The U.S. government’s plan to increase its awareness of activities
on the world’s waterways is starting close to home, as many
federal agencies turn their attention to ports.
While the U.S. Northern Command has been steadily bolstering its
harbor security posture, the Department of Homeland Security is
heightening efforts to detect and interdict waterborne threats to
ports. The Navy and Coast Guard may expand joint command centers
to prevent and respond to calamities near domestic hubs of commercial
But officials from the Navy and DHS said the task of securing the
maritime domain is a global problem—a strike in a vital choke
point in the Malacca straights could mean economic upheaval in the
continental United States. Officials also often note that by the
time the threat is at a port, it may be too late to avert a disaster.
Pushing the security line away from the United States requires
often-thorny new developments, such as international agreements,
yet-to-be developed sensor technologies and intelligence sharing
with myriad players through a common operating picture.
Ports, on the other hand, have a more focused task, with well known
sea lanes, established protocols for inbound traffic, known domestic
law enforcement partners and leverage with private sector shippers
to cooperate to ensure quick access.
One Navy official said that compared to aviation, the overall awareness
of the ocean’s traffic would receive a failing grade. He quietly
added that the United States has “good spotlight awareness
at some harbors.”
Emblematic of the current state of maritime security is the use
of an automatic identification system that is the cornerstone to
knowing locations and identities of ships. By separating potential
risks from the clutter of harmless ship traffic, threats can be
found. Installing an AIS transponder is voluntary for commercial
ships, and there are hopes that their use will expand beyond littoral
In a map used by Navy officials at a recent industry conference,
the gaps in AIS coverage were clearly visible. Arcs drawn on the
map, bowing from major ports in the country, indicated zones where
AIS signals could be received. Large segments of the U.S. coastline,
including small ports and inland waterways, as well as the enormity
of the oceans themselves, are not included. Seven of the 15 AIS
zones were noted to be in development.
That is not the only void, said retired Coast Guard Capt. Dana
Goward, chief of the office for programs and architecture for the
Coast Guard’s maritime domain awareness directorate. Within
those arcs, only 70 percent of the signals used on international
ships can be processed by U.S. agencies, he said.
Goward added that the AIS data needed to be more helpful, and go
simply beyond a vessel’s name and position to include its
history with law enforcement, ownership and whether the ship is
where it is supposed to be, based on records filed by its crew and
owner. Ideally, some of this sifting would be accomplished by software.
“Unfortunately, lots of this is done manually,” Goward
told National Defense, adding that a $30 million Navy Research Laboratory
program is looking at ways to integrate the numerous private and
government databases which track ships.
Other improvements are being planned and investigated. In March,
a prototype AIS system was installed on a National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration buoy station 41 nautical miles southeast of Charleston,
S.C. The AIS system relays ship identification data received at
the buoy to the Coast Guard in near real-time. This is the first
buoy-mounted AIS station operated by NOAA, which adds range to the
Coast Guard’s land-based stations.
NOAA buoys cover the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, much
of Europe’s, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.
If international standards are developed and implemented, AIS transmitter-receivers
could be installed to communicate with AIS-enabled vessels.
If adopted by the Coast Guard, the buoys would form a picket line
around the continental United States and southern Alaska coastline.
Other “soldiers” on the line would include manned and
unmanned aircraft, satellites and airships. Each platform would
have AIS equipment, and possibly radar and other sensors for tracking
Focusing solely on ports and sea lanes is too limited to thwart
maritime risks, asserted Navy and Coast Guard officials, who added
that sea lanes and geographical bottlenecks around the world require
monitoring in close cooperation with every seafaring nation.
This is a main argument against using the North American Aerospace
Defense Command as a model. It centers too closely on threats closing
in on the continental United States. Pentagon officials, including
Assistant Secretary for Homeland Defense Paul McHale and Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, support a structure similar to NORAD.
However, in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in
April, Adm. Tim Keating, the first Navy officer to head Northern
Command, told the Senate such a maritime system might prove to be
“too restrictive” and might exclude Mexico and other
countries that might be hesitant to participate in a rigid command
Despite the global nature of the task, ports feature “the
most critical infrastructure, most traffic and highest risk”
and logically receive considerable attention, pointed out Goward.
With that in mind, the Pentagon and DHS are taking fresh steps
to secure them. For example, the DHS’ operation safe commerce
program has distributed $55 million to the nation’s three
high-volume port regions—Los Angeles/Long Beach, Seattle/Tacoma
and New York/New Jersey.
Other mechanisms are being used to get the Pentagon involved in
securing vital ports.
Last September, Anchorage was designated a “commercial strategic
seaport” following a joint assessment by the Maritime Administration
and the Army Surface Deployment and Distribution Command. It was
the second within six months to receive such a designation: in October,
the port of Philadelphia became the country’s 14th. The designation
comes with guaranteed federal money and emphasis on safety and security
The Coast Guard stood up a 75-man marine safety and security team
at Anchorage, the ninth Coast Guard anti-terrorism team commissioned
nationwide. Also, the designation inspired a two-day exercise called
“Vigilant Port,” which involved 200 soldiers, Coast
Guardsmen and local officials. Its scenario included a terrorist
threat targeting military equipment being shipped through the port.
The Army stations one of three rapid-deploying Stryker brigades
at Forts Richardson and Wainwright.
Being a strategic seaport also extends an economic hand to aging
ports to keep up with a shifting industry. Twenty-foot containers
once dominated shipping, but their size has more than doubled, meaning
new cranes and offloading equipment need to be purchased. With federal
dollars subsidizing expansions and modernization programs, strategic
ports can make more sweeping changes.
Additionally, the Coast Guard and the Navy are working on revamping
their operations to be more preventative and less reactive, Goward
said. This effort has spawned multiple projects, including the creation
of a pair of joint harbor operations centers, run by the DHS and
Navy. The JHOC at Hampton Roads cost $3 million to establish, said
a news report.
The other center is based in San Diego. An increase in the number
of JHOCs is currently being negotiated between the Navy and DHS,
The JHOCs are more focused versions of Coast Guard Sector Commands,
which claim responsibility for coastal regions and respond to emergencies.
Those 35 sector command centers are also being revamped to do more
than wait for emergency calls, Goward said, including electronic
charting, web-hosted common operating picture links for use by other
maritime security authorities and blue-force tracking of nearby