The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made Americans painfully and tragically aware that airliners can become powerful weapons in the hands of suicidal terrorists. The reality of those attacks also forced some people to realize that our nation’s seaports and marine transportation systems are also highly vulnerable to sabotage and suicide missions. A fuel-laden oil tanker exploding in an American port could be just as devastating as the attack on the World Trade Center. One can only imagine how devastating would be a ship filled with gasoline or liquid natural gas exploding in the Houston Ship Channel next to the largest petrochemical complex in the United States or in the Port of Los Angeles or Philadelphia. Or, as was the case in the Red Sea in 1984, a commercial vessel could clandestinely put in place naval mines that would indiscriminately attack U.S. and foreign-flag shipping calling at America’s ports.
We don’t need an overactive imagination to think what would or could happen. In the late 1940s in Texas City, Texas, a ship loaded with ammonium nitrate caught fire and exploded, causing massive damage. Before it was over, 600 people were dead. Thirty years earlier, a ship fire in the port of Halifax caused massive damage, with more than 1,900 people killed and more than 9,000 injured. Such port disasters remain a very real possibility and the recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington have heightened concerns about “rogue ships” on a suicide mission.
For more than 200 years, the U. S. Coast Guard the fifth and smallest of the U.S. Armed Services has had a major responsibility for port security in the United States. However, since September 11, the mission has taken on a new importance. Osama bin Laden has promised more terrorist attacks on the United States and America’s seaports would make inviting targets. Ninety-five percent of America’s overseas trade moves by sea and there are more than 360 ports in the United States. Hundreds of ships move in and out of these ports each day. Some contain millions of gallons of volatile fuels or hazardous chemicals that could become a powerful bomb in the hands of a determined terrorist. Other ships carry hundreds of large shipping containers , any one of which could carry chemical or biological “devices,” or even a nuclear weapon.
We as a nation are terribly vulnerable and yet our maritime trade is critical to our nation’s economic strength. A terrorist attack on our ports and shipping would have devastating effects. However, we cannot wait until terrorists or weapons of mass destruction are on our doorsteps (ports) to interdict them. Our strategy must be more comprehensive than that it must be a maritime security strategy, of which port security is one important subset. The strategy must also include aggressive intelligence and ocean/port surveillance. We need to know what ships are approaching our shores and what is on those ships. The Coast Guard has to have enough modern aircraft, ships and trained people to detect and intercept threats far out at sea. We simply must protect the sea-borne approaches to our country with a layered defense. Our port security efforts must be our last line of defense not our first.
In the days and weeks before September 11, the Coast Guard was already stretched thin meeting its responsibilities providing search and rescue, drug enforcement, protection of American fisheries, preventing illegal immigration and providing port security. Since September 11, the Coast Guard has engaged in a massive effort to protect our ports and maritime infrastructure. Just about every cutter and boat in the Coast Guard has been assigned to counterterrorism duties. Ships are being boarded at sea and having their cargoes inspected. Ships crews are being run through the national crime computer and ships are being escorted to their piers. Coast Guard Port Security Units are patrolling “keep-out” zones around Navy warships and key facilities, including nuclear power plants.
In order to do this, the Coast Guard has called up more than 2,700 reservists and just about every Coast guardsman is working 12-hour days seven days a week. The Coast Guard is doing the best it can with the limited resources available. The question is how long can America’s “guardians of the sea” sustain this pace? With the increased counterterrorism duties, most of the other assignments have been getting little or no attention. According to the commandant of the Coast Guard, Adm. James Loy, enforcement of the 200-mile limit and other fisheries-protection laws is down “close to zero.” Counter-drug operations have been reduced as much as 75 percent and efforts to prevent illegal immigration are near zero as well.
The Coast Guard can’t keep up this pace without a substantial infusion of money and equipment. Its vessels are old several saw service in World War II and in need of maintenance, as are its aircraft. The Coast Guard ranks are at the lowest number since the 1960s due to severe budget constraints imposed by the Clinton administration and the Congress during the past decade. In short, like all of our other military services, they are continually asked to do more and more with less and less in terms of resources.
In the aftermath of September 11, Congress is looking at the world in a new way and substantial increases in defense spending that were out of the question only a few weeks ago are now a real possibility. The Defense Department is, in fact, getting plenty of attention and funding increases are on the way. Billions of dollars are now being devoted to homeland security, the new catchphrase. As new efforts are made to strengthen and transform the military to deal with 21st century asymmetrical threats, the administration and Congress also need to provide more resources to the nation’s original “homeland defense agency” the Coast Guard. They have a critical role to play in this new world we live in, and they need more resources to get the job done.
Now more than ever, we need the Coast Guard to be semper paratus always ready as its motto proclaims.
Christopher Lehman served as a special assistant for national security affairs to President Reagan. Scott Truver is group vice president of the Anteon Corp.