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
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
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:
- Address economic competitiveness--not just security--with
solutions that support both objectives. In particular, the
Administration should not impose significant new regulatory
restrictions on the operation and licensing of small boats and
small-boat operators. Such measures will add little security at
- Insist on programs that best enhance the overall security of
the maritime domain and contribute to the resiliency of maritime
commerce. First and foremost, the government should ensure that
maritime commerce is not adversely affected in the event of an
incident. The Administration should exercise and refine the plan
required by the national maritime security strategy to address
issues of business continuity and reconstitution after major
disruptions in maritime commerce.
- Invest more heavily in Coast Guard modernization, particularly
in programs that improve situational awareness, law enforcement,
and special operations capabilities. Specifically, priority funding
should be given to Coast Guard initiatives that expand the capacity
of the service's maritime security teams, develop capabilities for
effective non-lethal interdiction of small boats (such as the use
of low-powered lasers), extend visibility of craft over the horizon
by using unmanned aerial vehicles and other technologies, field new
state-of-the-art patrol craft, and increase law enforcement
investigation and intelligence means.
- Ensure the right balance of roles, missions, and resources and
close cooperation between U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard maritime
security missions. The U.S. Navy should focus on providing
intelligence support and mine-clearing expertise and capabilities,
as well as sharing research and development in countering
small-boat threats with the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard should
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.
- Respect the principles of federalism and exploit the inherent
advantages of a free-enterprise approach to providing the most
creative, efficient, and effective solutions. Homeland security
grants should be minimal. Instead, the federal government should
facilitate the sharing of best practices and allow state and local
governments and the private sector the freedom to innovate and
adopt measures that are most appropriate for their needs and that
would best perform the due diligence necessary to ensure business
continuity and disaster recovery.
- Government should also encourage and provide incentives for
craft under 500 tons to employ transponder locator and
identification technologies. These transponders perform a function
similar to what OnStar offers for automobiles. Adopting these
technologies would enhance public safety and increase situational
awareness, and use of these systems would better enable the Coast
Guard and other rescue services to find craft in need of
assistance. The widespread use of transponders would also assist in
monitoring maritime traffic.
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