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Worldwide maritime interception, search, and destroy

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The recent classified order on maritime interceptions that permits US naval forces to globally board and, if necessary, sink ships suspected of harboring terrorists or WMD is a quantum, but not unexpected, extension of the 2003 Proliferation Security Initiative that allows the US and mostly NATO allies to search suspicious vessels and aircraft and seize illegal weapons or missile technologies.

This extension of the right of self-defense to the high seas has legal authority under Article 51 of the UN Charter that recognizes the "inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member." Means are also being taken to both permit Coast Guard assets to quickly support Naval forces in our territorial waters and allow US naval assets to support global Coast Guard assets that already have the authority to board suspicious ships worldwide.

We’re on the verge of an overdue maritime NORAD under Northern Command (NORTHCOM) that tracks all vessels that enter US and Canadian territorial waters. While the US can already board a ship in US territorial waters or one flagged by a state that has a bilateral boarding agreement with the US, we do not track everything that enters our "seaspace."

While it is feasible to have each vessel entering a maritime NORAD to transpond their position, crew and cargo identification, corporate details and recent port calls, we will still have no cooperation from illegitimate vessels (criminal or terrorist) nor do we have a handle on the global audit trail from port of embarkation through stops en route, cargo loaded and put ashore at each port of call, etc.

Global maritime security is complicated in that too much of the world’s bottoms are effectively untracked in any continuous, effective manner. Even though US intel agencies have set up databases to track ships, cargo, and crew in an attempt to spot anomalies that might point to a dangerous vessel, crew, stowaways, or cargo, vast holes remain among a fleet of 120,000 merchant vessels not counting smaller vessels.

Passing in and out of those holes is an al Qaeda ‘ghost fleet’ that has varied between 12 and 50 "ships of concern" carrying conventional commodity cargo, operatives, and explosives. Gaps in surveillance coupled with new names, registries, hull numbers, and paint allow these vessels to periodically slip away.

The International Ship And Port Facility Code (ISPS) and SOLAS additions are still a work in progress. Add to that the as yet unresolved semi-criminalized registration process of "flag of convenience" nations, some of which ask for virtually no data from shipping firms and even permit email registration, and no wonder that the task is Augean in its proportion and that nautical attacks have risen worldwide as allies have hardened their airports and critical infrastructure.

It is this enormous nautical threat both in coastal and international waters that has been taken so seriously in some parts of government, yet leaves me wondering why in other parts, notably the major TopOff 2 terrorist attack exercise, the littoral threat component in simulated attacks in Seattle and Chicago was ignored.

Gordon Housworth



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