A growing number of security experts say that, if America’s seaports are, in the recent words of one U.S. senator, the “soft underbelly” of U.S. homeland security, then underwater security at those ports is the most tender spot in that yawning vulnerability, called by one the “soft underbelly of the soft underbelly.”
The potential gaps in this critical aspect of maritime security affect not only the country’s 361 ports, these experts say, but also the protection of 95,000 miles of coastline, complicating by dint of sheer magnitude efforts to identify possible solutions to them.Underwater security, Charles McQueary, the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for science and technology, told GSN recently, “is an area that requires further examination.”
Fresh concern about underwater security comes in the wake of several recent developments. In March, press dispatches from the Philippines noted that two of South East Asia’s most dangerous terrorist organizations linked to Al Qaeda were reportedly jointly training militants in scuba diving for attacks at sea.
Based on the interrogation by the Philippine military of a captured anti-government terrorist bomber, the revelation came just a month after the U.S. Coast Guard, the federal agency with primary responsibility for waterside security at American seaports, announced it had developed a powerful sonar system it said would help better protect the maritime facilities. The new Integrated Anti-Swimmer System (IAS), it said, was so cutting edge that it was able to distinguish between human swimmers and dolphins.
“The threats to our ports and waterways come in many forms, and the Coast Guard is making every effort to ensure we address each potential vulnerability to thwart those who wish to damage this vital part of our nation’s infrastructure,” said Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thomas Collins as the IAS was being unveiled.
Meanwhile, during the FY'06 call for advanced technologies by the Defense Department’s Joint Interoperability Test Command, maritime protection — including underwater technologies — was high on its shopping list. Of 36 advanced concept technology demonstrations (ACTDs) that were briefed to the Pentagon’s Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate, only four maritime-type advanced concept technology demonstrations (ACTDs) were proposed, with the three that included an underwater protection component making it into the final selection. (Final selections have not been released.)
In addition to the ACTD proposals, the U.S. Northern Command is proposing a maritime joint test and evaluation program that will address required doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures to confront threats to the maritime environment, including underwater issues.
The potential use of scuba divers in terrorist attacks was already raised in 2002, when the FBI revealed it was probing whether followers of Osama Bin Laden had begun scuba training to better carry out precision attacks on waterfront targets including power plants, ships at anchor, chemical storage depots and bridges. The use of underwater terrorists, security experts say, would increase the chances of creating havoc even greater than that caused by the 2000 attack, using an explosives-packed boat, on the USS Cole anchored off Yemen, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors.
As part of the growing effort to establish Maritime Domain Awareness, “the Coast Guard has recognized the need to include an underwater component to address criminal and terrorist threats from that sector,” Richard Walker, a senior scientist at the Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center in Groton, Connecticut, told the 7th Marine Transportation System conference last November at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.
“Specifically, we need to be able to detect and respond to potential hostile swimmers and divers in the port environment, we need to be able to inspect ship hulls, piers and bulkheads to detect suspicious objects for further investigation, and we need to enhance our awareness of port channels and bottom characteristics to minimize the threat of harbor mining,” Walker added.
Security experts point out that, while much of the port security effort to date has been to fortify or even install “gates, guns and guards” on land, a seaport’s water perimeter is frequently the most difficult to protect, in no small part because an attacker can enjoy the greatest element of surprise. Often the perimeter is the widest access point to the port and one that has no physical barriers for the entry or exit of ships, divers, swimmers or underwater vehicles, or for boats transiting from other parts of the port. The lines of authority on who controls the approaches to the port can also be murky, as is the delineation of responsibility between the ship and the port facility for monitoring areas around the ship.
Underwater port security includes the ability to inspect, and detect and identify anomalies on ships, bulkheads, piers and channel bottoms, and to employ anti-swimmer technologies. Although waterside port security includes threat platforms found above the water—small vessels such as fast boats and jet skis, as well as swimmers and canoeists—security experts say that it may be just as important to examine the potential threats posed by divers, slow, concealed submersibles, and underwater scooters. Underwater swimmers can serve as an ideal means by which to covertly deliver explosives or a chemical or biological agent to a target, and those with propulsion assistance can carry as much as a 200-pound payload. What’s more, re-breather equipment can be obtained easily by logging on to e-Bay.
For all of these reasons, maritime security experts say, protecting cargo from such threats is just one part of the challenge to effectively identify and track potential terrorists operating underwater.
Countermeasures for these and other threats from the deep are in various stages of development, government and industry sources note. Fiber optic sonar arrays can offer large-scale estuary protection by means of the early surveillance of approaching craft both above and below the water. Seabed mapping, which allows for the quick identification of changes on the seabed, such as new objects dropped upon it, by means of comparison to a database, is critical to the search for buried mines. Hull imaging sonar and diver detection equipment also play important roles, experts say.
The Coast Guard effort to address both criminal and terrorist underwater threats has sent it into several directions. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a number of 100-member Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs), rapid response forces trained in underwater searches and inspections, have been assigned to vital ports and other maritime facilities around the country.
At the policy development level, it established an Underwater Port Security Working Group, made up of representatives of Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the Transportation Security Administration, and other port security partners, to implement promising technologies to mitigate the threats. At the same time, an effort by the Groton research center to float a multi-million dollar “blanket purchase authorization” heavily oriented towards underwater detection technology has been stalled since late last year inside the Department of Homeland Security, one well-placed source told GSN.
The powerful sonar system developed by the Coast Guard and unveiled in February is one example of those technologies. It scans the waters in and around a port, then sends an alert to a land-based command center about possible divers in the area. A response boat then lowers a second sonar into the deep to confirm the discovery, sending back high-resolution images of any intruder. A lightweight version of the IAS was also developed as a highly mobile MSST application.
The system, developed in collaboration by the Groton research center together with the University of Texas-Austin and the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center San Diego, also includes a diver recall system to issue warnings and commands to underwater suspects. So far, however, the device has been only deployed periodically, particularly when high-value targets such as military ships or LNG vessels return to port, and has been mostly used on the West Coast, although some training has also taken place on the East Coast and on the Gulf of Mexico, according to several well-placed sources.
The IAS also employs a diver recall device for notification that specially crafted to meet Coast Guard requirements. Because the long-range transmission of an intelligible message is hindered in relatively shallow-draft ports, due to the reverberations of sound, the Coast Guard issued a contract last July for the development of up to 20 prototype units of an Underwater Loudhailer that would allow clear communications with potentially hostile swimmers out to 500 yards. Work on the battery-powered one-way acoustic device should be done this summer, according to Coast Guard projections.
A third IAS component is designed to fortify the Coast Guard’s arsenal of non-lethal weapons with which it, as a law enforcement agency, employs the lowest level possible on a use of force continuum to compel compliance by potential intruders. Within the last two years, it has developed two acoustic impulse devices—small water guns and air guns—whose impulse effect imitates that of a certain species of snapping shrimp that stuns its prey before eating them. Preliminary tests of both types of weapons by the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Division Newport Acoustic Test Facility at Dodge Pond in Nianic, CT, showed them to be “highly reliable and consistent,” allowing for a scalable approach consistent with Coast Guard needs.
Not all port security officials are convinced, however, that underwater threats are the most immediate ones they face. As the chief security officer at a major Northwest port told GSN: “There are easier ways of disrupting a port” than seeking to “clandestinely deliver an explosive charge in a deepwater port with strong currents.” Others question whether the trade off using sonar equipment potentially harmful to the environment for a threat that remains, to date, untested.
Others point out that improvements in underwater security in the United States still lag behind those that have been initiated in several other countries, including Singapore and Israel. Working with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, one of the world’s largest ports, that country's Stratech Systems Ltd., recently announced the development of what it calls a Vessel Image Processing System, which, according to its Web site, includes the intelligent fusion of vision, radar and underwater sonar, and “automatically detects, identifies, tracks and predicts the sea vessels passing through a waterway.” U.K.-based L3 Klein and Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime also offer a dynamic array of hydroacoustic systems, underwater camera systems, and other underwater security products.
Closer to home, VideoRay LLC, of Exton, PA, offers an eight-pound underwater robot that is equipped with scanning sonar and Desert Star software for mapping ship hulls. Following a March training session using the VideoRay rover by members of the Southeastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, Fairhaven Police Chief told the Standard Times: “We were very impressed with the capabilities of the rover. It shows a clear picture of the bottom. It is going to be very valuable to locate things in the water.” And in April, ComCam International Inc., of West Chester, Penn., announced the successful demonstration of its enabled underwater robots that were tracked through a Web-based Geographic Information System enterprise in Colorado and controlled by users in Hawaii.
The Nashua, NH-based NuvoSonic offers a suite of maritime strategic asset protection and intervention products that some say offer particular promise for underwater security. Its Parametric Port Security Sonar System (P2S3) boasts detection ranges some 5-10 times that of conventional sonar alternatives (enabling the detection of underwater divers entering restricted areas at ranges of several thousand meters, rather that the 100-400 meters of other systems). The P2S3’s Parametric Array Sonic Echo Ranging (PASER[tm]) sonar technology uses narrow laser-like low frequency beams of sound that can cover a large search area through electronic scanning. The P2S3 can be deployed from both helicopters and small surface craft to increase sensor mobility. The company also offers a invisible underwater barrier that can be used to form protective perimeters around maritime installations and choke points such as harbor entrances. “There are no Swiss army knives when it comes to sonars,” noted NuvoSonic’s Joerg Laves. “Each [has] special requirements that need specialized equipment.”
Laves expressed his appreciation for the fact that the underwater systems are getting new attention, saying he agreed that, when it comes to underwater port security in the United States, it is still "the soft underbelly of the soft underbelly.”