TCS Daily

The Offshore Defense

By Kenneth Silber - June 6, 2002 12:00 AM

The vulnerability of America's port cities to terrorism via cargo ship is getting growing attention from policymakers and the press. It's increasingly understood that the thousands of shipping containers arriving in the United States each day could be carrying weapons of mass destruction or other lethal freight.

Plans are taking shape for increased inspections of incoming ships at dockside facilities and better tracking of cargo worldwide from its points of origin. Both houses of Congress have prepared legislation mandating tighter port security, and agencies such as the Customs Service and the new Transportation Security Administration are focused on the subject.

However, a technology that might play a key part in safeguarding America's harbors has yet to get much official notice. This technology is the offshore platform.

Platforms have been used by the oil industry for decades, of course, and in recent years there has been growing interest in other uses. Sea Launch, a corporate consortium led by Boeing, now launches satellites from a mobile converted oil rig in the Pacific. In Japan, a project called Mega-Float put an experimental platform in Tokyo harbor. The U.S. military has studied using platforms as offshore bases and helicopter pads.

Imagine if there were networks of platforms located at various points along America's coasts. Such platforms could provide relatively isolated locations for conducting inspections and surveillance. By contrast, inspections occurring inside port facilities run the risk of turning up a weapon that's about to be detonated, with millions of people nearby.

America's six busiest ports are located in or near Los Angeles, New Orleans, Houston, New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia. At present, there is justified alarm at the fact that only some two percent of shipping containers are inspected. But conducting inspections once a ship has arrived at a major population center hardly solves the security problem.

Offshore security platforms could be equipped with state-of-the-art detectors for tracking radiation and dangerous microbes, and with gamma-ray and X-ray equipment for seeing through the metal casings of shipping containers. The platforms could be staffed by security personnel from any of several relevant agencies (Customs Service, Transportation Security Administration, and Coast Guard). In a crisis, Coast Guard or Navy ships could move in quickly as reinforcements. Possibly, some platforms would be largely automated, with detectors and other equipment monitored by officials elsewhere.

The task of the security platforms would be to search not only for bombs and other weapons but also for terrorist stowaways. The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Bob Graham, recently confirmed reports that some two dozen Islamic extremists have slipped into the U.S. aboard container ships and are now at large. The likelihood of such infiltration would be diminished by platform-based inspections.

The technology of platforms has improved steadily over the years, allowing the structures to be increasingly mobile, flexible and durable. In the 1970s, it was a feat to drill in several hundred feet of water. Now platforms operate routinely in thousands of feet of water (and amid storms and icebergs). Platforms offer a considerable degree of stability and floor space for personnel and equipment. Satellite and broad-band communications allow even widely-dispersed platforms to stay in close touch with ships and shore.

Laudably, the growing concern about port security has given rise to a number of innovative ideas in government and policy circles. Plans are taking shape for U.S. officials to conduct inspections in foreign ports, and for cargo ships traveling to the U.S. to be equipped with transponders so they can be tracked on a constant basis. Coast Guard ships will play a stepped-up role in stopping and searching vessels before they arrive at port. Good ideas all, yet such measures would be complemented by security platforms.

Platforms are only part of the solution to the dangers of terrorism against America's ports. But they're a potentially crucial part that deserves serious attention now.



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