TS Empire State VI (Glenn Fitzpatrick/Creative Commons)

MARAD Leader: Crisis Sealift Fleet May Harbor ‘Significant’ Cyber Vulnerability

The head of the U.S. Maritime Administration told House appropriators last week that seafarers aiding in national security operations face a “real challenge” in not just deflecting cyber attacks but powering through a breach to keep critical missions up and running.

“It’s a great concern for us, especially in the area of autonomous vessels and limited-manning-type vessels. Most ships today, sailing seas, rely on GPS positioning technology. A GPS signal is a very weak signal, and it’s very easily spoofed, very easily interrupted, which, in a ship that’s operating autonomously, could lead to some pretty dire consequences,” MARAD Administrator Rear Adm. Mark Buzby said during the House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing.

“This is a major concern that, as we’re looking down the road and working with industry and potentially moving into more autonomy and vessels, we have a working group that we — with a couple — along with the Coast Guard and industry — to look at specifically how we address this sort of threat, going down the line,” he added, noting as an example Maersk Line taking a $300 million hit to their terminal operations due to a cyber attack last summer. “So it’s a very real issue. And, you know, most companies, although they believe they have fairly good security, really don’t.”

“And where it gets even more critical is those civilian shipping companies are the ones that are going to carry the majority of our sealift in time of national emergency or crisis. We do business with them, DoD and MARAD do business with these companies. And so our systems interface with their systems and leads to some potential, significant vulnerability.”

Buzby told lawmakers that, working alongside U.S. Transportation Command, “we are very actively looking at information-sharing regimes where, if one operator sees an attack or senses an attack, can notify everybody else to get their guards up.”

“And also, how we work through a continuity of operations sort of thing so that, if someone does get attacked and we — and our systems do go down, how do we fight through, how do we continue to deliver the goods to our soldiers and sailors,” he added.

The hearing reviewed MARAD’s fiscal year 2019 budget priorities, including the intent to “increase the size of the U.S.-flag fleet engaged in foreign trade to ensure sufficient capabilities to support Department of Defense sealift requirements.”

The Maritime Security Program, which ensures access to U.S.-flag ships, ocean-borne foreign commerce and the intermodal logistics networks to move military equipment and supplies during armed conflict or national emergencies, has requested $214 million, or $3.6 million for each of the 60 ships currently enrolled in the program.

“While it is fully recognized that this request is less than the authorized level for MSP, it reflects the hard choices as the administration pursues rebuilding DoD capabilities. The department strongly supports MSP and recognizes the critical contribution it plays in this nation’s security,” Buzby said.

As far as MARAD’s government-owned fleet of merchant ships and the National Defense Reserve Fleet, the admiral urged support for these vessels “activated to provide relief efforts following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria and, in the past year, supported DoD with the largest round of… sealift operations in decades.”

“The ability to crew these government-owned surged sealift assets requires maintaining an adequate pool of qualified U.S. merchant mariners in peacetime,” he added, highlighting the $74.6 million budget request for the United States Merchant Marine Academy, with $70.6 million going toward operations and another $4 million directed for repairs and improvements to existing infrastructure.

Additionally, $24.4 million is requested for half a dozen state academies, including $22 million for maintenance and repair of the federally owned school ships.

Congress allocated $300 million in FY18l for the construction of a new national security multi-mission training vessel, and $300 million is requested in FY19 to replace the outdated training ship school fleet.

“Building a large ship in the United States is a big deal, and we’re especially pleased it is going to be a training vessel,” the admiral said of the planned replacement for the T.S. Empire State. “This country has never had a purpose-built training ship, so this will be a real first.”

MARAD intends for the training-ship construction to be overseen by a “U.S. shipping company who has recent experience building a ship in U.S. shipyard.” The agency is aiming to have the construction manager under contract within the next few months, and is planning an Industry Day this month “where we invite in all interested parties to come over to our headquarters to look at the design and talk about our acquisition plan,” Buzby said.

Construction is expected to take a little over two years.

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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