Getting the Small-Boat Threat Right

Report Homeland Security

Getting the Small-Boat Threat Right

August 23, 2010 5 min read Download Report
Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill
Senior Associate Fellow

Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst.

Is the small-boat threat to America’s homeland credible or overstated? This threat has become a topic of great discussion, particularly as it pertains to future maritime security policies and regulatory regimes. There are more than 17 million small craft in the United States. “Small craft” defines any boat that weighs under 300 tons and is less than 100 feet in length; the majority, however, are far smaller. Arguably, each one of these crafts represents a potential waterborne improvised explosives device or the means of delivering a weapon of mass destruction. Nevertheless, the small-boat threat is less acute than other security challenges, and despite the vast numbers of boats present, the threat may be managed.

Suggesting that the primary risk to U.S. national security lies with the millions of American pleasure boaters is the wrong way to approach the small-boat challenge. Not only would placing the assumption of guilt on boaters be largely ineffective; it would have a potentially disastrous financial impact—not only on boaters but on boat builders and the entire boating industry as well. Nevertheless, these are the areas where legislative solutions have often centered. The true solution should come from working with the maritime community, enhancing already inherent organizational structures, and educating those who know the waters best. These solutions should increase the security of the overall maritime domain while preserving the economy and civil liberties.

The Small-Boat Threat

The definition of “small-boat threat” encompasses a variety of possible weapon-delivery vehicles, tactics, and payloads, including everything from large craft such as small freighters, large privately owned yachts, fishing trawlers, and commercial tugs to dinghies, jet skies, and submarines.

Of the millions of small boats in the U.S., there are 300,000 fishing vessels and 100,000 commercial small boats operating along the 95,000 miles of coastline and inland waterways. While the U.S. has 350 ports, most small boats do not require port usage except for occasional fueling, maintenance, and repair. For most boats, provisioning—which would include explosives if the threat were realized—could be done outside those ports along any part of the coastline, potentially easing facility of covert terrorist operations.

Small boats have rarely been used to conduct attacks, but when they have, the destruction has been stunning. Perhaps the best known “small boat” case was the attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden in October 2000. This was followed two years later by an attack on the M/V Limburg 12 miles off the coast of Yemen. More recently, on August 6, 2010, the Japanese tanker M. STAR was attacked by a small boat in the Strait of Hormuz; while a terrorist organization assumed responsibility, their involvement remains unconfirmed. Simply put, small boats require low investment and minimal training to achieve even partial terrorism goals.

Why Current Efforts are the Wrong Approach

The issue of the small-boat threat was raised again recently on July 21 during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on the SAFE Port Act Reauthorization. However, comparisons of the small-boat threat to 9/11 are overstated at best—and should not be considered equally by policymakers.

First, aircraft require airports from which to operate—vital nodes that can be monitored and secured. Although boats can operate from ports, the majority are scattered throughout the U.S. in marinas and community and personal docks.

Second, aircraft are largely restricted to air traffic patterns, and even most personal aircraft can be required to submit a flight plan. Radar can detect deviations from planned flight patterns. In the maritime environment, there is little to no ability to track navigation. The Small Vessel Security Strategy, drafted in 2008, notes that there is little to no Advance Notification of Arrival with regard to small craft.

In fact, U.S. law requires only ships over 500 tons to provide 96 hours’ notice to the U.S. Coast Guard before entering U.S. waters; there is no such requirement for small boats. Furthermore, there is also a limited ability to screen for weapons of mass destruction on small boats.

Therefore, addressing the small-boat threat engenders far more questions than may be answered: What entity will track small boats? More importantly, how would they be tracked? Larger ships have voluntary Automated Identification Systems (AIS) aboard that enable countries to track ships in blue waters and coastal regions. But most small boats do not have the capability to handle this system either because of size or lack of power capacity.

Moreover, how much would tracking technology cost? An AIS would unlikely be affordable to pleasure boaters even if the technological requirements were compatible. A less expensive option might be Radio Frequency Identification tags used for the tracking of packages, but this leads to a fourth issue: Would all law-abiding pleasure boaters be willing to risk a violation of their civil liberties when simply trying to fish or cruise along America’s coasts? Even if AIS were deemed an appropriate technology, it still would not address larger issues of security that affect the entire maritime domain, including a lack of investment in the U.S. Coast Guard—a deficit that has a major impact on small-boat security.

The Right Path Forward

Globally, terrorists have shown an increasing interest in using small boats to attack military and commercial shipping and maritime facilities. This means that, for the U.S. to develop a truly comprehensive and multilayered approach to homeland security, it should address the small-boat threat.

Yet rather than focusing solely on this particular terrorist tactic, Congress and the Administration should invest in assets that improve the overall security of the maritime domain. Efforts should be expanded to improve U.S. situational awareness and law enforcement response rather than fixating on specific attack scenarios involving small boats or other terrorist threats. This can be accomplished by taking the following steps:

  • Address economic competitiveness. In particular, the Administration should avoid new regulatory restrictions on the operation and licensing of small boats and small-boat operators. Such measures will add little security at significant cost.
  • Enhance security of the overall maritime domain. Congress and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should look for programs that secure the maritime domain and contribute to the resiliency of maritime commerce. The Administration should complete, exercise, and refine the plan required by the national maritime security strategy to address issues of business continuity and reconstitution if major disruptions in maritime commerce occur.
  • Invest in the Coast Guard. Congress needs to invest more heavily in Coast Guard modernization, particularly in programs that improve situational awareness, law enforcement, and special operations capabilities.
  • Find the right balance between Navy and Coast Guard roles, missions, and resources. The U.S. Navy should focus on providing intelligence support and mine-clearing expertise and capabilities, as well as sharing research and developing technology for countering small-boat threats with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard should take the lead in developing a national maritime domain awareness system, expand its capabilities to investigate and interdict potential threats, and work with state and local governments and the private sector to share information and intelligence effectively.

The inherent difficulties of addressing the small-boat threat are not unique—DHS, Congress, and the Pentagon struggle with how to protect the maritime domain from threats ensuring economic competitiveness and respecting federalism.

A Challenge for the Next Decade

Getting maritime security policy right is undoubtedly a challenge for the next decade. Guarding U.S. maritime craft and infrastructure will protect the resilience of the U.S. economy and international trade but also shelter a source of enjoyment and work for millions of American citizens.

Jena Baker McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.


Jena Baker McNeill
Jena Baker McNeill

Senior Associate Fellow