- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 9, 2004

HONOLULU — Pacific Command has undertaken one of the most ambitious and complicated ventures in the war on terrorism as it seeks to prevent seaborne terrorist and criminal assaults on nations bordering the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Called the Regional Maritime Security Initiative, it is intended to prevent terrorists from seizing a vessel loaded with liquid natural gas from slamming into a pier and exploding in Singapore, from scuttling a tanker in the Straits of Malacca to close a vital waterway, or from exploding containers full of chemical fertilizer in busy ports such as Pusan, South Korea; Yokohama, Japan; Oakland, Calif.; or Los Angeles.

The command hopes to prevent terrorists from joining criminals to smuggle illicit drugs, arms and humans who are sold into prostitution or brought illegally into North America. It seeks to crack down on piracy in the South China Sea. The initiative is especially aimed at terrorists plotting an attack with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons of mass destruction.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, who leads the Pacific Command from its headquarters in Hawaii, told a military audience on May 3 in Victoria, British Columbia, that the goal is to forge a partnership of nations willing to identify and intercept “transnational maritime threats under existing international and domestic laws.”

The first hurdle is the immensity of the task. The oceans between the west coast of the United States and the east coast of Africa occupy 20 times the surface area of the United States.

Lloyd’s, the London insurance firm, estimates there are 89,000 ships in the world ranging from 100-ton coastal freighters to the 565,000-ton oil tanker Jahre Viking.

Presumably, more than half of those ships ply these waters, but no one seems to know for sure. Determining where those ships are, where they are headed and what they carry is a primary task.

Adm. Fargo told Congress in March that “we need to gain an awareness of the maritime domain to match the picture we have of our international airspace.”

An airplane takes off or lands somewhere in the world every few seconds, says the International Civil Aviation Organization, which adds: “Every one of these flights is handled in the same uniform manner, whether by air traffic control, airport authorities, or pilots at the controls of their aircraft.”

The technology exists to do the same with ships, including the Global Positioning System, radar, radio communications and transponders emitting signals to a disclose location. The task is to pull that information together swiftly so that law-enforcement agencies, coast guards and navies can intercept any suspicious vessels.

The amount of cargo transported in containers known as TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) is stunning. Shanghai, reflecting China’s ballooning economy, handles 10 million TEUs a year and Hong Kong another 5.3 million. Los Angeles moves 6.6 million containers, and Oakland transfers 2 million.

Law-enforcement officers say that before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, only 2 percent or 3 percent of TEUs were inspected for illegal or dangerous cargo.

That has changed under a customs law scheduled to go into effect July 1 that requires nations shipping to the United States to install counterterror measures including X-rays, surveillance cameras and patrolling guards. A ship that fails to comply might be barred from an American port.

Adm. Fargo has several cautions about the maritime security initiative: It does not envision a new alliance or a new naval force patrolling the Pacific. The intent, he said, is to “empower each nation to take the action it deems necessary to protect itself in its own waters, thereby enhancing our collective security.”

The admiral emphasized that the security initiative would not interfere with national sovereignty but would rely on existing laws and forces. That was intended to alleviate fears among Asians who have cast off Western colonialism since the end of World War II and resent anything that appears to revive Western domination.

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