Defense Media Network

International Port Security Program

The Coast Guard’s watchful eye monitors security of ports overseas.

America pays close attention to maritime security. The nation’s Marine Transportation System, which includes our ports, waterways, and vessels, handles more than $900 billion in international commerce every year. Shut down our ports and you shut down our economy. The U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) knows that port security at home depends on secure ports with our trading partners abroad.

“The Coast Guard employs a holistic layered approach to maritime security that is designed to detect, deter, and prevent the methods of terror and terrorists as early as possible in the event chain,” said Adm. Robert J. Papp, the commandant of the Coast Guard. “An example of a ‘far-from-the-homeland’ element of this layered security system is the International Port Security (IPS) Program, which verifies that effective anti-terrorism measures have been instituted in foreign ports to help reduce the risk to U.S. ports.”

The Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) of 2002 mandates the USCG to assess anti-terrorism measures in foreign ports. From that congressional mandate the IPS Program was born and became responsible for assessing and in some cases strengthening port security in the ports of the United States’ foreign trading partners. “Our area of responsibility encompasses all of the world’s maritime trading nations – roughly 150 countries. We are the foreign port component of the United States’ global supply chain security efforts,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bryan Ulmer, who works from the IPS Program’s Atlantic Area office.

The Coast Guard began conducting port security assessments in 2004. Since then, security assessments have been completed in more than 150 nations that conduct maritime trade with the United States. In fact, most of these countries have actually been formally assessed more than once and visited several times by IPS Program personnel. “We attempt to visit the country to observe the security conditions,” said Cmdr. Tanya Schneider of the IPS Program’s program management office in Washington D.C., “We meet with the people who are responsible for port security for our maritime trading partners and verify that their ports comply with international security regulations.”

Lt. Cmdr. Jose Perez (right) discusses waterside security with the Port Facility Security Officer in Punta Europa’s facility in Equatorial Guinea in 2010. Since 2004, security assessments have been completed in more than 150 nations that conduct maritime trade with the United States. U.S. Coast Guard photo

After 9/11, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) amended the 1974 International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea to include new “Special Measures to Enhance Maritime Safety.” This included the International Ship and Port Facilities Security Code (ISPS Code), which provides a framework for governments, agencies, and the shipping industry for conducting risk management between potential threats and vulnerability of ships and port infrastructure.

The ISPS Code requires that governments carry out security assessments to “identify and evaluate important assets and infrastructures that are critical to the port facility as well as those areas or structures that, if damaged, could cause significant loss of life or damage to the port facility’s economy or environment.”  It also requires security plans to be prepared to address a variety of issues involving the protection of the ship-port interface. The ISPS Code applies to “passenger ships and cargo ships of 500 gross tons and upward, including high speed craft, mobile offshore drilling units, and port facilities serving such ships engaged on international voyages.” Because it is the internationally accepted standard, the ISPS Code is the primary benchmark against which the Coast Guard measures effective anti-terrorism measures in foreign ports.

Currently there are 15 countries that the Coast Guard has found to be not maintaining effective anti-terrorism measures. A Coast Guard Port Security Advisory (PSA) provides the public with the latest list of countries whose ports are not maintaining effective anti-terrorism measures. Vessels that come to the United States that visited any of those listed countries during one of their five most recent port calls are subject to conditions of entry and they must take additional security precautions. These vessels are normally boarded or examined by the Coast Guard to ensure the vessel took required actions while in those ports.

If a foreign port does not have adequate anti-terrorism measures, the Coast Guard, in conjunction with the Department of State, is further mandated to establish training programs to assist those countries in improving their anti-terrorism posture, which in turn can reduce the security risk to the United States from vessels that arrive from those ports. Some countries simply lack the expertise and resources to make major improvements on their own and rely on the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance.

The ISPS Code serves as the IPS Program’s minimum standard for what constitutes effective anti-terrorism measures.  Depending on the country, IPS personnel may also encourage nations they work with to not only meet but exceed the minimum requirements for ISPS Code compliance. In fact, the Coast Guard is actively working to help nations reduce risk to their ports by providing them with information on measures the Coast Guard successfully adopted here at home, and help the international partners in combating maritime terrorism by discussing maritime domain awareness, maritime operations, and maritime authorities in place.

The IPS Program also promotes mutually beneficial port security initiatives through international bodies such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the IMO. In some cases, financial support from these nations is available to nations to improve their port security posture.

Unlike the Coast Guard’s security assessments in U.S. domestic ports, the IPS Program has no international authority to enter, much less inspect, other countries’ ports. To bridge the gap between what was required of the Coast Guard and what other countries might allow them to do, the IPS Program developed the International Port Security Liaison Officer (IPSLO) positions. IPSLOs are assigned to each U.S. maritime trading partner and are usually the preliminary and always the primary contact with the port officials in their assigned countries. As a former IPSLO, Schneider said the job was not just about being an inspector. It was also about relationship building. “We work with the host nations and port authorities on issues regarding implementation of the ISPS Code. We share best practices. We learn from them, just as they can learn from us. We discuss the basics of how the country’s port and maritime security works.” When a country is found to lack effective anti-terrorism measures, Schneider said the liaison officers stay engaged with the country to try to assist them in improvement efforts and monitor their progress.

Although the jobs may sometimes sound exotic and exciting, the IPSLO jobs are hard work and can even be dangerous. IPSLOs are typically on the road half of the year. They take trips to many countries that require malaria medication, special vaccinations and sanitary food precautions while in country. Some locations that IPSLOs visit are even considered hazardous duty and war zones.

Students from Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic listen to a brief delivered by the Coast Guard on port security at a facility in Santo Domingo, D.R., March 9, 2009, during Tradewinds 2009. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Evanson

“In many cases, the only exposure a foreign government will ever have with the U.S. Coast Guard is through the international port security liaison officer,” said Capt. Adam Shaw, who recently completed an assignment as IPSLO coordinator at Coast Guard Activities Europe. “During a port security visit, it is not uncommon for an IPSLO to field a wide range of questions regarding port state control detentions, boarding officer training, small boat procurement, search and rescue doctrine, response to marine environmental pollution, and more.”

Shaw said an IPSLO’s most critical skills involve effective cross-cultural communications, diplomacy, and the ability to get a wide range of agencies to work together in support of a common goal. “The success of the International Port Security Program has garnered the U.S. Coast Guard a unique role in global maritime security and has allowed us to develop strong diplomatic ties with our international maritime trading partners.”

Along with their regular assessments, the IPS Program has some noteworthy accomplishments from 2010 alone.

  • The IPS Program partnered with the Delaware National Guard (DNG) and the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard (TTCG) to improve that Caribbean nation’s port security capabilities. Trinidad is a key departure point for LNG shipments to the United States. The IPS Program and DNG hosted representatives from the TTCG to the United States and visited Port Everglades to learn how the United States has implemented the ISPS Code. This was just one of 15 reciprocal visits to U.S. ports hosted by the IPS Program for representatives of maritime trading partner nations. Other noteworthy reciprocal visits were those involving Jamaica and Aruba, the first such visits for both countries.
  • Working jointly with the government of France, first time port security assessments in Guadeloupe and Martinique were conducted and it enhanced the already strong working relationship between the Coast Guard and French General Directorate of Infrastructure and Maritime Transportation.
  • The IPS Program helped coordinate the first ever large-scale maritime exercise in St. Kitts and Nevis, supported with funding obtained from Transport Canada and facilitators and planners from the OAS.
  • When the earthquake in Haiti caused massive damage to the port of Port-au-Price, IPS personnel conducted a prompt and comprehensive review subject to the ISPS Code and helped Haitian officials ensure adequate safety and security of personnel and property. This resulted in the secure movement of cargo which was critical to recovery efforts and the country’s survival.
  • Next to Haiti is its neighbor the Dominican Republic, where the IPS Program has been working with port security officials on port facility drills, exercise programs, and audit procedures to improve port security. This is especially important as the country has become a major transit point for illicit narcotics.
  • Strategically situated at the Straits of Hormuz, Oman is a critical trading partner and a vital U.S. ally in that part of the world. The IPS Program, working with the U.S. State Department, revitalized the U.S.-Omani maritime partnership and successfully completed a port security assessment in July.
  • In Timor-Leste, the IPS Program partnered with the U.S. departments of Defense and State and the government of Timor-Leste to develop a comprehensive port security improvement strategy. The IPS Program helped develop and implement security protocols including access control, port facility monitoring, and information-sharing between industry and security personnel, which significantly improved security in Timor-Leste’s major port of Dili.  A ministry-level delegation from Timor-Leste also came to the United States for a reciprocal visit to learn about the implementation of the ISPS Code in U.S. ports.
  • The USCG and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s (SPC) Regional Maritime Programme (RMP) signed a Memorandum of Understanding that enhances IPS cooperation in the Pacific and allows for USCG IPS Program personnel to participate as observers during maritime security audits in SPC member countries and territories. The agreement also allows for RMP personnel to join USCG delegations on IPS Program visits, and IPS Program personnel participated in maritime security audits in the Marshall Islands, Cook Islands, and Samoa, improving bilateral and multilateral cooperation in Oceania.

Ulmer knows his job is important. “We consult with foreign governments and port facility operators all over the world about their implementation of the ISPS Code and port security measures designed to prevent maritime commerce from being exploited by those who seek to do harm.”

Commuting to the four corners of the globe is half the battle. Once you get there, adapting to the culture and seeing the world through a perspective different from your own is fundamental to success. Rounding out the challenge, Coast Guard representatives must find common ground with the host country’s port security officials – and sometimes attempt to convince them – to take action or make changes that may be difficult.

“It is both challenging and gratifying to represent the Coast Guard and the U.S. government in foreign arenas,” stated Ulmer. “Putting the Service’s best foot forward and advancing the interests of the U.S. and global supply chain security community falls – at least in part – on our shoulders.”

This article originally appeared in Coast Guard Outlook: 2011 Edition.


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