Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterrorism

Report Homeland Security

Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterrorism

February 17, 2005 4 min read

Authors: Alane Kochems and James Carafano

Protecting maritime commerce from attack or exploitation by terrorists is critical to the future security of the United States. To address this challenge, the Heritage Foundation conducted a year-long project examining the for­eign policy, economic, and defense implications of this issue. Our research suggests five critical proposals that must be on the agenda of the Bush Administration and Congress. These initiatives are essential to creating the kind of mar­itime security the nation will need in the decades ahead.

Facing the Future

We cannot overestimate the importance and vulnerability of the maritime domain. Approximately 95 percent (by volume) of U.S. overseas trade transits the maritime domain. In addition, many major population centers and critical infrastructures are in close proximity to U.S. ports or are accessible by waterways. To address this issue, the Heritage Foundation convened a Maritime Security Working Group consisting of experts from Congress, govern­ment, research institutions, and the private sector. In a series of seminars during the last year, this group discussed and debated the key policy, technology, economic, defense, and legislative factors that might shape the future of the maritime security environment and affect U.S. interests around the world. Proceedings from the working group served as the basis for developing our recommendations for national maritime security priorities. In the next years, we believe Congress and the Administration must:

  • Create a Maritime Security Strategy. Much like the national security strategy, Congress should require the President to publish a broad and comprehensive maritime security strategy. The strategy should be updated every four years. At a minimum, the strategy must address: (1) promoting key initiatives such as maritime domain awareness programs; (2) improving the defense of U.S. waters; (3) enhancing inter­national cooperation; and (4) ensuring economic competitiveness and free trade.

  • Increase Coast Guard Funding for the Deepwater Program to $1.5 Billion.Getting the "biggest bang for the buck" is a worthwhile criterion for guiding spending decisions. In the realm of maritime security that translates to fully funding the needs of the Coast Guard, whose range of missions touch vir­tually every aspect of protecting the maritime domain against terrorist attacks. The current funding level for Coast Guard modernization is totally inadequate. Doubling the annual budget for Deepwater-the service's primary acquisition program-would not only establish more quickly the capabilities needed for a long-term security system, but would also garner significant savings in lower procurement costs.

    Reducing life-cycle expenses by retiring older and less capable systems would realize additional sav­ings. Funding for the increases should come from cuts in less essential programs, such as port secu­rity grants.

  • Develop the Right Mix of Coast Guard and Defense Assets for Homeland Security. Gaps between the resources and capabilities of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Defense must be eliminated. In particular, the Navy must develop additional means to conduct wide-area surveillance in the maritime domain and counter sea-based missile and small boat threats. These naval capabilities might well be "dual use," with force structures, doctrine, and acquisition programs that could support domestic security and overseas theater security, as well as sea-line-of-communication protection. This might be done by restructuring the Littoral Combat Ship program to support both the­ater missions and working with the Coast Guard to protect the homeland, as well as expanding require­ments for the U.S. Northern Command to oversee maritime security.

  • Develop Public-Private Partnership Contingency Plans.Although the Department of Homeland Security has programs underway-such as the Container Security Initiative-to engage the private sec­tor in combating terrorism, they may not be sufficient. Indeed, it is not strategically prudent to pursue the current combination of measures alone. Layered security, after all, requires not placing all the eggs in "one security basket." The Maritime Transportation Security Act required the establishment of a pro­gram to evaluate and certify secure systems of intermodal transportation. This has not been done. DHS should undertake this effort, and in doing so, it should not necessarily assume that solutions be con­ceived or implemented by the federal government.

    In order to reduce risk, as well as exploit the capacity of the marketplace to create innovative and effec­tive solutions, DHS must consider establishing mechanisms to allow the private sector to develop and implement its own alternatives, including developing contingency plans that might be implemented in response to higher threat levels or in the event of certain events, such as a terrorist attack against a port.

  • Improve Engagement with the Developing World.The national security strategy rightly calls for encouraging economic development through free markets and free trade and enhancing the capacity of developing nations to compete in a global economy. Concurrently, however, the United States is also rightly promoting international security regimes designed to prevent terrorists from attacking or exploit­ing global trade networks. Meeting these requirements is difficult for developing countries that lack mature infrastructure, robust human capital programs, and adequate financing.

    Today, many of these countries are not major trading partners with the United States. Unless they deter­mine how to meet emerging international measures to combat terrorism, they never will be. The United States can assist in this process by encouraging emerging economies to participate in development pro­grams such as the Millennium Challenge Accounts. At the same time, the United States should expand technical assistance initiatives to focus on security programs and create one-stop shops for security assis­tance and coordination.


The challenges for maritime security are complex and growing. Addressing vulnerabilities, ensuring access to the maritime domain, and maintaining economic competitiveness while protecting U.S. interests from sea-based attacks will be no easy task. The strategic nature of the challenge requires a strategic response. The next steps in that response must include drafting a strategy, providing adequate resources to the Coast Guard, building a companion capability in the Department of Defense, and engaging the private sector and the developing world.

Read Making the Sea Safer: A National Agenda for Maritime Security and Counterterrorism (PDF) - by James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Alane Kochems


Alane Kochems

Former Policy Analyst, National Security

James Carafano
James Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow