“The Forgotten Threat,” by Captain Jim Howe, USCG (retired)

The US Naval Institute, October 2010 issue, is their “Homeland Security” Issue.  There is not as much “Homeland Security” as you might expect. (There is a Eurofighter Typhoon on the cover.) It does includes articles on dealing with the threat of cross border violence from Drug Cartels and bio-terrorism, but clearly the article with the most Coast Guard implications is “The Forgotten Threat,By Captain Jim Howe, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired), that talks about the threat presented by terrorist attacks using vessels of less than 300 tons.

It outlines the problem and raises a lot of questions, but “it’s complicated.” Basically the thrust is that we have failed to plan. He’s probably right.

“Disappointingly, the resulting “Small Vessel Security Strategy” issued in April 2008 was little more than a skeleton, listing fundamental principles, cataloging a number of existing programs, and containing almost no detail on how potential threats would be addressed. Independent oversight bodies panned the report: DHS’s own inspector general said the agency “has not provided a comprehensive strategy for addressing small vessel threats.”1 Even more troubling, the follow-on implementation plan—arguably the most important piece of the notional strategy—languishes. As this issue went to press it had yet to emerge from the federal bureaucracy. There is, then, no road map to address terrorists’ potential use of small vessels.”

Clearly the Coast Guard is the number one stake holder–should I say bag holder.

What do we do about this is? In the spirit of “completed staff work,” draft a plan and provide it to the Department (this clearly puts the ball in their court). Clearly we have already done some of this. Otherwise we could not have come up with performance criteria.

Yes, some potential targets are impossible to protect. Some responsibility should go to other military services, state and local authorities, and to the owners of shore side facilities. We need to lay out our position. No, it won’t have force until its chewed over by all the interested parties and signed, but looks like someone needs to get it started and there is no one who has more interest in getting these questions on the table than the Coast Guard. That we need to resolve these issues in order to plan our procurement and force allocation should be obvious.

If Captain Howe is wrong and we have planned this out, I hope someone will correct the mistaken impression.

I’d like the headline to read “Coast Guard Foils Terrorist Attack” instead of …

And why weren’t there more articles with a Coast Guard flavor? Maybe we need to think and write more about our role in the department.

4 thoughts on ““The Forgotten Threat,” by Captain Jim Howe, USCG (retired)

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention “The Forgotten Threat,” by Captain Jim Howe, USCG (retired) - CGBlog.org -- Topsy.com

  2. Chuck asks, “And why weren’t there more articles with a Coast Guard flavor? ”

    Well, just how many Coast Guard articles does one see anyway? It takes some courage to speak up and most of this is being done by retirees and senior people, officer and enlisted, who have little or nothing to loose.

    I’ve been doing some reading on the Embargoes from 1807-1809. As much as a Jeffersonian disaster as they were, the Coast Guard learned little from this history. Mostly this era is ignored but it was far more important than the following War of 1812. Much of the discussion in the Congress about the revenue cutters was what purpose would the cutters serve if their numbers would increase. Would they be revenue cutters or would they be “embargo” cutters. Much of the same debate continues to the present. What is the purpose of the Coast Guard? Homeland security, the eventual result of which is economic, or the more traditional roles?

    Albert Gallatin, who was in lock-step with Jefferson, opted for revenue enforcement because he knew the “embargo” role would end in a short period. He was correct. The embargo ended just three months after the Congress authorized an increase in the number of cutters to enforce it. There was a supplemental embargo against the warring European powers but it was a paper exercise and had no real teeth. Gallatin did increase the number of cutters but did it through hiring or leasing rather than construction. When the temporary cutters were not longer needed; he stopped the contract. The hired cutter Hardwicke (at Hardwicke, GA) lasted for only twelve days of service.

    I cannot help but to see this same situation occurring many times in Coast Guard history and it has become part of the culture and combined with the fiscal conservatism of both Hamilton and Gallatin in cutter operations the culture tends to a wait and see outlook that knows all things end at some point and it is better to protect what you’ve got (in the case of antebellum RCS officers–their jobs) rather than project into areas that may cause more harm than good.

    I am sure this cultural aspect is not taught at the CGA. Perhaps it will when the cultural center is built.

  3. There are several reasons the “Small Vessel Security Strategy” is inadequate. First and foremost is the way it was developed – without real support from NSC, and in a very parochial manner by the Coast Guard. Second, the threat simply isn’t there. Yes, a small vessel attack could be catastrophic, but the IC consistently reports that there is no indication that our enemies have the ability and intention to mount such an attack in the near term. And when the strategy is flawed, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the implementation plan languishes.

    The idea that we can develop a “road map to address terrorists’ potential use of small vessels” is wishful thinking. Given the number of vessels under 300 tons available for such an attack, it would be more effective to focus on identifying terrorists before they can act than to create a complicated set of regulatory and other enforcement actions that would apply to every watercraft capable of being used in such an attack.

  4. Choosing to focus on identifying terrorists before they can act is a valid strategy. That might be the choice, but to stop there is very limiting. If we wait until there is information an attack is planned, it is a little late to start planning a response. We are already doing some things including escorting passenger liners, major warships and dangerous cargoes. We can have a plan without “a complicated set of regulatory and other enforcement actions that would apply to every watercraft capable of being used in such an attack.”

    Presumably the strategy would be classified, specifically because we have to make choices that would reveal weaknesses. I would think we would have contingency plans, generated locally based on national guidance.

    For starters, we already have a listing of possible targets of significance for mobilization. We might also have a listing of targets that might be seen as symbolic or high impact civilian targets.

    We should also identify what sorts of security we will leave to the state and local authorities, and to facility owners so we don’t have the “I thought you were doing that!” “Well, I thought that was your job!” conversation after the fact.

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