The pirates of the Gulf of Aden have become notorious for using small boats to attack large ships. The terrorists who held Mumbai in thrall for three days arrived by a small boat. Terrorists used small boats to attack the French tanker Limbourg and the U.S.S. Cole.
It's not difficult for the U.S. Coast Guard to connect the dots. "This is a threat that's been looked at, but it's an under-governed area compared to other areas of maritime security," said Capt. Chuck Michel, chief of international and maritime law. "We know the terrorists use this mechanism. These craft are small, hard to detect using radar, and they're fast and maneuverable."
The Coast Guard has found that hardening the U.S. against attacks by small watercraft has not been an easy task. A solution will likely be the sum of technology and collaboration between the government and the millions of private small-boat operators. Even with the best of both, it's possible that the country may be more vulnerable to small-vessel terrorism than it is to other threats.
Last April, the Department of Homeland Security introduced its Small Vessel Security Strategy, the product of more than a year of research and discussion between the Coast Guard and small-vessel constituencies. It calls for greater cooperation between the government and recreational and commercial small vessel operators. It also calls for developing technologies that make it easier to identify a vessel and where it's going.
Homeland Security classifies a small vessel as any watercraft under 300 gross tons. There are swarms of them. A 2006 Coast Guard poll found some 17 million licensed recreational boats. Add to that, there are some 80,000 fishing boats and 100,000 other kinds of small commercial vessels. Above the 300-ton limit, ship security is more closely monitored by Coast Guard regulations, the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code, and other measures adopted since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
Michel said the Maritime Transportation Security Act requires ships of more than 300 tons to have the Automatic Identification System on board. AIS operates on a standard radio frequency and broadcasts a ship's name, position, course, speed and other particulars to other vessels and Coast Guard shore stations. Michel said the system originally was designed to help prevent collisions at sea. The Coast Guard first started using AIS at ports with vessel control centers. It is gradually expanding the network across the whole country.
"AIS can be used in security to provide maritime domain awareness," Michel said. "It would help us look for anomalies, identify vessels that are not operating in a way they should be, or vessels that are not properly transmitting. There are a number of vessels that are required to carry AIS, but the millions of small recreational vessels are not."
The DHS said groups could use small boats to evade surveillance and land terrorists at their target. Boats also could be floating bombs to attack ships the way the Cole was struck in October 2000. The DHS has even given them an acronym: WBIED, pronounced WEE-bid, for Waterborne Improvised Explosive Device.
Brad Kieserman, who manages legal issues raised by Coast Guard units in the field, said Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen recently instructed his staff to write a position paper to link piracy, the Mumbai terrorists and small-vessel security in the U.S. for a proposed rule the Coast Guard is drafting on notices of arrival and departure, and the use of AIS.
"He has definitely connected all these pieces, between piracy, Mumbai and our own small-vessel threat," Kieserman said. "The other piece of this is to think about what we're dealing with in counterdrug and immigrant interdiction operations in this hemisphere. You've got small boats bringing undocumented aliens from the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. This is all small-boat threat."
Michel said a strategy to defend against attacks by small vessels creates a delicate balance between national security priorities and the individual freedoms and privacy of small-boat operators.
"A guy who runs a pleasure boat has a very different view of the world than a guy who runs a supertanker when it comes to what type of security requirements should be imposed," Michel said. "It's a different arena than dealing with large, SOLAS-class commercial ships. They have a very different view of security, and the impacts are very different than when you're in these lower classes of vessels.
"A large vessel is subject to regular inspection by government authorities, and has to have certain paperwork on board, and a security plan. It's overseen by a whole range of different P&I clubs and governments," Michel said. "When you're down in the small-vessel area, it's pretty anonymous. It provides an enticing way to exploit maritime security."
Kieserman said that some 28,000 ships transit the Gulf of Aden each year. Somali pirates look for the easiest targets. If a ship can run 13 to 15 knots in daylight, they're not going to be a soft target.
Last week, the cruise ship Nautica made headlines by outrunning pirates' skiffs. So far, speed and relatively higher freeboard have kept container ships and liquefied natural gas carriers from being boarded. However, container line operators are not taking the threat lightly.
"I think it's fair to say with what's going on in that part of the world, that any major ship operator anywhere in the world, whether they'll admit it or not, has had some significant issues, scares or concerns," said Peter Keller, president of NYK America. "We've all been there."
Keller said the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean are the current theaters for a problem that has recurred at earlier times in other places. It's nothing new, and NYK keeps vigilant, but don't ask what defensive measures the company has. "What we do or don't do is only effective as long as we don't talk about it," Keller said.
While pirates have seized only a small number of ships, the danger in downplaying the threat is the prospect that it could escalate, become more violent. The Somali pirates appear to be content to hold ships and crews for ransom. The Mumbai terrorists seemed bent on mass murder. What if such a group took to sea in small, fast boats?
"That population of vessels also represents a huge population of legitimate small-boat users, not just in the United States, but the world," Kieserman said. "How do you figure out who means you harm and who does not? In this environment, it's right for prosperity, but it's rife with threats. That's the problem."
"A lot of vessels are most vulnerable when they're in port," Michel said. "A ship that's tied up to a pier taking on cargo or passengers can't outrun even a small craft."
Automation may be a part of the solution, Michel said. "The Small Vessel Security Strategy doesn't go so far as to recommend that every vessel out there have AIS. The stakeholders were not ready to make that recommendation for a whole bunch of different reasons." However, less-costly means such as radio-frequency identification or a system based on cell phones could be something the Coast Guard may consider in the future.
Kieserman said that when governments and private interests discuss piracy in the Gulf of Aden, they are largely talking past one another. Vessel operators are saying piracy is a problem for navies. The navies are saying they can't effectively commit large numbers of vessels to a relatively small problem.
"The discussion is way too polarized. In reality, an appropriate response to piracy off Somalia is going to require the participation of a variety of stakeholders including the military, maritime constabulary forces, industry and international organizations," Kieserman said. "Given the difficulty of the challenge, it's not something that any one entity is going to be able to do by itself."
"There are a lot of issues with small boats. It's a very different world and security balance than the areas of typical government regulation and security with larger vessel and facility operators," Michel said. "The balance is very different, but the vulnerability is still there. The Mumbai attacks are another example."
R.G. Edmonson can be contacted at email@example.com.