Maritime Security Overview


Has the maritime security picture got worse over the last sixteen months and has anything really changed in the fundamentals? I think my answer to both those questions is NO, although it is a rather qualified NO in the case of the fundamentals. The threat assessments from the Security Service do not show a generally significant shift in the maritime threat since the attacks in September last year, although there are regional exceptions, notably the Gulf area, which remained volatile even before the LIMBURG incident. So, in a sense, nothing is new in terms of the methods and movements. What is undoubtedly new, is the greatly increased awareness of the potential problem, and here there is a perhaps a change in the fundamentals, driven by a perception of the need to tighten up the way maritime trade operates.

To this day, the maritime world remains a remarkably opaque one. Ownership, insurance, operators, charterers, bankers are all involved and are all very reluctant to reveal full details of all the business. The whole system has grown up over millennia in a somewhat anarchic way, and still today there is something of the buccaneer in the shipping world. In addition, the extraordinary growth in world trade over the last twenty years, globalization and the just-in-time systems which have evolved, have all made the gathering of knowledge about cargoes more and more difficult.

Recent Changes to Fundamentals

If the use of maritime transport has been underway for years with little change, then what are the fundamentals that may have changed over the last year? The factors which I see have changed are:

  • The manners and customs of the sea
  • The position of the USA
  • The greatly increased fear of the weapon of mass destruction
  • The concept of pre-emption rather than preparation
  • An awareness of the possibilities of mass casualties.
  • The rise in perception of maritime threats affects the way that mariners will behave, whether in terms of dealing with stowaway asylum seekers who could be terrorists, or giving help ship to ship when the apparently suffering victim could be ready to attack the helper. This remarkable change in manners and customs of the sea, although very understandable, is also very regrettable.

    The position of the United States has changed markedly from being open, feeling safe and being somewhat relaxed (since aviation and ports have been designed for speedy internal US business use), to implementing strict new rules on travelling to the United States, changes in container operations and other security initiatives. The US administration has made it clear in many ways that they intend to change the way we all do business with them - and inevitably, the 'US effect' will be felt worldwide. Their trading position is such that we will all have to reach an agreement with them in some way. By giving the container security initiative to the World Customs Organization and the International passes for seamen to the International Labour Organization, some of the most contentious and very complicated questions have been given a better chance of being genuinely agreed internationally. In looking at changes to maritime security regimes, the inevitability of residual risk must be accepted. It is vital that whatever protective security systems are put in place be realistic, enforceable and proportionate. For instance, a question which is troubling for much of the maritime industry, and which has been aired in Lloyds' List several times, is why certain ports in the United States are now no longer allowing ships' crews ashore for leave, while every day thousands of foreign aircrew fly in and out of the country as normal. Is there any evidence that these ships' crews are terrorists and the aircrew are not? Is this proportionate and realistic?

    And those same requirements lead to the question of weapons of mass destruction. This is one area where governments are understandably still taking consequence-based actions since the implications of getting it wrong are understood to be almost totally unacceptable. To cause panic in a major city such as London, the volume of chemical or biological agent required would be physically small. We would all accept that it is difficult to manufacture a weaponsgrade agent and that its storage conditions are crucial to its success. The fact remains that nearly three million maritime containers travelling through Felixstowe each year make the task of finding the relevant needle of a thermos flask very difficult in such vast haystacks. Under the Container Security Initiative and other plans for the protection of the containers, we should end up with a much less anarchic system where the provenance of a container and its contents will be much clearer.

    Attack Prevention

    The best way of preventing attacks is to set up systems, which prevent exploitable situations being available, and pre-emption is a key part of that. Was there anything that the operators of the building could have done to prevent the September 11 attack? No. Was there anything the operators of the aircraft could have done? Yes. Locked cockpit doors might well have prevented the attack. The terrorists might then have assessed that they needed guns to scare the crew into doing their will - but with the cockpit locked, that might have prevented the attack. In any case, if they had judged that guns were necessary, then the chances of being caught at the airport checks on the ground might have been increased. Was there anything the airports could have done? Yes. They could have been more diligent in their searching. Was there anything the FBI/CIA could have done? Yes, if the reports about the odd flying training patterns are true, and that would have happened some two years before the attacks. Take the USS COLE attack. Was there anything the US Navy might have done differently? Yes, by sending the ship to the Gulf about twenty-four hours earlier, she could have travelled at economical speed and thereby avoided the need to take fuel in Aden, whatever the then current policy was. Once at the buoy with the fuel lighter alongside, and with the absence of any intelligence to indicate the likelihood of an attack, she was a sitting duck. Finally the LIMBURG: was there anything the ship's crew might have done differently or better? Clearly there is a long way to go before all the facts are known, but it seems that the honest answer is no. The solution does not lie with a stationary, unmanoeuvrable monster, but rather with the littoral state. Enhancing our focus on preemption seems to me to be important, but can be difficult because it requires very good co-ordination in the governmental machinery and may well require a significant amount of co-operation from the industry, and from other governments.

    I believe that in the UK we have a history of making security work well and over the years we have built up a good rapport between MI5, TRANSEC (the Regulator), and the shipping interests. We have few agencies involved and, by having people in post for several years in each area, that trust has time to develop and blossom. By contrast, it is fair to say that the US has many different agencies, their political system is markedly more complicated, and the sheer geographic scale dwarfs anything the UK can produce. Because of the dominant position of the United States, it is also inevitable that we will generally start with what they want to see, and then have the problem of turning that into something that can be made to work on an international basis. The maritime world is heading for change and there is clearly a need to put in place a shield, which will deliver a reasonable level of security. It will be far better to have a shield that is based on good intelligence systems, and is proportionate and manageable, rather than some extravagant wish list, which would be unenforceable.

    The final change I see is in the question of mass casualties. The appalling loss of life at the World Trade Center made it inevitable that nations would consider the risks and preparedness for such an event. In the UK we have initiated significant work over the last year to try to identify what threats there are which could lead to mass casualties - with terrorism as the trigger. As ever in this sort of work, we have found several areas where, terrorism or not, there are risks. The problem now is to develop a procedure for dealing with those risks and to try to reduce the vulnerability or, at least, to develop procedures to mitigate the effects.


    While the general threat to the maritime world has not increased significantly over the last sixteen months, the understanding of the vulnerabilities has changed. The key need in many areas is to ensure that the people dealing with security involvement are properly trained, motivated and refreshed. At the same time, as new international systems are developed at the higher level, whatever is produced must be proportionate and practical. While the questions of nuclear, biological and chemical casualties are challenging, the responses must be manageable and realistic. To achieve all this on a broad international scale is very demanding and there is an immense challenge in ensuring that the playing fields remain as level as possible because without that, co-operation will not be forthcoming. What the IMO is trying to develop will subsequently stand or fall by the integrity of the application of the systems. As with airports, all the port and cargo protective security in the world is not going to be effective unless the staff (in the widest sense) apply it honestly and effectively.

    Richard Davey is Maritime Security Advisor to the Ministry of Defence

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