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US maritime transportation security

Article, 16 November 2007
Global Security Issues, Maritime Forces
This article outlines the maritime security challenges facing the US.

The dust from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers in New York had hardly settled before security experts realised that maritime transportation was extremely vulnerable to terrorist activity. In fact, United States Coast Guard (USCG) Commander Stephen Flynn had succinctly made the case in 2000 that maritime transport, especially container shipping, was the "soft underbelly of globalisation" and could be exploited by terrorists.1 US port facilities, as part of that country’s critical infrastructure, are also tempting targets in themselves, since the closure of one large port for a month could result in direct costs approaching US$60 billion.2

The challenge of making US ports secure is colossal. Each year, approximately nine million containers enter the US and about 8,000 foreign vessels log more than 50,000 port calls.3 America’s 361 public ports handle over 95% of US overseas trade and the volume of trade through these ports is expected to double over the next two decades.4 At the global level, containers passed through the world’s ports 232 million times in 2001.5

Progress made since 11 September 2001

Significant progress has been made to improve maritime transport security. Much of this is attributable to the mandates of the 2002 US Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA); several initiatives implemented by the USCG; and rules implemented by the UN’s International Maritime Organisation (IMO). As a natural extension of the organisation’s traditional responsibilities, the USCG, now operating as part of the Department of Homeland Security, has taken the lead in US maritime transport security; the portion of its budget dedicated to ‘safety and security’ has increased from less than 13% to 36% since 11 September 2001.6 The US grand strategy is to develop a defence in depth by improving security throughout the entire transportation process from the port of origin to the point of entry.7

Fundamental to US maritime transport security strategy is the concept of "pushing out" US borders to "initially address threats abroad."8 Whereas cargo manifests had often been unavailable even 30 days after ships had entered US ports, shippers are now required to provide electronic manifests 24 hours prior to loading cargo. Failure to meet this rule can result in a ‘do not load’ order and other penalties.

The International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code, adopted by the IMO in 2002, is also improving port security by mandating comprehensive security plans, the assignment of dedicated port security officers, and the installation of advanced security equipment. This new security regime enters full force in July 2004.9

On a more voluntary basis, thousands of commercial shippers have ameliorated the security of their shipping chains under the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. In exchange for their co-operation to reinforce the physical security of loading facilities, protect against the introduction of unmanifested cargo and augment personnel security, companies are afforded preferential treatment when clearing customs once their compliance is validated.

In a complementary effort to secure US ports, US$441 million in port security grants have been awarded to fund risk assessments, security plans and the installation of new security technologies. More than 90% of US vessels and port facilities have submitted the security assessments and plans required by the 2002 MTSA.10 The standards for these security measures were promulgated by a series of USCG MARSEC (Headquarters, Maritime Security) Directives in 2003.

Several initiatives have been implemented to develop the ability to assess the threat from any given shipment or container and cue inspections and intercept operations. Many of these measures are inspired by the success of the container security programmes at the port of Rotterdam. By mid-2003, Phase I of the Container Security Initiative (CSI) was complete and US Transportation Security Agency personnel were working with the authorities at a score of major foreign ports to "identify, target, and search high-risk cargo". CSI Phase II is underway and will eventually integrate over 30 international ports, from where more than 80% of US container traffic originates.11 The CSI includes the use of intelligence and advanced information technology (Automated Targeting System) to assess risk; the pre-screening of ‘risky’ containers before departure to the US; and the employment of more tamper-resistant containers, whose access is electronically monitored and recorded. This process is facilitated by the actions of US Customs and Border Protection agents who are stationed in foreign ports and develop close ties with host nation trade and law enforcement authorities.12

The USCG has made mixed progress in achieving its vision for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The MDA objectives date back to the 1999 USCG Strategic Plan, and seek to develop an ability to track and intercept vessels in US coastal areas which would rival the situational awareness that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) enjoys regarding the airborne approaches to the US. A 2000 IMO regulation13 and the 2002 MTSA call for the implementation of an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that will provide continuous and precise "dynamic" navigational data (for example, position, course and speed) as well as "static" identifying information (such as ship name, characteristics, cargo and destination) for vessels operating near or in US waters. AIS is a shipboard transponder system that allows ships to be monitored from shore-based stations and by other vessels in support of navigation safety.14 AIS leverages existing US Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) systems.

However, the cost to install the devices (as high as US$10,000 per vessel) has generated some resistance from vessel owners and VTS is installed in less than 50% of the busiest ports in the US.15 Although a comprehensive vessel tracking system may be years if not decades away, vessels bound for the US are already required to report their identity, destination, and crewmembers to the USCG no later than 96 hours prior to arrival.

MDA is also tied to the USCG’s Deepwater recapitalisation project. This initiative predates 11 September and is designed to replace or modernise the USCG’s ageing fleet of 90 cutters and 200 aircraft as well as to extend the service’s reach further out to sea. At US$12 billion to US$15 billion, the projected costs for this ambitious building programme represent about three times the USCG’s average total budget over the last decade and the current time line for Deepwater implementation is over two decades. In the near term, surveillance and interdiction beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone are likely to be provided by the US Navy working in conjunction with allied navies. The US Pacific Fleet recently unveiled the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, designed to counter maritime terrorism, piracy, and human trafficking, as well as to support America’s Proliferation Security Initiative against WMD, by gaining "an awareness of the maritime domain to match the picture we have of our international airspace".16

Close-in security has been reinforced to cover the final miles of a vessel’s voyage. USCG Sea Marshals routinely board high-risk vessels to ensure they are not used as weapons against infrastructure and civilians. Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSST), equipped with high-speed boats and trained in special tactics, are available to provide security for vessels operating in the vicinity of a US port - 13 MSSTs will eventually be fielded.

Finally, some strides have been made to enhance inspection capabilities as cargo reaches its final destination. In the past, only about 2% of containers received any type of inspection. The frequency of container inspection has nearly tripled over the last two years due to the introduction of more numerous and efficient means of non-intrusive inspection.17 Many US ports have been outfitted with Radiation Portal Monitors, portable radiation monitors and x-ray machines that require only two or three minutes to scan a shipping container.18

Obstacles to continued progress

Continuing the pace of progress will not be easy. Similar to other elements of the US Homeland Security effort, government funding for maritime transport security has not always matched the rhetoric behind it. The Port Security Caucus of the US House of Representatives complained in April that the President’s 2005 budget proposed only US$46 million for port security grants, despite the USCG and Association of Port Authorities estimate that the requirement is approximately US$1 billion.19

By contrast, airport operators were reimbursed US$1.5 billion by Congress for implementing reinforced security requirements from 2002 to 2003. US shippers and port authorities complain that security regulations are an "unfunded mandate", which should be paid for largely with public expenditures since the maritime infrastructure is integral to the US economy.

Already faced with user fees and taxes totalling more than US$16 billion a year, they remain resistant to absorbing additional security related costs despite the fact that these costs are partially offset by reduced cargo theft. A significant number of the most important shippers, ports, and carriers in the US openly oppose the 2004 MTSA because of the bill’s economic burden and the "high-handed" way in which the bill was crafted, with little input from the US maritime industry.20

The perceived penchant of the US for unilateral decrees, and the animosity that it engenders, may also compromise progress. Friction has already been created between the EU and the US regarding CSI and, in general, there remains some disagreement concerning the right balance between trade and security.21 The possibility of generating ill will is also very real once the USCG starts boarding vessels in July to verify and enforce compliance with ISPS and other security regulations.

Also, the potential for security fatigue is great across the spectrum of anti-terrorism activities. Less than a year after the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the Commandant of the Coast Guard was already wondering out loud whether there was "waning interest" in maritime security.22

Until 11 September the focus of maritime trade was efficiency, with well documented and well neglected gaps in security. Although it is impossible to make maritime transport completely secure, dramatic progress has been made. By reinforcing security measures at home and leading and supporting bilateral and multilateral initiatives in international forums, the US has helped to protect the "soft underbelly" of globalisation. The probability of detecting lethal contraband is now greater and formidable layered defences should have a deterrent effect against terrorists. Further progress can be expected as the ISPS comes into force and as the MTSA 2002 continues to be implemented.

Commander Michael Dobbs is the commanding officer of an Ohio-class submarine and managed homeland security issues while serving on the US Joint Staff


1 Stephen Flynn, ‘Beyond Border Control’, in Foreign Affairs (Nov-Dec 2001).

2 See Maritime Transport Committee of the OECD report: Security in Maritime Transport: Risk Factors and Economic Impact (July 2003); and US Coast Guard 2004 Report on Homeland Security (

3 Statement of Rear Admiral David Belz, Assistant Command for US Coast Guard Operations, et al, on Maritime Security Operations within the Department of Homeland Security before the Select Committee on Homeland Security, US House of Representatives, 5 May 2004.

4 US Public Law 107-295: Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, 25 November 2002.

5 OECD report, op cit, p7.

6 Statement of Jay Hecker, Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues, before the US Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries, committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation: Coast Guard - Budget and Management Challenges for 2003 and Beyond, 19 March 2002.

7 See Admiral James Loy, "‘Always Prepared’ - The Coast Guard’s Continuing Role in Homeland Security", in ANSER Journal of Homeland Security (May 2002).

8 Bruce Stubbs, "The Coast Guard and Maritime Security", in Joint Forces Quarterly (Autumn 2000, p98).

9 "IMO Adopts Comprehensive Maritime Security Measures: Conference on Contracting Governments to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974: 9-13 Decembe, 2002" ( topic_id_id=583&doc_id=2689).

10 US Coast Guard press release: "Coast Guard Receives Majority of Maritime Security Plans, Begins Issuing Penalties", 4 February 2004.

11 US Department of Homeland Security press release: "Secretary Ridge Announces New Initiatives for Port Security", 12 June 2003.

12 US Customs and Border Protection, Container Security Initiative, (, 2 June 2004.

13 Regulation 19 of SOLAS Chapter V-Carriage requirements for shipborne navigational systems and equipment, December 13, 2002, ( contents.asp?_topic_id=257&doc_id=647.

14 See AIS & Non-SOLAS Ships ( for a detailed discussion of AIS as well as the IMO mandated time line for AIS installation.

15 GAO Report 03-1155T: Maritime Security - Progress Made in Implementing Maritime Transportation Security Act, but Concerns Remain, 9 September 2003, (pp.7-8).

16 Testimony of Admiral Thomas Fargo, US Navy Commander, Pacific Command before the House Armed Services Committee, US House of Representatives regarding U.S. Pacific Command Posture, March 31, 2004, (

17 Congressional Budget Office, Cost Estimate for S. 2279: Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2004, ( showdoc.cfm?index=5472&sequence=0), 19 May 2004, (p 4).

18 Andy Oppenheimer, "Radiological Detection at Ports", in Jane’s Chem-Bio Web (posted 25 May 2004).

19 Letter of the Port Security Caucus to the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Appropriations Committee, US House of Representatives, 8 April 2004.

20 Joint Letter to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, US Senate, in opposition to S. 2279, the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2004, 7 April 2004, (

21 CDI Terrorism Project, Port and Maritime Security in the United States: Reactions to an Evolving Threat, 21 January 2003 ( On a positive note, the EU and US signed an agreement on container security on 22 April 2004.

22 Admiral Loy, op cit, p.9.

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