The Coast Guard emphasis on layered defense that works in tandem with state, local, federal and international agencies is critical in protecting ports that terror groups view as attractive targets, Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said.
In a Q&A last week at the National Press Club, Schultz was asked if search-and-rescue is — or should be — the “defining mission of the Coast Guard in the public eye.”
Schultz said that while rescuing more than 22,000 annually is a unique and “defining core mission for us,” securing the “360-plus ports from threats from foreign adversaries — that’s critically important.”
“The $4.6 trillion Marine Transportation System, we’ve got about 45,000 federal aids to navigation, some electronic aids to navigation. We enable that movement of commerce,” he added. “I would say the work at the borders, maritime borders, the drug interdiction work, it’s hard for me to say which is a defining one. I would say the unique instrument called the Coast Guard is that unique instrument when you cobble those various statutory authorities together. We’re multi-missioned. So that ship that does counter drugs has a helicopter that can go off and do a rescue mission as well.”
The Ports,Waterways and Coastal Security responsibility of the Coast Guard is “very much a deterrence mission.”
“The Port of Miami is the largest cruise ship port in the nation. If you go up the coast there, Canaveral is the second largest port, Everglades the third. So in a couple hundred-mile stretch of Florida, from Canaveral South, you’ve got the three largest cruise ship ports in the world, and millions of passengers go through there. You think about from an adversary, a terrorist standpoint, you talk about wanting to impact the psyche or the economic well-being of a nation, those are attractive targets,” Schultz said. “We have sufficient presence on an unpredictable basis using some, you know, different algorithms to help us think about how do you take a finite amount of capacity and cover down in those threats, to make sure we deter things there.”
Then, in Southern California, there are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. “Forty percent of all the things we buy at Macy’s, Walmart, wherever you shop, comes through that one port alone,” the commandant noted. “And we have a physical presence there.”
Additionally, there’s a “presence working” with the cargo ports on cybersecurity, “a regulatory cyber piece that helps, you know, have good behavior.”
“When you think about private interest in a port, if you have a vulnerability in your cyber systems, you might not want to talk about that. That could be seen as an economic vulnerability. But we need to have a conversation,” Schultz stressed. “If there’s an oil spill after the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, there is a process where you have to report that to the National Response Center, and we track that. We make sure private sector responds, or state people respond. If they don’t, the Coast Guard responds, and we work in collaboration. We need to have the kind of behavior if there’s a cyber incident. We need to be able to get after that with the capabilities of, you know, the federal government, the private sector.”
“There was a recent threat and a shutdown in San Diego, and that walked back to a hacker, and I’m not going to reveal the nation-state… but those are threats every day. So we absolutely work across the board. I think the cyber one is really the emerging place that’s most difficult. The NotPetya attack on Maersk. You know, I think it was the Port of LA-LB again that had to replace about 45,000 computers in about a 72- to 96-hour period. And that was because they didn’t have the latest upgrades of Windows and things like that. So you think about, you know, the vulnerability there, the technology is great, but the technology introduces a lot of additional vulnerability, and we have that regulatory work to do in that space with a lot of other stakeholders.”
Homeland security threats smuggled through ports, ranging from terrorists to weapons or dirty bombs, are also “absolutely” a concern for the Coast Guard.
“You start to look at the away game, pushing the border out. If the Vietnamese come back and say yeah, we’re not interested in being compliant, if a Vietnamese flagship comes to a U.S. port for a port call, guess what, that ship doesn’t get on the fast track corridor out here out to Dulles where you pay a couple bucks and you go right to the dock,” Schultz said. “We stop that ship out in international waters 12 miles from our coast, and we say hey, we’ll get a boarding team out there when we can, but you’re not entering the United States until we know what’s on your ship. CBP tracks the cargo. We track the people.”
The layered defense and integration, including CBP analyzing cargo at the point of origin, is especially crucial as new container ships will be carrying some 22,000 shipping containers, he added.
“That said, finding a box buried in the bowels of a ship with 22,000 containers, we’ve got to figure out how you mitigate that. We go on board with radiation detection capabilities,” Schultz continued. “We can start to eliminate what is that threat? You know, is it a leaking cargo? Is it potentially a radiological thing? We don’t want that ship to pull into the Port of New York and then find out we’ve got a problem with it.”
Asked if he can can quantify threats that the Coast Guard has identified and stopped from entering the country, the commandant replied, “That gets into stuff that I think I really can’t publicly talk about.”
“I’d say the good news is those kind of cases are smaller numbers. You know, I think really the layered defense, the partnerships, many of the ports are state-run operations. We have a terrific relationship with the state agencies,” Schultz said. “We really partner across the federal, state, local paradigm, I think as well as any federal agency in the government. I challenge others to challenge that statement.”