The Small Boat Threat: No Easy Answers

Published Jan 7, 2011 9:21 AM by Joseph Keefe

Even with all the other challenges on its plate for the coming year, there is perhaps no greater task ahead of the U.S. Coast Guard and the DHS than determining how best to track, control and otherwise mitigate the risks posed by the millions of small boats that regularly operate in U.S. waters. These craft come in all shapes and sizes, from smaller pleasure craft all the way to speedboats, and a thousand other private and commercial platforms. U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen calls it simply, "the small boat threat." He’s talking about those vessels 300 GT and under.

Security and terrorism experts have correctly identified the very real threat to U.S. coastlines from possible smuggling of materials and terrorists in such vessels. Almost ten years ago, former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant ADM James Loy said, “We live in a dangerous world. Domain ‘awareness’ is a critical part of mitigating these dangers.” And, while he certainly didn’t coin the phrase “domain awareness,” he was clearly ahead of his time in realizing what was to come. The challenge of controlling the threat posed by a myriad of small boat platforms will eventually be met by achieving real and defined “domain awareness.” Doing this in a way that provides real value, but also in an economical fashion, will be difficult. In the end, it may be impossible.

Recently, the Passenger Vessel Association (PVA) encouraged the exemption of passenger vessels equipped with Automatic Information Systems (AIS) or sailing in Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) monitored zones from the U.S. Coast Guard’s proposed Long-Range Identification and Tracking regulation. The logic here is that small passenger vessels shouldn’t have to purchase equipment that would duplicate existing tracking information. The fear is that this additional expense could cripple the industry. Meanwhile, recreational boaters are objecting to expanding the AIS run by the Coast Guard to include small craft because it would be costly and impractical. The system currently applies (only) to commercial boats over 65 feet in length.

The Vessel Identification System, RFID technologies and other similar systems have been identified as potential low-cost solutions that might be an acceptable alternative to vessel tracking, especially where it applies to smaller craft. Eventually, the nation’s 18 million recreational boaters may need to register their crafts in a national database and place RFID tags on their vessels. Privacy and civil liberty concerns also made the complaint list of small boaters who worry that the expanding requirements for operator identification and vessel registration are too invasive.

It does seem that everyone wants an exemption. But exemptions will ultimately be the hole through which a potential terrorist will channel his energy in an effort to create mayhem in the one place we cannot afford to have this happen -- in the harbors of our trading ports. As awful as the events of 9/11 were, that event (and in NO way do I mean to minimize what happened in September 2001) may someday seem small in comparison to the destruction of a loaded oil tanker on the Houston Ship Channel, in the wake of a “Cole-style” small boat attack.

I recently had to take a business trip and decided not to check a bag. Before departing, however, I went though my shaving kit and eliminated anything greater than “sample” size toiletries and thought that I had the situation well in hand. Apparently not. Not having properly packaged the items in a clear plastic bag, I ended up getting searched, a process that spanned 15 minutes from the time I hit the X-ray scanner until I finally limped towards the gate with my tail between my legs. Other travelers behind me were, of course, less than happy with me. The point of all of this, however, is to demonstrate the necessity for these rules. I certainly didn’t enjoy the experience, but I also knew it was probably necessary.

I also have a friend who used to fly (pilot) private, single-engine airplanes as a hobby. He no longer flies due to time and money constraints, but he did tell me the other day that the process of going over to the airport for a leisurely flight in a small plane is no longer a simple thing to do. And, you can imagine why. Those same rules are now coming to the waterfront and making their way down the food chain to the smallest and most casual of operators. No doubt the transition will be a painful one for some.

The requirement (for AIS technologies for vessels less than 65 feet in length) is probably not the answer, at least until the technology is better refined and the costs to the consumers drastically reduced. And, just imagine the screen output of an AIS tracking system with 2,500 vessels in a small harbor. Would law enforcement have the ability to track and respond to all vessels being tracked in their area of responsibility, in any event? Right now, probably not.

Research is currently being conducted into developing alternative technologies that might provide similar, but less expensive benefits than the AIS in use today. I don’t pretend to know what the answers will ultimately be, but just as security has come to the airplanes, the airports, large oceangoing vessels and a hundred other places, it is eventually going to arrive at the marina. A national boat registry will likely be one of the first steps, followed by some sort of tracking system. It won’t be easy and it probably won’t be convenient. Hopefully, it won’t impact the taxpayer’s pocketbook in a big way. But, going forward, whatever the solution, “exemptions” from compliance should be the exception, not the rule. -- MarEx

Joseph Keefe is the Managing Editor of The Maritime Executive. He can be reached at [email protected] with questions or comments on this or any other article in this newsletter.