Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: port security

Port Security Issues Part 2: Phantom Ships and Flags of Convenience

Ok, this will probably be it for port security posts. I’ve never done a series like this before and it takes more time than I have, at least for now. It sure is nice, though, when your school district gets access to a news database and tells all the teachers to go “research stuff to test it out and see what you think.” For those of us who enjoy “researching stuff” it’s a nice way to be expected to spend some conference periods. So here we go, looking beyond the dangers posed by container ships…

The danger of a container ship bearing a bomb into a US port is frightening to imagine, but another scenario is just as scary and more audacious.

Pirates (or terrorists) can and do hijack ships and then repaint and reflag them at sea, thus creating what is known as a phantom ship. Phantom ships are aided by the phenomenon in the shipping industry known as flags of convenience that allows ship owners to avoid taxes, labor laws, safety and environmental regulation, and any number of other ‘inconveniences’ that can slow a ship down. William Langewiesche describes this in The Outlaw Sea:

No one pretends that a ship comes from the home port painted on its stern, or that it has ever been anywhere near. Panama is the largest maritime nation on earth, followed by bloody Liberia, which hardly exists. No coastline is required either. There are ships that hail from La Paz, in landlocked Bolivia. There are ships that hail from the Mongolian desert. Moreover, the registries themselves are rarely based in the countries whose names they carry: Panama is considered to be an old-fashioned “flag” because its consulates handle the paperwork and collect the registration fees, but “Liberia” is run by a company in Virginia, “Cambodia” by another in South Korea, and the proud and independent “Bahamas” by a group in the City of London.

All of this makes determining exactly who owns any ship a major investigative task and the seeming ease with which flags of convenience can be acquired would make it simple for a phantom ship to pose as legit. The article “Terrorism Goes to Sea” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 04) discusses an “al Queda Navy” made up of phantom ships:

Intelligence agencies estimate that al Qaeda and its affiliates now own dozens of phantom ships-hijacked vessels that have been repainted and renamed and operate under false documentation, manned by crews with fake passports and forged competency certificates. Security experts have long warned that terrorists might try to ram a ship loaded with explosive cargo, perhaps even a weapon of mass destruction, into a major port or terminal.

In a previous post, I referenced a JINSA article that described an incident in which so-called pirates hijacked a ship in the Straits of Malacca, but instead of stealing anything simply practiced steering the ship for about an hour. This sounds a lot like the preparations made by terrorists who were interested in learning to fly airplanes but not in how to land them. You don’t need to land a plane or dock a ship if your intent is to crash it.

Between flags of convenience, phantom ships and the fact that terrorists have clearly been practicing steering large ships, I can’t help but wonder if our enemies might be thinking bigger than just slipping an explosive container aboard a cargo ship bound for a US port. Let’s remember, these people tend to think big. Do we have the resources in place to stop such an attack? We knew Hurricane Katrina was coming days in advance and we knew where it was going to hit and yet, we weren’t ready. A ship full of explosives or hazardous cargo crashing and igniting in the Houston Ship Channel with its refineries and chemical plants would make Katrina look like a rainy day at the park. Imagine the Texas City Disaster of 1947, only engineered for maximum effect including the release of toxins or radioactive substances.

Increasing funding for the US Coast Guard will not necessarily prevent such an attack from occuring, but it would decrease the likelihood. Spending that money to protect not just our ports but the cities in which they’re based would be well-worth the expense.

Port Security Issues Part 1: Container Ships

Container Ships from NOAA Image Library

A few years ago, while visiting family in East Texas a few miles from one of the biggest concentrations of chemical plants in the world, I read a Texas Monthly article called “Attack Here” (subscription required) by SC Gwynne that’s worth looking at because it lays out exactly what could happen if a carefully placed bomb were set off in the Houston Ship Channel. The story begins with this question:

Along the fifty-mile Houston Ship Channel, there are more explosive materials, toxic gases, and deadly petrochemicals than anywhere else in the country—which is why most security experts agree that it’s one of America’s top targets. So what’s the worst that could happen if terrorists were to strike?

Gwynne then goes on to describe in terrifying detail what that ‘worst’ could be, so while exploring the port security issue, I decided to see what’s being done to prevent such an attack.

According to an article in the Denver Post (“NORTHCOM & NORAD: Eyes on the Future. Anti-terror fight takes to the seas.” Feb 12 06), the US military is taking an expanded role in tracking the movements of container ships on the world’s oceans.

Of course we’re not just dealing with potential bombs, but also a clever way to bring terrorists into the country. The article mentions one particular stowaway who was most likely not just trying to find a better life:

In October 2001, Italian police seized a Canada- bound ship from Egypt at an Italian port. Aboard, they found an Egyptian man hiding in a cargo container equipped with a bed, toilet, cell and satellite telephones, Canadian passports, airplane tickets and an airline mechanic’s certificate valid for airports in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Italian authorities released the Egyptian on bail, then he disappeared.

The article goes on to say that last year US naval forces boarded 2000 ships on their way into US ports.

This is of course a necessary step in protecting our ports from container ships bearing dangerous cargo, be it bombs or terrorists. But according to an article in the Newark Star-Ledger (“On waterfront, so many crates and, say critics, so many gaps” Feb 23 06) there are still many problems stemming from the huge number of containers coming into the US (6000 per day in NY & NJ alone):

Though federal security officials have set up a chain of checks over incoming cargo and ships, criticism abounds that far too many gaps remain for terrorists to exploit on the long routes from overseas manufacturers to foreign ports and then to U.S. docks.

The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog arm of Congress, concluded in an April 2005 report, “An effective port security environment may be many years away.”

Securing ports is a huge task that requires the full engagement of the federal government. At this point, that engagement seems to be lacking:

One of the chief complaints has been a lack of funding. Critics note that the federal grant money earmarked for safeguarding the nation’s ports typically totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars each year, while aviation security gets billions in grants and a far higher profile.

“The whole system needs a lot more attention and investment than we’ve made to date,” said Stephen Flynn, author of “America the Vulnerable” and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan think tank.

Aviation security is important and probably a lot sexier, but the potential cost to human life and the damage that can be inflicted on our cities, our infrastructure, and the environment by a container carrying a bomb or WMD is frightening to consider. Are we doing all we can and is the Coast Guard getting all it needs to prevent this from happening? I’m skeptical.

(Thanks to the bloggers who’ve linked to my Coast Guard post including: All Things Beautiful, The Daily Background, and The Washington Post’s The Debate.)

UAE Ports Deal Roundup

As mentioned in previous posts (here, here, and here) my wide-ranging reading habits have collided with the news concerning the UAE ports deal.

I’m not certain the UAE deal is an inherently dangerous thing. I don’t particularly like it, but the US Coast Guard and US Customs are still the ones who will really be managing port security and it’s not like our ports aren’t already being managed by foreign entities. I’d prefer they be managed by US companies, but they aren’t and haven’t been for a long time. I’d be more worried if we were selling the Coast Guard, though I wonder how much it’s actually worth considering the age of its fleet. One upshot of all this is that it seems Congress is finally getting around to its role of providing a check on the executive branch.

It does, however, bring up the larger question of how secure our ports are and how good a job are we doing to ensure the Coast Guard has the necessary equipment and manpower to do the job. I seem to remember Kerry bringing this up a time or two during the election, and it sometimes gets quick mention in the news, but I don’t think its something people think about much, at least until the past week, which is probably the best thing about the UAE story.

While reading about the UAE port security deal, I found a number of blogs with interesting things to say about all of this.

Dwayne at Boating Safety Law and News… discusses the difficulties surrounding inspection of container ships. Probably one of the greatest threats when you consider how easily a ship can be hijacked and then used for smuggling along with how difficult it is to inspect every container. (There’s also some nice photography on that blog as well.)

A blog I just discovered through some technorati tag searching, Gun Toting Liberal, brings up some fair points concerning potential security issues despite the fact that the UAE is an ally. GTL points out that Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were once allies as well. The bottom line being that it isn’t inherently racist to want to look at this more closely.

Tyler at The Texas Whip and Scottage at Perspectives of a Nomad both look into Bush’s business dealings and the way in which decisions often appear to be made for the benefit of certain cronies. In many ways this whole deal seems to be just typical Bush.

For a very knowledgeable blog about port and maritime security, check out Whispr Wave’s Port Security, Maritime Security, and Homeland Security Blog. I’m not linking a specific article. There are too many to pick just one, but there is a lot there that’s worth looking into.

And for a bit of humor on the subject, check out Ironicus Maximus.

Port Security and the US Coast Guard: Are We Really Trying?

USCG Image via WikipediaA few years back, in my debate coaching days, my kids had a topic that focused on preservation of marine natural resources. One issue that kept coming up in debate rounds was whether or not the US Coast Guard had the resources to effectively protect the environment and our ports, both of which are included in its duties.

Over the course of helping my students with their research during that debate season, I developed an increased appreciation for the Coast Guard and its ability to, as its unofficial motto states, “do more with less.”

Since the Coast Guard holds primary responsibility for port security, it seems that we should be ensuring that it has everything it needs to protect our ports, much less stay afloat. At the time (2003-2004 school year) the USCG was still badly underfunded. So I decided to see if much had changed. While researching my last post, I found a claim that the USCG apparently ranks 38th oldest among the world’s 40 largest navies. I wondered if that was true and if so what is being done to change that. It seems that funding has gone up, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done.

I found an article on USA Today that contained some disconcerting information about the state of the US Coast Guard. The article, “Coast Guard plagued by breakdowns” (7-7-05) lists the following about the Coast Guard’s aging fleet:

  • In fiscal 2004, the engines on the Coast Guard’s 95 HH 65 helicopters suffered power losses at a rate of 329 per 100,000 flight hours, up from 63 per 100,000 flight hours in fiscal 2003. The comparable Federal Aviation Administration standard is 1 per 100,000 flight hours.
  • There have been 23 hull breaches — holes that let in water — requiring emergency dry-dock repairs in the 49 110- and 123-foot patrol boats since 2001.
  • Each of the dozen 378-foot cutters, most of which operate in the Pacific, suffers a significant engine or hydraulic or refrigeration system breakdown on every patrol.
  • For all major cutters and patrol boats, the number of unscheduled maintenance days was 742 in fiscal 2004, up from 267 in fiscal 1999. The loss of cutter days in fiscal 2004 equated to losing 10% of the major fleet for an entire year.

This is all quite disturbing considering that the USCG of all the services is the one most responsible for protecting our ports, which are arguably the greatest weakness in our homeland security program.

The article cites one former Coast Guard officer who claims the USCG is operating at the level of a third world navy.

USA Today ran a related article called “Sailing far from smooth on Coast Guard’s Decisive” (7/5/05) that further outlines the problems facing the Coast Guard and lists estimated maintenance costs for the Coast Guard’s fleet.

Looking into issues relating to the Coast Guard’s budget, it seems there is to be an increase from 8.1 billion to 8.4 billion. I don’t really know if that’s a lot of money (for fleet maintenence – it would be a lot for me) or not, but Senator Olympia Snow of Maine who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries and the Coast Guard had this to say about some of the specifics:

I am pleased that President Bush’s budget request contains an increase in funding for the Coast Guard. However, the President’s request for the Deepwater program, which will provide the Coast Guard with the ships and aircraft it needs to complete its many crucial missions, falls short of a funding level that would enable accelerating the program. The strain of the Coast Guard’s rapid operational escalation has fallen on the backs of its 42,000 men and women who faithfully serve our country. It has also taken a significant toll on the ships, boats, and aircraft that the Coast Guard uses on a daily basis, forcing them to do more with less. We must do all we can to shift this burden off our people and instead provide the Coast Guard with the necessary tools – and Deepwater accomplishes that goal.”

The President’s 2007 Coast Guard Budget Request is $8.2 billion, a four percent increase over the FY2006 enacted budget of $8.04 billion. The administration’s Deepwater (the Coast Guard’s recapitalization and modernization program) request is $934.4 million, just $1 million more than last year’s appropriation.

While it’s good that Coast Guard funding is increasing, albeit slightly, perhaps we should be asking why there isn’t a movement to step up the CG’s modernization program. Perhaps leaving the Coast Guard with antiquated tools is yet another cost of the war in Iraq? With all the hubub about the UAE ports deal, I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t missing the boat here. (Ouch – I couldn’t resist)

Arrgh! Where’s Me Port Security, Matey?

via Wikipedia - public domainI admit I’ve always been fascinated by pirates. My wife is into serial killers, with me it’s pirates. The more I think about it, though, the issue of modern piracy takes on great significance when we remember that pirates are the forerunners of maritime terrorists just as thieves and bandits became the bushwhackers of the US Civil War.

Piracy often goes unreported because it can tie up a ship and crew in port for weeks while investigations go nowhere. Of special concern here is the fine distinction between pirate and terrorist incidents which might also go unreported.

While exploring the ‘net for more information, I found the article “Hazardous Seas” (4-1-05) at The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA Online) that examines the link between piracy and maritime terrorism. It’s an interesting piece and one that is certainly worth reading.

The JINSA article describes one incident that sounds unlike a standard pirate attack:

On March 26, 2003, heavily armed pirates off the coast of Sumatra boarded the chemical tanker Dewi Madrim. After commandeering the bridge and driving the ship for an hour through the Straits of Malacca, the pirates suddenly fled with the ship’s first mate and captain but inexplicably made no request for ransom money, according to The Economist, October 2, 2003. Both remain missing and there is growing concern that they could be forced to instruct terrorists on ship handling.

The anomalies surrounding the Dewi Madrim incident led the London-based analysts at Aegis Defence Service to conclude that the hijackers were in fact terrorists gaining experience operating a large vessel and learning navigation skills for an eventual attack. According to “The New Piracy,” an article published by Charles Glass in The London Review of Books, December 18, 2003, ADS maritime expert Dominic Armstrong referred to the incident as particularly alarming, “They (the pirates) were fully armed with automatic weapons, which is a departure from the norm. They went straight to the bridge rather than the safe room. And instead of ransacking the crew’s goods they steered a laden tanker for an hour through the Malacca Straits… the implication is that what we are seeing… is the equivalent of a flight-training school for terrorists.”

Whether by terrorists or pirates an incident in the Malacca Straits would have devastating consequences for the global economy, not to mention the local environment. (New Zealand news source Stuff touches more on the security issues in that part of the world.)

Piracy has been steadily increasing over the past ten years but it appears that what is often classified as piracy is in actuality the preparation and training of terrorists all of which continues to highlight the need for port security to be taken seriously.

I’m not sure that port operations being managed by UAE or any other foreign company makes us less secure considering that port security ultimately rests with the US Coast Guard, which according to Wikipedia has the 38th oldest of the world’s forty largest navies. Perhaps we should be asking if the US Coast Guard has adequate resources to protect our ports from the various dangers that are probably steaming our way.

Dangerous Waters and Port Security

VLCC - US Navy via Wkipedia - Public Domain

In this week of port security issues that have suddenly entered the news cycle, it seems fitting that I have been reading Dangerous Waters: Modern Piracy and Terror on the High Seas by John S Burnett, which I picked up after reading The Outlaw Sea. Burnett’s book suggests a host of issues that makes the security of our ports all the more important.

Burnett began his investigation into modern piracy after he was attacked on his sailboat by a group of Indonesian pirates in the South China Sea. Over the course of researching the issue, he spent time on a VLCC (very large crude carrier – one of the largest ship types) as well as with the Malaysian authorities who attempt to stop piracy, and then on a smaller refined products tanker traveling from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City, through the most pirated waters in the world.

It’s a fascinating book that takes the reader into a world that few of us who aren’t involved in shipping or blue water sailing ever consider.

Burnett captures the fear of piracy that many crews live with on a daily basis as they practice and engage in antipiracy defenses that are too often inadequate. He relates the tales of survivors of pirate attacks and tells the stories of ships that simply disappeared sometimes never to be heard from again and other times to be found flying new flags and boasting new names.

Two common themes emerge throughout the book: stealing a ship is easy and it happens all the time. Whether the vessel is a private sailboat, the largest oil and chemical tankers, or a container ship full of random cargo, it is very easy to climb aboard while the ship is moving slowly through narrow channels or even when underway on the high seas. Whole ships are stolen, the crews killed and tossed overboard or marooned on small islands. The ships are repainted at sea, their names changed and with new papers forged and new flags hoisted these phantom ships can deliver illegal immigrants, stolen goods, guns, drugs, or even a weapon of mass destruction to nearly any port in the world. A tanker full of volatile cargo could easily become a weapon simply by pointing it at a target, or it could be an environmental catastrophe resulting when a crew is tied up while being robbed thus leaving no one to steer the ship.

The second issue Burnett addresses is the frequency of pirate attacks, particularly in the South China Sea and in the Straits of Malacca that separate Singapore and Malaysia from Indonesia. It is distressingly common for ships of all sizes to be robbed – a frightening prospect when one considers the kinds of dangerous cargo some ships carry – and in many cases for them to disappear completely with no trace of the cargo, the crew, or the ship itself. Burnett focuses on the Southeast Asia region where the problem is particularly acute since so much of the world’s shipping travels those lanes, but it is increasingly occurring along the African coast, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South America.

A quick check of the Kuala Lumpur based International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center’s weekly piracy report reveals the fact that not much has changed since Burnett wrote in 2002. Attacks are still occurring with great frequency and little public awareness. Where this issue becomes one that affects everyone is in the connection between piracy and terror. Pirates are motivated by greed, terrorists by ideology, but the techniques for stealing a ship are the same and the implications of a suicide navy composed of a fleet of phantom ships is truly frightening to consider.

If Burnett is right in his assessment of the ease of taking a ship and the lack of coordinated response by the world’s naval powers, then port security and the security of shipping in general is tenuous at best. Piracy in all of its forms from opportunistic fishermen who see the chance to mug the crew of a slow-moving ship to crime syndicates out to steal cargo or terrorists seeking to wreak havoc will likely continue until someone sinks a cruise ship, blows up a chemical tanker or detonates a bomb hidden in a container ship in a busy port, or runs a VLCC aground in a major shipping lane.

All of this highlights the need for increased port security, but more importantly for better security in the world’s shipping lanes. Port security is important but I wonder if securing the world’s shipping lanes might not be more important. By next week, there will be something else in the news and all this will be forgotten probably until it’s too late.

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