Lack of Aircraft, Ships Leaving U.S. Maritime Borders Vulnerable
A lack of ships and aircraft has left U.S. maritime borders vulnerable to crimes such as drug smuggling, human trafficking and potential terrorism, Department of Homeland Security officials said at a Senate hearing July 15.
Even with an “enormous” length of about 95,000 miles, which includes the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and Great Lakes coasts, the security of the nation’s maritime borders is often overlooked, said Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
As a result, traffickers often exploit maritime pathways used for legal travel and trade by concealing illegal activity within legitimate traffic, said Randolph Alles, Customs and Border Protection's assistant commissioner at the office of air and marine.
“Maritime security requires a unity of effort. No single entity has the capability or capacity to address all aspects of maritime security. Information sharing and strong partnerships are critical to understanding and addressing maritime threats,” he added.
The length of the coastlines makes securing maritime borders more “challenging,” leading to the interdiction of only about 11 to 18 percent of illicit activity, said Adm. Peter Brown, U.S. Coast Guard assistant commandant for response policy.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc. called this a “sad and frightening reality.”
Under DHS, the Coast Guard, CBP, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement work closely together in joint task forces to enhance detection, investigation and interdiction capabilities using ships and aircraft aided by vital intelligence gained from specialized surveillance tools such as drones and radar, Alles said.
The aircraft and ship fleets the DHS components use are quick and effective. However, many are in need of upgrades, fleet additions and financial support. “We are resource constrained in terms of aviation and surface ships,” Brown said.
A new eight-ship fleet of Coast Guard national security cutters is fully funded, however continued financial support is needed to ensure future maritime border security, Brown said. The new cutters will replace aging ships that have struggled to operate efficiently, Brown said.
“The Coast Guard is sufficiently challenged by our ability to keep our older ships, our 30- to 50-year old medium endurance cutters on station, Brown said. “The recapitalization of our off-shore patrol cutter fleet … [is] the linchpin of success for decades to come.” The service is expected to award a contract for the new cutters next year.
CBP was recently awarded a contract for 22 new coastal interceptor vessels, which will also need “long-term” budget support, Alles said. The division is also procuring a vessel that can work in shallow waters — as little as four inches — to help the Border Patrol on the Rio Grande, Alles said.
But operational missions can’t interdict suspect vessels without intelligence, he added.
CBP is working to install three radar sites along the eastern end of Lake Eerie while it continues to procure a multi-role enforcement aircraft, which will provide more radar density, Alles said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, which have been responsible for millions of dollars in contraband seizures so far this year, are also used to spot and maintain surveillance of suspected vessels until Coast Guard cutters can arrive, Brown said.
Recently in Puerto Rico, a maritime patrol aircraft spotted a suspicious vessel, then dispatched an unmanned aerial system to maintain surveillance until a Coast Guard cutter interdicted it, Brown said.
ICE also created specialized units such as the border enforcement security task force (BEST), to identify, investigate, disrupt and dismantle existing and emerging transnational criminal organizations, said Peter Edge, ICE executive associate director of homeland security investigations.
The task force seeks to promote cooperation and coordination across the lines between federal, state, local and tribal investigations and close the gap with international partners to investigate TCOs, Edge said.
Currently, 38 BEST units operate across 16 states and Puerto Rico, 19 of which maintain maritime units, he added. It is one of BEST’s primary missions to keep contraband out of the UnIted States.