Underwater threat reduction in ports – is it necessary?



Mark Hankey, Independent Maritime Security Consultant


Ports are the lifeblood of most of the world’s countries – a disruption in one of them can create chaos thousands of miles away. For example, a major industrial accident in a UK south coast port facility recently caused a significant downturn in production in a car manufacturing facility.

Protection of a port and its environs is accepted practice across the globe with a range of initiatives and technology in place to profile and manage traffic entering both territorial waters and port limits – but many countries forget the sub-surface threat, and this is done at their peril. Earlier in 2010, for example, Israel detected a series of potential terrorists wearing scuba diving equipment off the Gaza coast.

Assessing the underwater threat

Let’s look first at what can be threatened by an underwater attack. The obvious answer is a vessel either alongside or transiting a port – but what about the berth or jetty it moors to; or a lock gate, or a set of pipelines or cables which run below the surface? Is there a bridge that spans any part of the waterway? If so, does it have any supports in the water – this could also be classed as a vulnerability.

So how do you go about assessing your underwater threat to ports? The first thing to look at is why anyone would want to attack your port. In order to ascertain this it is recommended that you get an expert to conduct a threat analysis. For this, you will need to look at a range of risks including the geopolitical arena, any criminal or terrorist influences, or indeed local issues. Once this has been completed you will have a good idea of the types of issues you are facing.

Once the key threat drivers have been identified you then need to look at what parts of your port could be at risk of a subsurface attack. A small yacht marina in the port limits could be a good spot for smugglers; likewise a LNG dock in the same port could be a great target for terrorists – both will require different solutions. You also need to work out what types of mediums could be used to launch an attack – could it be simple swimmers with a snorkel, divers on air, or a piloted or autonomous mini submarine?

Responding with effective technology

So what types of protection solutions are available in today’s highly technological market? The answer is lots, but bear in mind that sometime old-fashioned ones can be as effective as their newer counterparts. The basic defense is a physical barrier – this is used to great effect around many military and high value assets today. Such nets or barriers are made of high quality materials, which make them very difficult to breach in a short period of time. The problem with such equipment is that it is difficult and time consuming to put in place and remove – this is not ideal when working in a busy port.

Routine high definition multi-beam sonar searches will allow the authorities to form a picture of the seabed and see if anything has changed; for example, the placement of underwater improvised explosive devices (UWIED) or mines, but this is only as good as the last survey – so time doesn’t help in this regard. Another option is to lay a seabed-based scanning system at key strategic locations – this allows security personnel to monitor the underside of vessels for any suspicious activity (i.e. keel appendages used for smuggling). This system has potentially high start-up costs and is obviously only of use against compliant vessels. Another, slightly cheaper method of detecting hull anomalies is the deployment of divers or small remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

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