Coping with Modern Marine Terrorism

Naval forces face numerous challenges in the context of the war against terrorism, including budget constraints, the proliferation of dual-use technology, and the absence of inter-arm cooperation. To overcome these obstacles, a different security management concept must be implemented

IDF training in the Red Sea (Photo: IDF)

One of the challenges modern naval forces face with regard to the aspect of force build-up and employment is how to respond to the evolution of terrorism in the marine environment. To outline this discussion, the definition "marine terrorism" refers to attacks against military or civilian vessels, smuggling of arms and persons and intrusion of terrorists through the sea for the purpose of staging a terrorist attack on land. This article argues that the challenges modern naval forces face in the context of the war against terrorism are budget constraints, the proliferation of dual-use technology and the absence of cooperation with other defense/security organs and branches within and outside the military.

As far as the budget aspect is concerned, the war against terrorism in the marine environment is a lower priority. Many of today's national navies suffer from under-budgeting to the point of having their operational capabilities compromised and facing safety risks that lead to accidents at sea. Current investments still focus on such symmetrical warfare capabilities as aircraft carriers, missile frigates, and ASW vessels. The war against terrorism, however, calls for other capabilities, mainly intelligence and long-term persistent area surveillance. Notably, from a historic perspective, very few terrorist attacks took place at sea, compared to the number of terrorist attacks against land and aerial targets. Accordingly, the diversion of resources to other activities is somewhat justified, as it offers a higher ROI. On the other hand, terrorist attacks at sea proved to be particularly lethal and to have a significant effect (the sinking of ships and ferries, hostage situations, etc.).

Intelligence as a Challenge

A primary "Achilles' Heel" in coping with terrorism in the marine environment is intelligence, known otherwise as situational awareness – collecting and analyzing data within short time intervals that match the changes the enemy initiates in the context of a terrorist scenario. While on land the target lifespan is currently dozens of seconds, at sea that lifespan is longer, but it is still infinitely shorter than the target lifespan characteristics of symmetrical warfare. One should bear in mind the fact that the theater of operations at sea is more expansive than the theater of operations on land. It consists of vast expanses of sea that the naval force should constantly monitor to identify targets and contexts that could indicate terrorist activity.

Another characteristic of the marine environment is the absence of boundaries and the abundance of functions and users. At sea, unlike land scenarios, there are no borders, border crossings, or obstacles of any kind. All seas and oceans are interconnected, at all times. The sea serves as the theater of operations for civilian and military vessels and for an extensive range of functions: fishing, recreational sailing, maritime trade, and transportation. In addition, it also possesses multiple dimensions: the surface dimension and the underwater dimension. These characteristics of the marine environment make intelligence collection very challenging. In order to cope with terrorism effectively, a modern navy should employ various technological resources that would provide it with a current picture of the territorial waters (within the closer ranges), and of more distant waters (at longer ranges). Unless it can monitor the terrorists' entire chain of execution, including the land and sea elements, the navy will not be able to draw conclusions and operate effectively.

One method for monitoring marine traffic involves the use of the AIS (Automatic Identification System) protocol. This communication protocol transmits the location data of the individual vessels, but while innocent civilian vessels use this protocol to prevent accidents or provide information to commercial organizations that monitor commercial marine activity, military vessels or vessels used by terrorist organizations abuse this protocol. Manipulations of the AIS protocol include transmitting fictitious location data, shutting off the transmitter or changing the names of vessels to mislead intelligence organizations.

Owing to the fact that the solution the AIS protocol provides is incomplete, modern navies require monitoring resources that do not depend on the willingness of the vessels they monitor to report their position. Long-range naval and shore-based radar systems, surveillance (EO/SAR) satellites, mission aircraft, and specialized UAS are some of the solutions in this context. Although these solutions are available in the global defense market, the cost of applying them to the relevant scenarios is excessive. In other words, obtaining situational awareness in the marine environment, to a standard that would enable the user to cope effectively with different types of terrorism, necessitates a substantial budget, which, in most cases, is either unavailable or allocated to symmetrical warfare resources.

Technologies used by Terrorist Organizations

While the navy of a state operates within a rigid budgetary hierarchy and while the purchasing costs of new platforms are steep, terrorist or criminal organizations enjoy an abundance of funds in relation to their size. At the same time, they do not require costly platforms. Examples of low-cost "narco-submarines" have been common in Central America for years. The cost of such a submarine is negligible compared to that of a standard military missile-carrying submarine. Terrorist organizations can use such submarines to smuggle persons or arms.

Along with the homemade submarines, the field of unmanned marine platforms has evolved in recent years and currently includes Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) and unmanned explosive vehicles. Such vehicles have been observed recently opposite the coast of Yemen, operated by the local Houthis. Civilian industries currently develop UUVs to provide support for oceanographic studies and for marine agriculture. Terrorist organizations can use these vehicles with certain adaptations. The question regarding the effectiveness of international supervision over dual-use equipment is relevant in this case, too.

While surface or submerged vessels become widespread among terrorist organizations, the evolution of civilian technologies in other fields like electronic warfare, communication and "open" electronics enables terrorist organizations to acquire cutting-edge capabilities they may apply to marine terrorism.

As criminal and terrorist organizations maintain business relations, it will be safe to assume that they also share information in the technological context. The mirror image of the crime-terrorism cooperation is the cooperation between counterterrorist law enforcement organizations. This is one of the most critical issues states currently face. The vector approach to security problems may not hold water opposite future challenges in this field.

Another technological content world terrorism utilizes in the marine environment is cyber. This activity includes collecting data in cyberspace, manipulating data, defacing and destroying data and similar processes. Over the last few months, reports regarding the cyberspace activities of such countries as Iran and North Korea have surfaced, among other things, in the context of collecting defense/security-related information. These countries may be sharing information they had picked up in cyberspace with terrorist or criminal organizations regarding the capabilities of state navies. High quality, current intelligence information in the hands of terrorist organizations could disrupt and raise the cost of the counterterrorism activity of a state.

Absence of Inter-Organizational Cooperation

Previously we noted the importance of inter-arm cooperation inside the state, and between states, to the effective handling of terrorism in the marine environment. According to the traditional security management concept, every security organization operates on its own, and one supreme state organ serves as a clearinghouse for intelligence products. According to more modern security concepts, security organizations should share a common intelligence platform with the ability to make intelligence accessible in real time, regardless of the user. Without inter-organizational real-time sharing of intelligence, a modern navy will not be able to cope with marine terrorism. In modern scenarios, terrorist organizations employ cutting-edge technology, minimize their signature and place the emphasis on prompt mobility.

One of the products of shared intelligence is lower costs of intelligence collection in the marine environment. One should bear in mind the fact that the marine environment is interconnected, so marine terrorism is essentially a cross-state security issue. In other words, marine terrorism is a common security problem. In a hypothetical scenario, a terrorist organization may raise funds in South America, purchase submarines and surface vessels in Central America, obtain arms from countries in the Middle East, and eventually stage terrorist attacks in Asia. A single country or a single organization within a country will not be able to counter such a "value chain."

Situational awareness at sea will also benefit from the security cooperation. In order to achieve that awareness within different ranges, a state should invest a fortune in purchasing and maintaining cutting-edge technologies. In the reality of defense budgets worldwide, the actual trend is just the opposite. States attempt to invest less in defense, and the marine theater is a low priority. To overcome the budgetary constraints, countries that share a common sea zone may invest jointly in the attainment of situational awareness for that zone that would benefit everyone. A review of the operational model of terrorist activities, such as the one of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran, will indicate that sharing knowledge and budgets produces high-quality results for relatively limited budgets.

In some situations, even a current and accurate intelligence picture will not be enough for the marine environment, as the range and speed of vessels are restricted. A vessel may be identified as a platform used for terrorist purposes, but in the absence of an available interceptor, it will be impossible to reach that vessel in time (for example, before the divers it had carried disembarked). These restrictions compel states to maintain routine security setups that are costly to operate, and in fact to maintain a complex and costly routine of maritime and aerial patrols. In this context, too, inter-state regional cooperation can streamline the setup charged with responding to the threats identified and reduce the cost of its operation.

The question that faces any state that has to cope with future marine terrorism concerns the ability of that state to identify terrorism or criminal elements that utilize the sea medium, to understand the context of their activity and to respond in time. Terrorist organizations will use every option available to them – civilian vessels, commercial maritime routes and civilian marine infrastructures including seaports and shipyards. The computer systems of marine infrastructures are only a part of the activity options. In addition to these resources, terrorist and criminal elements will increasingly use the underwater medium in order to retain the element of secrecy and surprise.

A Different Security Management Concept

The expanses of the sea are vast and attaining situational awareness in such expansive areas is costly and requires a revision of the security management concept. The absence of sufficient capabilities for coping with marine terrorism provides a protective cover for such rogue countries as Iran and others, allowing them to smuggle persons, funds and arms as part of the support they provide to terrorist organizations worldwide. Apparently, an infinite supply of money by a single country in an attempt to improve its navy is not the solution. Instead, understanding that cooperation between security organizations within the country as well as between states is the right direction. Without a doubt, terrorist and criminal organizations have already understood the advantage of cooperating and sharing information – in the marine environment and elsewhere.