December 3, 2008 | WebMemo on Department of Homeland Security
Indian officials have ascertained that the terrorists who undertook a killing spree across the city of Mumbai last week arrived in small boats. According to reports, the boats were used to ferry teams of men from offshore freighters to the mainland.
The use of light craft to launch the assault has reenergized discussion about similar threats to the United States. The assault "underscores the importance of what we're doing at our ports in terms of security," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff declared, as reported in the Federal Times, "It reminds us that this is an attack vector we have to worry about."
The small-boat threat needs to be addressed, but rather than focusing on this particular terrorist tactic, Congress and the Administration should invest in improving 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. Additionally, any initiatives taken to specifically address the small-boat threat should address all the nation's maritime domain priorities.
The fact that terrorists used small boats to carry out the Mumbai massacre should come as no surprise. Globally, terrorists have shown an increasing interest in using small boats to attack military and commercial shipping and maritime facilities. Even America has been a victim of these tactics: In 2000, al-Qaeda operatives detonated a small boat filled with explosives against the hull of the USS Cole, which was refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen.
Contemporary operational practices by transnational terrorist groups include refining proven attack methods, sharing lessons learned, and encouraging others to adopt effective tactics. Thus, the possibility of such attacks in U.S. waters should not be ignored.
The Scope of the Challenge
The small-boat problem is complicated by the magnitude of areas and activities encompassing small-boat activity; the lack of situational awareness by federal, state, and local authorities; and the limited capacity to interdict active threats.
Policing a Vast Domain. Small boats operate on thousands of miles of U.S. coastline, inland waterways, and lakes. Frequent undeclared entries by small boats occur between the U.S. and Canada and between the U.S. and the Bahamas every day. Thousands of boats are bought and sold every year, and many small boats are operated with minimal training or licensing requirements. In many areas, small boats operate in proximity to high-value ships and maritime infrastructure without restriction.
Situational Awareness. There are few means to effectively monitor small-boat activity. Post-9/11 efforts have focused primarily on large commercial craft and activities in and around major commercial ports.
Interdiction and Response. Local, state, and federal law enforcement have limited capability to detect threats, and standoff detection is usually restricted to meters at best. In addition, they have very limited means to involuntarily stop a craft other than trying to "shoot out" the engine.
Security investments should be focused on initiatives that provide the most value for improving overall maritime security. Hard choices need to be made; piecemeal investments in maritime security will add little real security. On the other hand, effective counterterrorism operations that focus broadly on identifying, investigating, and thwarting terrorist activities and plots in the maritime domain offer more value than those that focus narrowly on trying to deny terrorists access to a specific target or delivery means.
Consequently, Congress and the Administration must take a broad, long-term view of the small-boat threat. Any proposed initiatives to improve security should accomplish the following:
While the maritime sector is a large and diverse field with unique and daunting threats, the U.S. should develop plans to improve U.S. situational awareness rather than defend against specific threat types. Investing in measures that bolster the U.S. economy and provide the best return for the amount spent are also good approaches for formulating a protection plan against terror attacks launched from small boats.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.