Journal Archive > 2001 > November

Vulnerable at Sea

Coast Guard head warns ports and waterways are vulnerable

Given the nature of the September 11 terrorist attacks, coupled with this nation's heavy reliance on shipping, Admiral James M. Loy, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, warns that the nation's ports and waterways are extremely vulnerable.

In an October 17 speech at Tufts, delivered at a luncheon sponsored by the International Security Studies Program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Loy said that the terrorist attacks were "far more insidious and elusive" than the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. "We are at war with a homeless, rootless enemy that can strike with terror in any place, at any time, and then disappear from view as easily as a rat in the bilges," he said.

Admiral James M. Loy Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Noting that 95 percent of U.S. trade travels by ship, Loy said that maritime protection is an important component of national security. "We know that whatever action we take must protect our ports and waterways and the ships that use them," he said, adding the shipping industry is "just as important to our commerce with the world as airlines and trade centers—and potentially just as vulnerable."

Often called "the fifth arm" of the U.S. military, the U.S. Coast Guard, though often overshadowed by more high-profile services like the Army or Air Force, is charged with the enforcement of maritime laws. The Coast Guard has approximately 30,000 officers and enlisted personnel, in addition to civilian employees.

The Coast Guard's importance was underscored immediately after the September 11 attacks. After the World Trade Center was hit, the Coast Guard, using boats, tugs and barges, evacuated more than one million people trying to escape by ferry from southern Manhattan. (On a normal weekday, ferry traffic would have been around 186,000 passengers.)

While most people associate the Coast Guard with boating safety, thwarting drug smuggling and cleaning up maritime oil spills, this military service also plays a unique role in national security, which is likely to expand. Indeed, terrorism is also tied to other modern-day threats. "Illegal immigration and drug smuggling compound the threat of terrorism, because they contribute to the illicit movement of people, money and weapons across borders," Loy said.

Complicating the situation is what Loy called "the asymmetric means of attack" on the United States by an elusive state or non-state player like Osama bin Laden. That type of attack is more difficult to deter, defend against or respond to using conventional military means.

Loy praised the Bush administration's creation of a new cabinet-level position, the director of homeland security, as well as the findings of the previously ignored Hart-Rudman Commission, which last year warned that the United States was increasingly at risk at home, and that the country's military superiority would not always protect its citizens.

The admiral stressed the "distinct maritime dimension" of homeland security in ways that cannot always be handled by traditional Navy forces, such as approaching civilian vessels that look like legitimate commercial or recreational traffic. "Somebody has to engage these vessels one at a time, up close and personal. Somebody has to distinguish the suspicious from the obviously innocent. To separate the guilty from the merely suspicious, somebody has to get alongside and put a boarding team aboard, even if the suspect vessels resist or won't stop.

"Once aboard, somebody has to exercise sound judgment about employing such physical force as may be necessary to maintain the safety of the boarding teams and the crews of the vessels boarded. That includes the use of deadly force," he said.

The concept of "maritime domain awareness (MDA)" is a crucial part of homeland security, Loy said. "We need to build MDA to allow us to know what cargo, people and vessels will be calling in U.S. ports well in advance," he said. "Thus armed, we can take a risk-management approach to decide which vessels need to be boarded on the high seas based on the greatest threats represented to us."