A Maritime Traffic-Tracking System: Cornerstone of Maritime Homeland Defense

By Thomas, Guy | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

A Maritime Traffic-Tracking System: Cornerstone of Maritime Homeland Defense


Thomas, Guy, Naval War College Review


Among the many lessons "9/11" has taught is the one that the United States is a vulnerable nation. This is especially true on its sea frontiers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood this; he made a point of it during his first "fireside chat" after Germany invaded Poland, plunging Europe into war in September 1939, twenty-seven months before the U.S. Navy was attacked at Pearl Harbor. American security was, he said, "bound up with the security of the Western Hemisphere and the seas adjacent thereto." It still is. "We seek to keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas." Today, we are engaged in a different war, one that has already come "to our firesides." To help prevent its return Americans must again attend to the security of the seas and their ports. This is doubly true for, despite the emergence of the information age and the decline of the U.S. merchant marine, the United States is still a maritime nation; the security of its harbors and seaports is still of first importance to the well-being of this country. Americans are very dependent on maritime trade, as was recently demonstrated by the significant economic damage done by the short dock strike on the West Coast. It is easy to envision that the economic cost and social impact of simultaneous terrorist attacks on two or more American ports would be huge.

The nation is attempting to grapple with this problem, which is ultimately one of global scope. One part of that problem-but a step that is both critical and manageable in the short term-is to maintain the security of its ports. The United States needs to track and identify every ship, along with its cargo, crew, and passengers, well before any of those vessels and what they carry enter any of the country's ports or pass near anything of value to the United States. This article proposes a system that would provide that tracking capability, as well as a means to meet any related emergency with an appropriate response. This proposal-the result of months of war games, conferences, and working groups dealing with the maritime aspects of homeland security-is intended to be a strawman, a thought starter, a means of generating informed debate on how and why the United States might build a maritime counterpart to the flight-following systems of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).1

Not everyone supports this idea. Some believe it is too difficult, or not worthwhile, or both. Admiral Vern Clark, the Chief of Naval Operations, is not one of these; he has twice called for the creation of a "maritime NORAD." He first urged its creation on 26 March 2002 during a conference on homeland security issues sponsored by the Coast Guard and the Institute of Foreign Policy Analysis at Cambridge, Massachusetts. Parts of his speech resemble an early version of the white paper this article is drawn from, written by the author and forwarded to the Navy Staff in November 2001. Other powerful members of the U.S. government also spoke, but it was Admiral Clark's words that the press highlighted. The CNO's second call for a maritime tracking system came on 15 August 2002, at the Naval-Industry R&D Partnership Conference in Washington, D.C. This time the press missed it:

In conducting homeland defense, forward deployed naval forces will network with other assets of the Navy and the Coast Guard, as well as the intelligence agencies to identify, track and intercept threats long before they threaten this nation.

I said it before and I'll say it again today: I'm convinced we need a NORAD for maritime forces. The effect of these operations will extend the security of the United States far seaward, taking advantage of the time and space purchased by forward deployed assets to protect the United States from impending threats.

What, some ask, does the admiral mean by "forward deployed assets"? If he means units deployed overseas, the problem is significantly more difficult than if he means units under way (in fleet operating areas, for example) a few hundred miles off the U. …

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