Securing the High Seas: America's Global Maritime Constabulary Power

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Securing the High Seas: America's Global Maritime Constabulary Power

March 12, 2008 4 min read Download Report

Authors: James Carafano, James Dolbow, Mackenzie Eaglen and Martin Andersen


This is the third in a series of reports on maritime security prepared by The Heritage Foundation's Maritime Security Working Group. This report addresses how to provide operational recommendations to the group's previ­ous proposals while making the case that the United States, with its regional allies, must develop the capacity to exer­cise "global maritime constabulary power."

Specifically, this report:

  • Defines global maritime constabulary power;
  • Identifies the roles and missions that are related to global maritime constabulary power;
  • Describes the role of friendly and allied nations;
  • Suggests how the private sector can and should contribute;
  • Recommends a division of responsibilities for maritime constabulary duties between the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard; and
  • Identifies the budgetary, regulatory, and legislative implications of the recommendations.

The Heritage Foundation's Maritime Security Working Group was tasked to produce cutting-edge policy rec­ommendations for making the seas safer for the United States, its friends and allies, and global commerce. In its pre­vious two reports, the group-composed of representatives from academia, the private sector, research institutions, and government-addressed some of the most pressing issues confronting maritime security.

In 2005, in its first report, "Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterror­ism,"[1] the group outlined the future threats to and gaps in U.S. maritime security. Rather than focus on episodic, short-term issues like inspecting containers, the group offered a broader and more thoughtful assessment of the mar­itime challenges facing the United States, including:

  • Dependence on maritime trade. Maritime commerce will be an increasingly important component of the global economy. Modern maritime commerce is generally defined by large, containerized shipping moving through megaports, which form the backbone of just-in-time international trade.
  • The economic impact of security in the developing world. Developing countries may find it increas­ingly difficult to meet the demands of international security regimes for trade and travel. If this occurs, these relatively weaker economies may become less competitive in global markets.
  • Undersea infrastructure. Undersea critical infrastructure, such as oil and gas pumping stations and telecommunications cables, are fast becoming an increasingly important part of the global economy.
  • The potential for standoff attacks from sea. State and non-state actors will be capable of attacking the U.S. from their own territorial waters using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), short-range ballistic mis­siles, and cruise missiles, possibly armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The group also rec­ognized that terrorists could use small boats packed with explosives, as was done in the attack on the USS Cole, and employ floating improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or naval mines against commercial shipping in U.S. waters and overseas ports.
  • The lack of visibility in noncommercial maritime activity. Currently, the United States lacks suffi­cient means to monitor maritime activity. Terrorists could exploit this failing in many ways, such as by using naval mines and other means to launch underwater attacks and using private craft to smuggle small payloads into the U.S. outside of ports and to attack targets in U.S. waters.
  • Maritime criminal activity. Piracy, human trafficking, and drug and arms smuggling will continue. Ter­rorists could mimic or partner with criminal enterprises.
  • Internal threats from rogue actors and landside attacks. The greatest vulnerability to maritime infra­structure may be internal threats. These include disgruntled employees who have an intimate knowl­edge of operations and facilities with access to transportation and port assets.
  • The maritime domain as a target and facilitator of threats against the environment. Opportunities for the spread of infectious disease and other environmental threats carried by seaborne traffic will increase as maritime commerce increases.
  • Anti-access strategies. An enemy might attack vulnerable targets on U.S. territory as a means to coerce, deter, or defeat the United States.

Overall, the report argued for a comprehensive, strategic approach to making the seas safer, rejecting simplistic security proposals that focus on inspecting containers and handing out federal port security grants.

In 2006, the working group's second report, "Trade Security at Sea: Setting National Priorities for Safeguarding America's Economic Lifeline,"[2] made the case that, based on the nature of existing and emerging threats, the United States' highest priority in maritime security should be ensuring the resiliency of global maritime commerce, thereby ensuring unimpeded trade and travel, regardless of what terrorists might attempt in the maritime environment. In order to protect maritime trade, the working group focused on three essential enablers:

  • Expanding the capabilities of the U.S. Coast Guard by fully funding Coast Guard modernization and ensuring that the service has the resources to perform all of its missions,
  • Improving the sharing and use of commercial information, and
  • Enhancing international cooperation.

This report looks in greater detail at providing the enforcement tools for making the seas safer. The principal rec­ommendations include:

  • Doubling the U.S. Coast Guard's active and reserve end strength over the next decade and accelerating Coast Guard modernization;
  • Expanding the Navy's stated goal of 313 ships by an additional 37 ships (the preponderance of which should be nuclear powered, including additional nuclear-powered submarines) and focusing Navy operations more on sea control and assured access and less on maritime engagement and security missions; and
  • Establishing a Common Maritime Security Fleet Fund to bolster modernization.

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[1] James Jay Carafano and Alane Kochems, eds., "Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterrorism," Heritage Foundation Special Report No. 3, February 17, 2005, at

[2] James Jay Carafano and Martin Edwin Andersen, "Trade Security at Sea: Setting National Priorities for Safeguarding America's Economic Lifeline," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1930, April 27, 2007, at


Jim Carafano
James Carafano

Vice President, Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute

James Dolbow

Policy Analyst

Mackenzie Eaglen
Mackenzie Eaglen

Senior Research Fellow

Martin Andersen

Visiting Fellow