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Why the Navy Should Upgrade its Waterside Security in Port

port security barrier
A U.S. Navy Port Security Barrier (PSB) upside down after a storm (Luke Ritter)

By Luke Ritter 08-27-2020 11:28:00

The strength and integrity of the US Navy has been challenged intermittently over the past two hundred and forty-three years, usually by enemy combatants of similar size and strength. The last time our Fleet faced a threat from non-state adversaries, such as the ones we are fighting today, was the early 1800’s when President Jefferson faced down the Barbary pirates. In the last twenty five years, our enemies have perfected small scale, asymmetric attacks that can devastate ships in port. The defensive measures that the Navy has taken to install waterside security barriers, at U.S. Naval bases, is likely not enough to protect the American. An opportunity exists for the U.S. Department of Defense to invest in enhanced waterside security protection for our sailors and ships.

The Mandate

Historical events and current intelligence indicate that Navy ships are desirable targets for terrorists, and vulnerable to waterborne attack while in homeport, and while calling in foreign ports for re-provisioning, maintenance, liberty, or public relations events. Terrorists proved the devastating effectiveness of attacking a ship in port when they struck the USS COLE (DDG-67) in Yemen on October 12th, 2000. This attack was a wake-up all for the U.S. Navy. All concerned made an immediate calculation about the potential impact that a similar attack could have if a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, or submarine, were targeted. More recently, terrorist groups have used advanced technology, including remotely operated (drone) boats, to attack warships, ports, and critical infrastructure in the Middle East. It is logical to expect that this kind of attack profile will eventually be used in the United States, and in foreign ports, against U.S. Navy vessels.

Phase I

U.S. Navy leadership did, in fact, already taken action to better protect ships and crews in port. Almost 20 years ago the first, reflexive action taken to put walls in the water consisted of building barriers with whatever was on hand – ship fenders, swimming area markers (floats on a rope), and other make-shift solutions were rushed into service. These first attempts to address the issue were well intentioned, but in reality, they provided nominal protection at best. One shipyard’s proposal to use a string of floating logs, or telephone poles, could easily have caused unintended injuries to civilians. This solution also left the Navy open to lawsuits from recreational boaters if they collided with objects that were difficult to see in the water. Inflatable Dunlop barriers were eventually selected as an immediately available, commercial off-the-shelf solution, but they also quickly proved ineffective, expensive, and difficult to maintain. Phase I was not a success.

Phase II

In search of a more effective solution, and challenged by the lack of commercially available options, Navy Facilities Engineering Service Command (NFESC) developed their own, organic solution – the Port Security Barrier (PSB). PSB’s consisted of pontoons supporting a metal framework, and a cargo net – in short: a floating fence. They were quickly procured and deployed, temporarily satisfying the Navy’s urgent need to have some type of barrier system in place. Given the time and budget constraints they faced, and the lack of viable commercially available solutions at that time, the PSB’s were a reasonable attempt to accomplish the waterside security mission. Call this Phase II.

Unfortunately, in the rush to get a solution to the Fleet, the PSB design did not appear to have been fully vetted by maritime security professionals or structural engineers. Additionally, the PSB’s were not thoroughly tested. Independent evaluators, such as OPTEVFOR, did not subject the PSB’s to various environmental conditions, nor did they crash-test them to verify operational effectiveness. The limited demonstrations that were performed related to the PSB’s, so many years ago, would never stand up to a more modern, Anti-terrorism/Force Protection test protocol today. Bottom line: the PSB’s simply do not, and can not, meet the US Navy’s current performance specifications for waterside security barriers. Curiously, the PSB design and deployment has remained the same for 15 years, and hasn’t been updated to take advantage of advances in modern materials, or tactical input, related to perimeter defenses. Consequently, many of the known and potentially serious design vulnerabilities associated with the PSB’s have not been eliminated. Phase II was not a success either.

Invest in Security for the Fleet

Extensive opportunities exist to invest in enhanced security for US Navy vessels in port:

  • Deploy a barrier solution that will pass tests focused on published performance specifications.
  • Install barriers that are not vulnerable to harsh maritime environmental conditions. The PSBs do not maintain station well. The “floating fence” can be moved significant distances by wind and currents, which has led to encroachment in navigation channels. Additionally, PSBs are unstable in high winds and seas, and are prone to flipping upside down.
  • Ensure that waterside security barriers have adequate stopping power to prevent an attacking boat from damaging a ship.
  • Implement a solution that is stable enough to support additional third-party security equipment. The PSBs can’t be used in conjunction with swimmer nets, radars, diver detection systems, or CCTV cameras.
  • Invest in barriers that have minimum maintenance requirements. The currently installed PSBs require extensive maintenance due to the use of metal components and webbing. Corrosion from the salt-water environment degrades system effectiveness and drives a seven-year (or less) replacement cycle. Some ports are requiring PSB refurbishment, or replacement, as often as every three years.
  • Install waterside barriers that are easy to deploy and have low Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF). PSBs are cumbersome to operate and require service boats to reposition the barrier. Additionally, the PSBs are susceptible to damage and routinely inoperable during high winds and other adverse weather conditions.
  • Invest in a barrier solution that is designed to support deployed Fleet units. The U.S. Fleet still lacks a maritime barrier that can effectively establish a secure perimeter around the vessel while in a foreign port-of-call, or at anchor.

2016 Congressional testimony of Navy senior leadership has acknowledged the inadequacies of the PSB’s and the need for a new generation of barriers. Optimizing protection for the U.S. Navy Fleet is an essential national security priority – it is time for a Phase III.

Phase III

While the Navy has implemented additional protections, such as Electronic Harbor Security Systems (EHSS) and Harbor Patrol Units (HPUs) to support a defense in depth approach to security, those systems are costly and primarily reactive. A modern, properly designed waterside security barrier will, by default, thwart attacks, prevent penetrations, and should also be cost-effective to operate.

Since PSBs were first deployed, new and more technologically advanced barrier systems have become available on the commercial market. This new generation of barriers offers the Navy an opportunity to vastly improve the U.S. Fleet’s homeport and foreign port-of-call waterside force protection posture. Over the last 5 years, the Navy, in conjunction with DoD’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO), and the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), have tested a new solution – a maritime barrier system that solves the known PSB vulnerabilities. This barrier solution represents a quantum leap forward in waterside security technology, and offers a 100% improvement in barrier lifecycle versus PSBs. According to CTTSO, the HALO Maritime Defense Systems (HMDS) barrier exceeds the current Navy Port Security Barrier Standards.

Make it Count

Government testing has catalogued the following attributes that should characterize any next generation barrier system:

  1. Maintain station tightly,
  2. Stop a three-ton small craft traveling 54 mph in less than 10 feet,
  3. Prevent penetration by small craft, swimmers and pedestrians,
  4. Provide a 15-year service life with marine high-grade plastics and stainless steel,
  5. Provide a high-reserve buoyancy to allow mounting a multitude of add-on security technologies,
  6. Provide an automated maritime gate that can be operated remotely.

Next generation barrier systems are also available in mobile/portable configurations that can be deployed on an “as-needed” basis to support ships making port calls worldwide.

Time is of the Essence

It’s fair to say that the Fleet is better protected today, than it was in 2000, but the Navy has not achieved the requisite level of force protection required to effectively mitigate waterside threats. The U.S. Navy has been slow to invest in enhanced maritime security measures and barriers that offer a high probability of success against a determined, modern terrorist adversary.

In 2016, the U.S. Navy testified before Congress that their installed (and current) port security barrier systems did not meet the security requirements to counter the threat posed by high-speed boats (manned or un-manned). Every year following this testimony, the Navy has told Congress, in written communication, that they were committed to developing a “next generation” waterside security program procurement that would, in fact, meet all force protection requirements. Four years later, this next generation barrier program does not exist. In fact, the Navy continues to procure and refurbish legacy barrier systems that they themselves admitted were inadequate to protect the Fleet. The Navy is aware that better barrier technology is needed, and this technology is readily available in the market – so why hasn’t the investment been made? Continuing to spend millions of dollars on a “home-grown” barrier system, that they acknowledge does not work, is a missed opportunity.

Luke Ritter is the vice president of HALO Maritime Defense Systems. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.