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Big Problems Can Come From Small Boats

Many eyes watch for maritime threats.

America depends upon the oceans and waterways in so many ways, but there also are many threats and hazards – such as terrorism, criminal activities, natural disasters, and safety matters — associated with being a maritime nation. The U.S. Coast Guard helps manage and reduce the risks posed by those threats, which range from the smallest pleasure craft to the largest cruise ships and ultra-large crude carrying tankers (ULCCs).

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks focused our maritime security efforts on large commercial vessels, cargoes, and crew, but we also know – from the USS Cole incident, as well as small boat attacks that damaged the M/V Limberg in 2002 and M/V M. Starin 2010, and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks – that big problems can come by way of small boats. The threats may even originate from within U.S. waters.

USS Cole terrorist attack port of Aden

The USS Cole is towed away from the port city of Aden, Yemen, into open sea by the Military Sealift Command ocean-going tug USNS Catawba (T-ATF 168) on Oct. 29, 2000. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer was the target of a terrorist attack in the port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000, during a scheduled refueling. A small craft approached the port side of the destroyer, and an explosion occurred, putting a 40- by 40-foot gash in the ship’s port side. The attack killed 17 crewmembers and injured 39 others. DoD photo by Sgt. Don L. Maes, U.S. Navy

Numerous, relatively inexpensive, and easy to obtain, these seemingly innocuous small boats blend in well with other small vessels commonly operating in the area and can be employed by terrorists or criminals to introduce weapons of mass destruction or deliver explosives, either directly or as a stand-off weapons platform, as well as smuggle narcotics, aliens, criminals, and contraband.

The Coast Guard works closely with a diverse set of government, industry, and public partners as stakeholders to mitigate such risks. Service officials have conducted summits and meetings with such stakeholders as shippers, vessel operators, fishermen, recreational boaters, law enforcement, and other groups to identify and understand threats and how to deter or stop them.

The small vessel threat exists at home as well as abroad. “The challenge is immense, as it involves nearly 13 million registered U.S. recreational vessels, 82,000 fishing vessels, and 100,000 other commercial small vessels,” according to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2008 Small Vessel Security Strategy. “On any given day, a considerable number of these boats share waterways with commercial and military traffic, operating at hundreds of U.S. ports and in the immediate vicinity of critical maritime infrastructure, including bridges and waterfront facilities such as petrochemical plants.”

The Coast Guard and its partners rely on a layered approach to achieve maritime domain awareness. This starts with the international community of coast guards and military services that share information, and moves on to the stakeholders in our own country, and all the way down to the small boat owner or marina operator. Partners include:

  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • Customs and Border Protection
  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • Transportation Security Administration
  • Domestic Nuclear Detection Office
  • Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives
  • Department of Transportation
  • Maritime Administration
  • Department of Defense

Each group of “port partners” will vary, but will include state, local, and tribal authorities and nongovernmental organizations.


Local Observations

“The strong partnership with the small vessel community greatly enhances the maritime domain awareness,” states the Small Vessel Security Strategy.

Quite often, small vessel operators have the most situational awareness about their area and can be extremely effective partners in detecting threats in our ports and on our waterways. Their familiarity with the local waters and patterns of waterway use, as well as their sheer numbers, make it likely that they are the first to recognize anomalies and unusual behavior, and to report suspicious activity to the authorities.

That’s why reporting programs like America’s Waterway Watch (AWW), a combined effort of the Coast Guard and its Reserve and Auxiliary components, are so important to involve those who live, work, or recreate around America’s waterfront areas in reducing security risks.

Whether a report comes from a boat ramp in Tampa, Fla., a fishing boat in Gloucester, Mass., a bait barge off Los Angeles, Calif., or a marina in Annapolis, Md., local observers play a key role in maritime domain awareness. “They have the local knowledge of their ports to know what is normal and what is out of the ordinary,  an anomaly,” said Robert Gauvin, technical advisor of the Office of Vessel Activities at Coast Guard Headquarters.

It is impossible to eliminate all risk. Through technology and improved coordination, cooperation, and communications among stakeholders, the goal is to enhance the ability to detect, determine the intent of, and, where necessary, interdict small vessel threats.

“The measures we take are designed to reduce risk,” said Gauvin.

WatchKeeper is a new information management system that coordinates and organizes port security information. The Web-based application is being developed and tested by the Coast Guard to synthesize and fuse operational and intelligence data from a variety of agency sources to enable and improve collaboration, information sharing, and dissemination and provide options for action when appropriate.

“WatchKeeper helps find anomalies so the port watchstanders can focus on the problems among the myriad of information being received,” said Gauvin.

The service is deploying WatchKeeper to all 35 Coast Guard sectors, which will share the system with port partners and law enforcement agencies to support the DHS Interagency Operations Center framework they are adopting for maritime security.


America’s Waterway Watch

America’s Waterway Watch (AWW) is a combined effort of the Coast Guard and its Reserve and Auxiliary components to connect with the local agencies, the mariners, and the watermen who live and work in America ports, coasts, harbors, and waterways.

If you are out on the water and see suspicious activity, the Coast Guard asks you to call 1-877-24-WATCH,

Capt. Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior writer with MCR LLC in Arlington, Va.

This article was first published in the Coast Guard Outlook: 2012 Edition.


Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...