The motivations to use terrorism are inherently diverse, as they reflect the whole spectrum of human striving.

                                                                         ~ Ariel Merari in The Future of Terrorism 

Because they do not operate on a tight timetable, terrorists intending to attack the United States have several advantages. They are free to choose when and where they will strike, for example; if security is tightened when they are preparing to strike, they can simply delay their attack until security relaxes. For them, failure, although undesirable, is not catastrophic; they can lose members and still return to fight another day. Moreover, they have been trained to melt into the civilian population. For that reason alone, identifying them is much more difficult than finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It is, rather, more like having to find one specific needle (the terrorists) in a huge stack of needles all of which look alike. Most important of all, perhaps, is that terrorists are not restricted by concerns over civil liberties or traditional rules of war – including the Geneva Conventions. 

For these and other reasons, U.S. security forces face a daunting task – one without precedent in the nation’s history. As Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff has stated on many occasions and in many ways, security forces cannot protect all potential targets all of the time and therefore must use a risk-based decision-making process to determine not only what to secure but also when and where a certain degree of risk may be acceptable. 

Easier Said Than Done 

This is a reasonable, logical, common-sense approach—but is much easier to articulate than to implement, particularly in the field of port and maritime security. The amount of critical infrastructure that must be continuously protected to thwart a successful terrorist attack in U.S. ports – all 361 of them along the East, West, and Gulf Coasts, and in the nation’s inland waterways – is tremendous, by any standard of measurement that might be applied. This means, given the unpredictability of when and where terrorists will strike, that the nation’s maritime security forces must be on guard 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, operating within the limits of established civil liberties and laws governing the use of force while looking for an enemy who is virtually invisible until he or she strikes. 

Because of their almost impossible task, these security forces have no choice but to rely upon a variety of methods and strategies that make full use of technology as a force multiplier. A key component of the U.S. Maritime Security Strategy is a concept called Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA – which on the Coast Guard’s web site is defined as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States”). This definition provides a strategic view of MDA that applies to the entire maritime domain, but also can be applied at the local or port level. 

Except for a few major port areas (New York, Houston/Galveston, Los Angeles/Long Beach, and Seattle, for example) that have a Coast Guard VTS (Vessel Traffic Service) capability, U.S. ports were not equipped, prior to 9-11, with the electronic systems–e.g., radar, close-circuit television, infrared cameras, etc. – needed to monitor maritime transportation system activities on a continuing basis. In the days immediately following 9-11, therefore, the Coast Guard and other U.S. maritime-security forces relied primarily on direct observation – a limited and inefficient process requiring security units to patrol local waters at random looking for suspicious activities in the hope of being in precisely the right place at exactly the right time. The addition of more eyes, provided through the Coast Guard-sponsored America’s Waterways Watch – a program that educates legitimate maritime users on how to identify and report unusual activity – has improved the situation somewhat, but depends highly on the timeliness of the reports. 

An Intelligent Use of Intelligence In an effort to create a much improved real-time awareness capability for the effective and efficient employment of maritime-security assets, the Coast Guard is currently engaged in several joint ventures with various public – and private-sector partners to develop command and control centers that monitor port activities in key locations. With the Navy, for example, the Coast Guard is establishing a number of Joint Harbor Operations Centers (JHOCs) in ports where the Navy has a significant presence. In Charleston, S.C., the two services teamed up with the Department of Justice to establish the SeaHawk command center to coordinate the activities of the local Joint Terrorism Task Force with maritime operations. And in Miami the Coast Guard is prototyping a Sector Command Center designed to meld the capabilities and concepts from the JHOC and SeaHawk programs into an effective all-missions command center available for interagency use.   

All of these centers combine the capability of fusing intelligence from various sources with information provided by real-time sensors to provide command personnel with a common and comprehensive operating picture to aid in the effective and efficient assignment of limited security forces. Thanks to the combination of intelligence and real-time awareness provided, command center operators can develop an improved understanding of routine activities, making it that much more likely that, rather than patrolling randomly, they will spot unusual activities that will enable them to vector security assets to investigate suspicious behavior. 

The Sector Command Center offers a very real potential for using technology to leverage the effectiveness of interagency security forces in the ports. However, there is still uncertainty whether sufficient funding will be available to establish as many of these centers as are likely to be needed, particularly in port areas critical to the national economy. If that funding is not provided, or is parceled out too frugally over a long period of time, the terrorists will have gained another major advantage – this time, though, one not of their own making.  

Christopher Doane

Christopher Doane and Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III are retired Coast Guard officers and visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. Both of them have written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Joseph DiRenzo III

Dr. Joseph DiRenzo III is a retired Coast Guard officer. He's visiting fellows at the Joint Forces Staff College. He has written extensively on maritime security issues. Any opinions expressed in the preceding article represent their own views and are not necessarily the official views of the U.S. Coast Guard.

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