Mines and Underwater Ieds in U.S. Ports and Waterways

By Truver, Scott C. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Mines and Underwater Ieds in U.S. Ports and Waterways


Truver, Scott C., Naval War College Review


Context, Threats, Challenges, and Solutions

Abroad spectrum of nontraditional and asymmetric threats challenges U.S. maritime homeland security.1 The smuggling of drugs, arms, and people; vesselborne improvised explosive devices, like that used by terrorists against the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole in October 2002; proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high-explosive weapons of mass destruction and disruption; piracy and organized crime; overexploitation of marine resources and the destruction of marine habitats; environmental attacks and trade disruption; political and religious extremism; mass migration flows; global health threats (e.g., the spread of infectious diseases like SARS and avian flu)-all these and more pose far-reaching dangers for American security interests at home and abroad. Under the cloak of legal activity, groups that would do us harm can enter the U.S. homeland anywhere along more than ninety-five thousand miles of coastlines and through some 360 ports from Maine to Guam.

"The challenge is enduring," Admiral Thad W. Allen, Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard, wrote in his foreword to the Coast Guard's 2007 maritime security strategy.2 "The threats of the Cold War are gone, and we again find ourselves operating in an environment where piracy, illegal migration, drug smuggling, terrorism, arms proliferation and environmental crimes are carried out by anonymous, loosely affiliated perpetrators."

Naval mines and underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIEDs, or minelike "booby traps") are among these threats to U.S. maritime interests.3 A true "sleeper threat," mines and UWIEDs can with great effect attack the good order of American ports and waterways. They are the quintessential asymmetric naval weapons, used for more than two centuries by weak naval powers against the strong, regardless of whether they were "unworthy of a chivalrous nation," as Rear Admiral David G. Farragut, of "Damn the torpedoes!" fame, declared.4 If left unaddressed, they could constitute an Achilles' heel for U.S. homeland security.

Until very recently, naval mines and UWIEDs, if included in domestic maritime threat assessments at all, have usually been relegated to the status of a "lesser included" problem.5 If we can deal, it is argued, with what planners believe are the more likely maritime threats, especially vesselborne devices, we can certainly handle mines and underwater IEDs. But the history of naval and terrorist mining since 1945 challenges this assumption, and the stakes are high if it turns out to be wrong. Indeed, the assessments and planning that have focused on the M/UWIED threat underscore critical weaknesses in how federal, regional, state, and local actors charged with ensuring America's maritime security, as well as private entities whose assets are at risk, must respond to weapons that can easily be deployed in U.S. ports and waterways.

THE NATURE OF THE M/UWIED THREAT

In the American experience, the first use of UWIEDs came in September 1776, when the patriot (or, in English eyes, terrorist) David Bushnell attempted to fix a limpet mine on Lord Howe's flagship HMS Eagle in the Hudson River.6 Bushnell's attack was frustrated by bad luck and the "passive protection" of the ship's iron fittings. Fifteen months later, Bushnell used floating kegs of gunpowder fitted with contact-firing mechanisms against the British fleet above Philadelphia; four British sailors died trying to retrieve the kegs from the Delaware River-an early example of explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) against an unknown threat-but the fleet was unscathed.7

More than two centuries on, terrorists can use or threaten to use mines and UWIEDs for a variety of political, economic, or military ends, often with psychological effects foremost in mind. While small devices might have no more than nuisance value, as a way to exacerbate anxieties (Boston's reaction to "guerrilla marketing" in early 2007 comes to mind), larger mines can be placed surreptitiously in channels and harbors to achieve spectacular effects-against, for example, the Staten Island Ferry, crammed with 2,500 commuters during an evening rush hour, or a cruise ship with four thousand vacationers and crew on board leaving Miami or Seattle.

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