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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Gazette October 21, 2004

Shipping dangers more troublesome than airborne security, military commanders say

By Tom Roeder

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - (KRT) - U.S. military commanders say one worrisome potential threat from terrorists would be tougher to stop than South American cocaine shipments, which have given military leaders and police headaches for decades.

Protecting American shores from terrorist-run ships quickly is becoming a top priority for leaders at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The problem, however, remains more vast and troublesome than the airborne security lapses revealed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, which led America to begin serious work on homeland defense.

The reason so many leaders are afraid of the water is easy to understand. The United States and Canada have a combined 247,000 miles of coast and lack the personnel to cover that much territory.

Efforts to close the coastline to drugs have stopped a lot of cocaine, heroin and marijuana. Significant quantities of the drugs still reach North American shores, though.

One terrorist boat armed with a chemical or biological weapon could spark a national tragedy, several officials said during a three-day conference on terrorism and homeland security in Colorado Springs last week.

"The old drug paradigm doesn't work with weapons of mass destruction," said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Peterman, whose job includes intercepting shipments of South American cocaine.

Airborne radar and other surveillance systems were perfected during the Cold War to ward off Soviet bombers. The same kind of effort wasn't dedicated to seaborne threats.

Without specific intelligence, differentiating between a terrorist craft and other boats would be extremely difficult, several Navy and Coast Guard sources said.

A large ship in the wrong hands poses an obvious danger.

"The natural gas tanker is always the biggest scenario," said Jeff High, who is overseeing a Coast Guard program to improve sea surveillance.

Large ships are required to carry transponders that record position via satellite, similar to the method used to track planes.

Pleasure craft, generally boats less than 50 feet in length that are tough to spot on radar, could bring havoc to the nation's port cities if they carried germ or chemical weapons.

Canadian Forces Rear Adm. James Fraser, who moved from guarding the west coast of Canada to a job at Northern Command in Colorado Springs, said the problem is larger than one of technology.

"This has to start with intelligence that starts long before the threat gets to you," he said.

That intelligence could range from nonspecific threats against a particular area or region to a tip from a foreign port about terrorists loading weapons on a boat. The key is putting bits of intelligence information together.

The Canadian and American governments are expected to reach an agreement next year that includes a deal for cooperative sea-surveillance in an existing air defense treaty.

A system that can track all maritime traffic, however, "will take a while to develop," Fraser said.

The plan is to combine the intelligence of a number of agencies and resources to get a better picture of what's at sea.

Peterman said such a system essentially would allow the Coast Guard and other services to identify the good guys immediately so they know which ships to monitor.

John Pike, executive director of the defense think tank Global Security.org, said it's time the government started worrying about sea-borne threats.

"I think they are slowly awakening from their slumber," he said.

Fraser and Peterman said the good news is that the decades-long fight against drugs taught both nations big lessons in maritime security.

Stopping terrorists, though, will be tougher.

"We have to be right every time, but they only have to be right once," High said.

Copyright 2004, The Gazette, a division of Freedom Colorado Information