command, Rear Admiral Christenson offers up this:
“If you want to get a port opened quickly, you have to do your homework in advance,” Christenson said. “You have to know what’s on the bottom before you start.”

In that vein, his command is consolidating information on U.S. ports and attempting to survey harbor waters in order to identify objects that already are lying in the bottom of the ocean.

“If we already know where those refrigerators, cars and anchors are in advance, if somebody drops something in, we can do a change detection to see what’s new. But that requires investment and effort in advance,” said Christenson.

Last year, the service conducted an 11-mile channel survey in San Diego. To sort through the 600 mine-like objects detected on the sea floor required 600 man-hours to accomplish the task.

Conducting such port surveys before a catastrophic event occurs could cut the Navy’s response time in half and accelerate the reopening of a port, said Christenson.

“It has all the potential in the world of making the mine countermeasure response to a domestic crisis much more manageable,” said Truver.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducts such surveys and it has estimated it will take three years and cost $14 million to map the bottoms of the nation’s busiest 20 ports.

“That’s the insurance policy that you buy so that you don’t have $1.9 billion worth of economic impact alone per day, based on what we experienced in the 2002 West Coast strike,” he said.
Dr. Truver does mention in passing in a couple of his articles that the Navy Reserve used to have units - Craft of Opportunity (COOP) units- that were once engaged in bottom mapping operations in several ports. However, he also notes that the COOP units are now no more. As Dr. Truver puts it:
It has been years since the Navy, as part of its Cold-War port-breakout concepts, conducted routine bottom surveys and mapping of “Q-Routes” to assure safe egress of warships and auxiliary vessels in support of national strategies and war plans.

The Royal Navy has already embarked on such an effort in several U.K. ports. Some experts have proposed resurrecting the ill-fated mid-1990s’ COOP — Craft of Opportunity — program and have Navy Reserve units conduct periodic surveys and sonar mapping of bottoms. Others have recommended that the maritime transportation industry and port authorities take the lead. Another option is to outsource the survey and mapping responsibilities to contractors. In short, there is yet no coherent plan, staffing or program.
At least one contractor is available for such work, Orca Maritime, operated by a couple of retired Navy EOD operators. Orca's "vision" is to
Build the foundation for an effective underwater maritime domain security program, significantly enhancing public safety, economic stability, and environmental protection in our ports.
Orca provides relevant news concerning port security here. Included among these links is one to a recent article featuring a discussion between the Coast Guard Commandant and the Navy CNO in which a discussion of the need to get to know the territory under the waves is laid out:
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead recently discussed the ability of the U.S. government to conduct surveys of domestic ports to help defend the country against a potential underwater mine or improvised explosive device attack, the top Coast Guard officer told Inside the Navy in a recent interview.

“What we’ve been discussing with NOAA [National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration], the Navyand everybody else is how to come up with a standardized, repeatable process to do port surveys,” Allen said April 9.

“We’re putting together a plan on how to do it, everyone is in agreement we need to do it and we’re going through the first year of [figuring out how to] program that into budgets.”
A terrorist mine attack in a domestic port could disrupt the flow of global commerce and have “psychological effects on the general populace,” retired Vice Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher, the director of NOAA and under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, wrote in a Nov. 29, 2007, letter to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Patrick Walsh.

The subject of Lautenbacher’s missive was to enlist the help of the Navy to secure funds, which would be provided by the Department of Homeland Security, to survey 50 dual-use U.S. ports over five years at a cost of roughly $38 million.

Additionally, the NOAA director wants $2 million to survey two East Coast ports this fiscal year, the letter states.
Outstanding issues remain before funding can be secured for the surveying effort, Allen said last week. One of these issues is “agreeing [that] not every port is important,” he noted.

“You have to decide which ports you’re going to do, in what sequence, and how much it’s going to cost to do them,” Allen said. It remains unclear whether NOAA, Navy oceanographers or contractors -- or a combination of all three -- would conduct the surveys.
I admire Admiral Lautenbacher for his aggressive pursuit of the issue and Admirals Allen and Roughhead for getting started on talking about assigning the problem to "solvers."

However, I am concerned that this very important part of port protection will go the way of so much of mine warfare- ignored until it's really needed.

Some seem to believe that mines are a threat that is "overblown" compared to other threats (like LNG tankers being turned into "fireballs"), although I am unimpressed with the analysis in that it overstates the difficulty of planting mines and underestimates the ease with which such mines can be acquired or manufactured. But then again, I have seen the damage done to a billion dollar ship by a $1000 mine.

Being prepared is the better alternative.

(NB E1: I want to make sure that it understood that in this piece, I am not referring to big old World War I style contact sea mines, such as the one in the top most photo, but rather to modern mines such as those in the lower mine photos (top to bottom): Manta -shallow water mine; Murena- "multi influence sea mine; open view of a Maindeka limpet mine, and to home made mines that could be in almost any form - ranging from an small ice cooler to an oil drum. Weapons that can be handled by one or two people.)

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