Protecting U.S. Ports: A Challenge of Staggering Magnitude

by James D. Hessman
By James D. Hessman,

For many years prior to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers in New York City, and on the Pentagon, the U.S. Coast Guard was perhaps the most overworked and under-funded agency of the federal government. In addition to serving in time of war as a full working partner with the nation's other armed services, it also was assigned a myriad of other missions and responsibilities to carry out in both peace and war. Many of those missions required the on-scene presence of Coast Guard personnel, cutters, and aircraft 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The most important of those missions is, and always has been, saving lives-on average, the Coast Guard has saved an estimated 4,000 lives per year in recent years, or about eleven lives per day. It also assists, in various ways, an average of 136 other people “in distress” at sea, carries out 106 SAR (search and rescue) missions, interdicts 15 illegal migrants, investigates 38 vessel casualties of various types, boards almost 300 vessels, and monitors the transit through U.S. ports of more than 2,500 commercial ships.

Those are all daily averages, it should be emphasized. And they do not take into account a long list of the USCG's other responsibilities, including - but not limited to - the interdiction of narcotics, the enforcement of U.S. fisheries laws, the tracking and cleanup of oil and hazardous chemical spills, the conduct of vessel safety checks, the processing of mariners' licenses and other documents, and the teaching of boating safety. Not to mention icebreaking during the winter months, to keep U.S. ports open and ready to receive cargo.

With rare exceptions, each of those and other USCG missions has been growing larger and larger every year-as U.S. overseas trade has continued to grow in both variety and volume, as more and more illegal migrants have attempted to enter the United States by sea, and as the number of U.S. boat owners has increased exponentially.

Too Much for Too Few, and Not Enough Today, it is the Coast Guard itself that is in need of a SAR mission. The reason is simple: too many jobs for too few people, and not enough of the right equipment. In addition, much of the equipment now in the Coast Guard's hardware inventory is antiquated and obsolete-e.g., cutters that saw combat service in Vietnam, or earlier; patrol boats too slow to keep up with the high-speed/high-tech boats used by today's drug smugglers.

The operational problem is compounded by the requirement imposed on the Coast Guard to carry out all of its other duties while paying significantly more attention to port and maritime security. Until 9/11, between 15 and 18 percent of the service's people and hardware resources were assigned to maritime security-mostly, though, to interdict illegal migrants and illegal drugs, and to enforce U.S. and international fisheries laws. Only about two percent of what Admiral Thomas H. Collins, commandant of the Coast Guard, calls its “resource base” was directly involved in “active port and coastal security duties.” Immediately after 9/11, though-in fact, before midnight of that second date that will live in infamy-Coast Guard operations surged to the point that about 50 percent of its resource base was assigned specifically to the port-security mission.

In the three years since the 9/11 attacks, Collins told a National Defense University audience in December 2004, the service has “rebalanced” its missions/resources matrix and now has about 25 percent of the resource base assigned to port and coastal waterways security. That percentage seems unlikely to decline at any time in the foreseeable future-but will undoubtedly soar back to the 50 percent level, and beyond, if there is another terrorist incident, of 9/11 dimensions, in any of the nation's 361 ports.

How real is the threat of an attack on a major U.S. port? Opinions vary from pundit to pundit, but the typical (but necessarily vague) answer falls into the “not if, but when” category. Commercial aviation flights into and out of U.S. airports are now not 100 percent safe - but they are considerably safer than they were prior to 9/11. U.S. land borders also are safer than they were three years ago-but an estimated three million illegal aliens still entered the United States last year, according to a Lou Dobbs article in the 27 December 2004 issue of U.S. News & World Report.

A Problem That Will Double in Size The dimensions of the port-security problem facing today's U.S. Coast Guard are of staggering magnitude. Some (but not all) of the specifics were spelled out by Collins in his NDU “Distinguished Lecture” address. An estimated 8,000 foreign ships make 50,000 port calls annually into the United States. Less than five percent, by volume, of America's two-way foreign trade, imports and exports combined, is carried by U.S.-flag ships. More than 95 percent of the nation's foreign trade-with nations other than Canada and Mexico-flows through U.S. seaports. The overall volume of U.S. trade is expected to at least double during the next 20 years.

There are other aspects of the problem that Collins and his already understaffed service have to cope with. Few if any of the USCG's responsibilities can be farmed out to other agencies. There can be no let-up in the interdiction of illegal aliens (some of whom, it is now obvious) may be terrorists. Nor in the interdiction of illegal drugs-because drug sales often are used to finance terrorism.

Counterterrorism experts, both in government and in the private sector, concede that there is absolutely “no answer” to the wide spectrum of threats already facing the U.S. Coast Guard as it seeks to guarantee the safety and security of the U.S. port system. In other words, there is no absolute “guarantee” that the Coast Guard could or should provide.

There is, though, an equally broad spectrum of partial solutions to the problem: adding more people, and more equipment, for example; requiring the ports themselves, the shippers and ship-owners, and labor unions, to expand and improve their own security systems and programs; installing more, and more highly sophisticated, sensor and audiovisual systems in ports and at the entrances to ports; and working with other agencies-local, state, and federal-to develop and implement a comprehensive, unified, and thoroughly integrated maritime-and-port-security plan that addresses all threats and all challenges, from whatever quarter.

So the real answer is not if the challenge can be met. It can - but it depends on where, and when, on the timeline continuum the threat becomes a reality.