Port Defense Against Swimming Terrorists
Cool science and engineering, but definitely a movie-plot threat.
Cool science and engineering, but definitely a movie-plot threat.
Flipper • May 31, 2007 1:30 PM
Cool — trained mammals vs Emilio Largo’s scubateurs!
Flipper2 • May 31, 2007 1:40 PM
Couldn’t resist a flippant remark… Next threat: A hungry Shamu.
So, the terrorist drives his car bomb into the harbour area instead.
Or worse, this specifically was talking about just checking the harbour entrance, so the terrorist now knows to give the entrance a miss, and just go swimming in the harbour itself.
Realist • May 31, 2007 2:06 PM
Sounds a lot like a localized SOSUS network, and implementation of items discussed several years ago in Scientific American — namely miniturized microphones and time-reversal acoustic reconstruction.
Anonymouse • May 31, 2007 2:12 PM
Not so movie plot as you might think. The British tried to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz using midget submarines and divers to attach charges to the hull.
And these people obviously think it’s worthwhile as well
Stephen Smoogen • May 31, 2007 2:25 PM
Also there have been ‘multiple’ attempts on Israeli ports from scuba divers that have been mysteriously thwarted at some point or another. I have the feeling this is not as new as it sounds.
John Davies • May 31, 2007 2:35 PM
What happened to “frickin sharks with frickin lasers”. Now that would be much cooler.
On a more serious note isn’t it easier to cause havoc in a port by driving a van or lorry loaded with explosives on a ferry and blowing it up? In my experience security in a port is a lot more lax than an airport.
Robbo • May 31, 2007 2:38 PM
Bruce, I’d have to disagree on your opinion that this is a ‘movie-plot’ threat.
Besides the attack on the USS Cole, the threat from small boats, at least, is real. You can have extensive security to the landward side: at the entrance to the port, at intermediate checkpoints, at the brow before people get on board. But from the seaward side, any old Joe can roll up in his rowboat, but it’s difficult to challenge or screen him before it’s too late.
It’s just plain hard to do, but at least someone is working on it. When I was pierside in Aqaba, Jordan, we had extensive security in the port, but dealing with a threat from the water was just too hard. For one thing, 4 different countries meet in Aqaba making jurisdiction impossible.
Another time, many years earlier, my vessel was attacked by water-borne vandals — in Milwaukee. We had no real “threat”, so the duty officer was at the brow just to check people coming aboard, making sure they were authorized, got on the right vessel, etc. Under cover of darkness, some kids rowed up and grafittied the side of ship with silly slogans.
“Suicidal SCUBA divers” might seem like a reach, but getting a tank and a BCD has to be a lot easier than getting the explosives. Has anyone seen “Cockleshell Heroes” or heard of the SBS?
derf • May 31, 2007 2:44 PM
Will we need to teach diving instructors to call the FBI about students that aren’t interested in learning about correct surfacing techniques?
Fred P • May 31, 2007 2:46 PM
This doesn’t appear to guard against insider threats (example: a swimmer who starts in the harbor), so I’d think that except possibly for certain military applications, it’s useless as is.
In any case, it sounds like something with better potential as a military application than as an augment to non-military port security.
Alan • May 31, 2007 2:50 PM
“Movie plot threat” is a label used to discredit ideas without actually requiring substantial reasoning. It includes any threats of which Bruce is not keenly aware, and especially new kinds of threats that have not been seen before.
FooDooHackedYou • May 31, 2007 2:55 PM
I like the part about using “trained mammals” as a mitigation 🙂 Polar bear anyone?
Brian • May 31, 2007 3:14 PM
Probably only the most highly trained divers would attempt this. You have many things working against you.
*1 foot or less of visibility. Unless you want to dive in a caribbean port…
*Surface hazards (ships)
Now surface attacks are another story…
David • May 31, 2007 3:46 PM
In World War II, six Italian frogmen, riding on something akin to torpedoes with seats, sank two British battleships, Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, in Alexandria harbor. Guys in scuba outfits and explosives aren’t a movie-plot threat, but a historical reality.
(Yes, the British had them back in action later in the war. However, it meant the Mediterranean Fleet was devoid of battleships during an important period.)
jmc • May 31, 2007 4:20 PM
“A number of people have been thinking about the problem of swimmer-terrorists over the past few years.”
Apparently the only ones not having thought about this, are the terrorists themselves – and probably never will.
That an army may use this, is valid. But a terrorist group will by its nature always prefer something (ressource -) effective. There other attack angles which are far easier, so this defense system will close a gap that never existed and waste lots of money.
Roger • May 31, 2007 4:21 PM
Back in 2005, Bruce defined what he meant by movie plot threats:
as an approach which focussed too narrowly on a specific potential opponent tactic and could be easily thwarted by the opponent switching tactics or targets.
In this sense, the current theme of harbour security, of which this is one small part, is not a “movie plot threat” but an entire class of high value targets and a full spectrum of tactics against them: namely, all kinds of attacks against any kind of water borne vessel, other than boarding at the dockside (which has already traditionally received much more attention.)
Nor is this a fanciful threat. Certainly there may be room for debate about the level of threat and consequently the level of defensive effort that can be justified. However attacks of these types are real, are already occurring. For example the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) and the Phillipines based Abu Sayyaf group have entire wings specialising in amphibious attacks.
And as for comparing this to truck bombs on the harbourside:
a) they’re worried about that too; and
b) you can do far more damage with a 10 kg limpet mine attached underwater than with a 1000 kg truck bomb on the dock. For example, the attack on the USS Cole caused 17 deaths and required 14 months of repairs to the ship. If the same amount of explosive (about 300 kg) had been detonated under the keel, the ship would probably have been lost with most of her crew of 300. As the old Navy saying goes, “you sink ships by letting water in the bottom, not by letting air in the top”.
Brandioch Conner • May 31, 2007 5:08 PM
The people bringing up MILITARY operations from previous WARS have no idea what “movie-plot threat” means.
It would be a “movie-plot threat” for a group of scientists to build a never-before-seen bomb.
Yet that is exactly how the first atomic bomb was built.
But today’s terrorists spend far more time with explosive vests than atomic theory.
So terrorist divers with limpet mines sinking battleships in the harbor ARE the stuff of movies.
David • May 31, 2007 5:20 PM
Are you saying that it requires advanced nuclear theory to use scuba gear? Is it necessary to completely understand the Standard Model of subatomic particles to attach a limpet mine?
Divers with limpet mines are a way to covertly attack high-value targets. We know that way works, since it has been tried with great success in the past. It requires no great financial investment, nor particularly specialized skill (certainly no worse than airliner piloting). It is a specialized tactic, but it’s by far the most effective way for a small organization to sink or damage ships.
In other words, if it can be stopped at reasonable expense, it seriously hinders the ability of terrorists to inflict serious damage on certain high-value targets.
Of course, sinking battleships is movie-plot stuff, since the ones that are left are pretty much useless. Terrorists would attack other ships.
X the Unknown • May 31, 2007 6:10 PM
If we’re talking Movie-Plot threats, how well would this defense-system work against a “Day of the Dolphins” approach – porpoises trained to plant limpet-mines?
They swim so fast (relative to humans) that there may not even be time to properly react to the threat!
Dom De Vitto • May 31, 2007 7:28 PM
Dolphins aren’t a problem: they like sex better than work/play, so just get a load of male/female Dolphins for the harbour, to distract them from their ‘mission’.
Does anyone else still remember the ‘killer’ navy-trained dolphins that escaped during Hurricane ‘Katrina’? Never heard if they caught them all, but as if crocks weren’t bad enough for the people New Orleans, they had trained Dolphins (with frickin’ laser beams ??? 🙂 ) to worry about.
Dom De Vitto • May 31, 2007 7:33 PM
Does anyone remember why ‘C4’ plastic explosive is used in all the movies?
Because a ship carrying 300 TONNES of the stuff just disappeared – so SOS, or anything. Soon afterwards C4 (an industrial, not military grade explosive) started being used by terrorists.
Now think about 300tn of explosives going off under a bridge? Bridges take a lot of time and money to rebuild.
It’s a credible threat, but so are many things…..
Dom De Vitto • May 31, 2007 7:35 PM
Does anyone remember why ‘C4’ plastic explosive is used in all the movies?
Because a ship carrying 300 TONNES of the stuff just disappeared – no SOS, nothing. Soon afterwards the previously unheard of ‘C4’ (an industrial, not military grade explosive) started being used by terrorists worldwide, in particular those known to be backed by Libya….
Now think about 300tn of explosives going off by a bridge pillar. Bridges take a lot of time and money to rebuild.
It’s a credible threat, but so are many things…..
Michael • May 31, 2007 8:54 PM
This is definitely not “movie plot” material. There is a long history of attacking ships in harbours. The Italians in particular made a specialty of this sort of attack. As others have mentioned, in WW2 they severely damaged British capital ships in Alexandria harbour (the harbour was shallow, so the ships didn’t capsize and were able to be repaired and raised).
In WW1, Italian divers sank the battleship Viribus Unitis in Pola harbour. Rather interestingly, the Austrians had handed over the ship to the newly founded Yugoslavian Navy just hours before, and the Italians didn’t know about the change in status before they sank it.
The British severely damaged the German battleship Tirpitz using divers operating from miniature submarines. They also destroyed a Japanese cruiser in Singapore using similar methods (the cruiser was forced to beach itself to avoid sinking, and was unrepairable).
British commandos in WW2 sank a number of German ships in French harbours by planting limpet mines from canoes (which were actually more like kayaks). The mines were attached below the waterline by using long poles. The canoes were very small and so were not easily spotted at night, especially when they were next to a ship.
More recently, French intelligence agents sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland New Zealand in 1985 using limpet mines. This was intended to prevent the ship from taking part in anti-nuclear protests.
This sort of attack can be effective provided the target is carefully selected to generate maximum publicity. Warships on “show the flag” tours or oil tankers or loading facilities are obvious examples. Oil facilities would make a good target, as the panic reaction from the oil trading markets would amplify the publicity effects.
Anton • June 1, 2007 2:44 AM
How is this a movie-plot threat? As I am writing this, there are Greenpeace activists on top of large cranes on a Finnish nuclear plant construction site. Guess how they got there? That’s right. They got around the perimeter defence by approching the construction siten from the sea during night.
Ben Liddicott • June 1, 2007 4:44 AM
The “Terrorist” hook may be a little disingenuous, but the idea of divers as a threat is very reasonable.
Sounds to me like a piece of military technology is using terrorism to get publicity and funding.
Hullu • June 1, 2007 5:05 AM
What makes it movie-plot is the fact that they’re talking about terrorists.
I think it’s somewhat far fetched that terrorists would bother with ships when there are so many easier ways for suicidal attackers to cause considerable damage.
Telling everyone how this has successfully been used in WARS and still is being used in other parts of the world doesn’t really mean anything in the context of US harbours.
As a military application protecting harbours from underwater threats makes sense – in ‘war on terrorism’, I personally don’t think so.
Bruce Schneier • June 1, 2007 6:22 AM
“‘Movie plot threat’ is a label used to discredit ideas without actually requiring substantial reasoning. It includes any threats of which Bruce is not keenly aware, and especially new kinds of threats that have not been seen before.”
Actually, not so much.
Movie-plot threats are not science fiction. They’re real. They can be serious. There can even be historical examples of them.
What they are is specific: overly specific.
The question to ask, when faced with a threat like this, is: is it smarter to spend my security money on this specific threat, money that will be well-spent if the bad guys attack us in exactly this way and wasted otherwise, or is it smarter to spend my security money more generally? Most of the time, we’d be far safer if we didn’t focus on the specific tactics that the bad guys might use, the “movie plots,” and instead focus on the bad guys themselves.
This is why I harp so much on intelligence, investigation, and emergency response. They’re effective regardless of what the bad guys are planning. A port defense against swimming terrorists is only effective if the terrorists are swimming after ports. If they’re driving after shopping malls, it’s a waste. And, even worse, if they were going to swim after ports and instead decide to drive after shopping malls, it’s still a waste.
Herman • June 1, 2007 6:37 AM
Love it how you ‘mericans worry about the most far fetched stuff one can think of.
Now imagine 20 Alis and Mohammeds on a mission to walk into some random McD or Wendy’s all over the nation with Claymore directional fragmentation mines and setting them off facing some children’s birthday party or other random people, spraying your beloved dear offspring with thousands of supersonic steel ball bearing balls! Hundreds of dead ‘mericans, zero dead attackers… Movie threat scenario? I don’t think so.
No cruisers or aircraft carriers were sunk by limpet mines, and no Al Qaida diver was attacked by trained dolphins or detected by sonar in this post.
Big fucking DOH! to all you morons out there.
Herman • June 1, 2007 6:41 AM
A port defense against swimming
terrorists is only effective if the
terrorists are swimming after ports. If
they’re driving after shopping malls, it’s
Doesn’t it suck trying to talk some sense into people and having to realize that most of them lack some common sense and just don’t get it, Mr. Schneier?
Mr. Mike • June 1, 2007 8:02 AM
I assume DHS is trying to prevent a terriorist version dramatic ship-in-port incidents. Some past (non-terrorist) events include:
To prevent a repeat event you need to look at:
– Ship to ship contact (Halifax)
– Insider Threat / Sabitour
– Diver Attack
– Inept / Uncaring business (Texas City)
IMHO “diver attack” is the least likey method of a dramatic in-port event in the United States. With that said, the sonar system could be modified to help find divers in distress or locate persons / bodies during and after boating accident.
Herman • June 1, 2007 8:29 AM
Thanks for proving my point, Mr. Mike!
To prevent a repeat event you need to limit the amount of explosives on board of a ship! Sheesh!
Brandioch Conner • June 1, 2007 9:00 AM
“Are you saying that it requires advanced nuclear theory to use scuba gear? Is it necessary to completely understand the Standard Model of subatomic particles to attach a limpet mine?”
No. I’m saying that planning for one extremely limited and rigid attack is stupid.
It wastes money and resources and is easily circumvented.
“It is a specialized tactic, but it’s by far the most effective way for a small organization to sink or damage ships.”
The problem is the specialization. That is what makes it a “movie-plot threat”.
While it may be “the most effective way for a small organization to sink or damage ships” it is NOT the most effective way for a terrorist organization to spread terror.
A car bomb next to a school bus full of kids requires LESS specialization, runs LESS risk of detection and yields MORE terror.
Alan • June 1, 2007 9:25 AM
Defending against underwater attacks is no less reasonable than inspecting cargo ships, or passports, or carry-on luggage.
We defend corporate networks with firewalls. We also seek and remove unauthorized wireless access points. We encrypt data on laptops. We implement rules on password strength, and on maximum failed login attempts. We perform background checks as a condition of employment. And we train employees on phishing threats and safe practices. None of those measures is effective by itself. The combination of all of them is not impenetrable. But it makes penetration more difficult, and measurably reduces the number of attacks.
It makes no sense to rule out underwater measures on the basis that they don’t prevent other avenues of attack. No single measure is effective without other complementary measures. And it makes no sense to rule out a measure merely because it is not 100% effective. We cannot create perfect security, but we can increase the cost and difficulty of breaching security. By doing so we can reduce the number of attacks.
Herman • June 1, 2007 9:35 AM
Defending against underwater attacks is no less reasonable than inspecting
cargo ships, or passports, or carry-on luggage.
We defend corporate networks with firewalls.
please tell us how many times evil people try to break into computer systems. Then compare that number to the number of attacks by terrorist divers and limpet mines against ships in the last few years since the intarwebnet became like real popular.
Then try to draw your conclusions. You might realise something. Or maybe you won’t. Who knows.
The combination of all of them is not impenetrable. But it makes penetration
more difficult, and measurably reduces the number of attacks.
please tell us how many
Eam • June 1, 2007 10:15 AM
Alan • June 1, 2007 10:26 AM
please tell us how many times evil people
try to break into computer systems. Then
compare that number to the number of
attacks by terrorist divers and limpet mines
against ships in the last few years
Folks seem to want to treat this as a cost benefit analysis, so you need to multiply the cost of a successful attack by the expected frequency of the attack to determine what you can afford to spend in preventative measures. The cost of a sunken oil tanker would be a bit higher than the cost of a hacker-controlled pc, don’t you think? The higher cost offsets the lower expected rate of occurrence.
The combination of all of them is not
impenetrable. But it makes penetration
more difficult, and measurably reduces the
number of attacks.
and herman asked:
please tell us how many
I’m not sure what the point of your question is, but the effectiveness of computer security can be measured. Here’s a five minute rough answer: An unprotected and unpatched Windows pc connected to the Internet will be “owned” in in four minutes according to
But it is claimed that up to 25% of Windows computers on the Internet are part of a botnet.
So countermeasures as currently applied (presumably firewalls and patches) are about 75% effective.
Herman • June 1, 2007 12:01 PM
An unprotected and unpatched Windows
pc connected to the Internet will be
“owned” in in four minutes
And how long will it take until a ship in an unprotected harbor will be sunk by an Al Qaida diver?
The cost of a sunken oil tanker would
be a bit higher than the cost of a
hacker-controlled pc, don’t you think?
Well, tell that the prosecution the next time some 15 year old worm author allegedly causes “multi-billion dollar damages”!
Eam • June 1, 2007 12:32 PM
Easy now. I disagree with Alan as much as the next man, but I’m pretty sure he can tell the differences between actual damages and the hyperbole of a prosecuting lawyer.
If you’re going to argue with him, you should probably argue about things he actually said.
X the Unknown • June 1, 2007 1:02 PM
@Mr. Mike: “With that said, the sonar system could be modified to help find divers in distress or locate persons / bodies during and after boating accident.”
And this is where “Security Theater” mixes with reality, interfering with reasonable cost-benefit analysis of a basically military/defense expenditure.
There are probably plenty of good reasons to want some sort of monitoring/defense of (at least some) harbor mouths. In fact, I would hope that we already have such at our major naval bases…otherwise, what’s to keep some random nuclear sub from sneaking in? Even if the mouth is too shallow for that, I’d think a more-likely threat would be covert divers planting harbor-bottom sensors to monitor ship movements. Surely, the military thought of this sort of thing during the Cold War?
I’m almost certain that the U.S. has an array of undersea sensors at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, for example. They’re probably not “tuned” for something as small as divers (and tuna and dolphins, and other common “false positives”), but the principal is basically the same.
However, the fact that not ALL harbors are protected indicates that somebody already did a cost-benefit analysis. They probably decided that major military harbors needed some protection, but it was too costly for too little benefit to cover every harbor. Maybe that cost-benefit analysis needs to be revisited, in light of the changed state of world affairs, and the (presumed) reduced cost of technological equipment. If so, however, it should be evaluated without the sensationalization and scare-mongering of “Movie-Plot” threats.
Brandioch Conner • June 1, 2007 1:11 PM
“Folks seem to want to treat this as a cost benefit analysis, so you need to multiply the cost of a successful attack by the expected frequency of the attack to determine what you can afford to spend in preventative measures.”
No. The WHOLE POINT is that these attacks are so rare as to be non-existent.
Seriously. Non-existent. How many ships have al Queda attacked with limpet mines?
None? Well, what is any number multiplied by ZERO?
It isn’t that the terrorists could NOT pull off an attack such as this.
It’s that ANY MONEY spent on preventing these types of attacks will WASTED because there are so many EASIER attacks that are NOT being defended against.
The idea is to GENERALIZE the defenses. Spend money on ways that will defeat MULTIPLE DIFFERENT attacks.
Instead of spending money on a program that will only defeat one specific attack that will never be used and is easily bypassed in any event.
Alan • June 1, 2007 1:54 PM
Some people think that you should not defend against underwater attacks until you’ve suffered an underwater attack. I guess they also think you should not defend against smuggled nuclear weapons until you’ve been hit by one. I wonder what these people were saying the week after 9/11, when everyone was saying we should have prevented that event, the first in history of its kind. Maybe they are being consistent–but there were plenty of people who thought we should have been proactive rather than reactive.
Some disagree with me so strongly that they curse and use all caps to emphasize their point. That does not makes their position any more convincing, at least to me.
I’m obviously in the minority here, at least among those who stick their necks out to comment. I’ll quietly bow out now. Enjoy your nice homogeneous discussion.
Eam • June 1, 2007 3:22 PM
“Some people think that you should not defend against underwater attacks until you’ve suffered an underwater attack.”
Now you’re just purposefully misunderstanding what everyone here has been telling you. Nobody is saying that we shouldn’t take measures to prevent underwater attacks; we’re saying we shouldn’t take measures to prevent underwater attacks to the exclusion of all other possible and more likely attacks.
X the Unknown • June 1, 2007 3:50 PM
“…the Swimmer Detection Sonar Network (SDSN), designed to be a cost-effective method to protect a large area from swimmers intending to carry out terrorist activities.”
I guess this statement is the crux of the matter. If it is truly “cost-effective”, then obviously we should do it – where “cost-effective” includes considerations of what else we could have done with that money, instead.
To sort-of agree with Alan, if it only cost $10 per harbor, it’s probably money well-spent defending against an attack which is both possible and has some historical precedent. Of course, if it costs billions per harbor, that’s another story.
Herman • June 1, 2007 3:52 PM
Please sink millions into defending US harbors. Osama bin Hidin’ (remember him?) will be happy blowing up your offspring in kindergartens, malls and churches all over the country, causing more shock and awe in your hearts and minds than a sinking freighter tied to a dock ever could.
Or wait a minute, how many attacks have there been on US soil since 9/11? I mean besides the invented ones… None? OMG!
X the Unknown • June 1, 2007 3:55 PM
P.S. I think the underwater harbor-defense issue is worth (some) consideration, not so much because of the thread of terrorism, but because there is always the possibility that we’ll again have to face the resources of a hostile nation at war with us. Defense against known military threats that also happen to protect against (vaguely possible) terrorist threats, could actually be a reasonable investment.
Again, it all comes down to “is it cost-effective?”
Anonymous • June 1, 2007 4:05 PM
@Herman: “Or wait a minute, how many attacks have there been on US soil since 9/11? I mean besides the invented ones… None? OMG!”
Well, actually there have been several – the most recent terrorist attack of note at Virginia Tech.
It just wasn’t an attack by Al-Quaeda, or even by a Moslem fundamentalist. And obviously none of the billions spent in “defending against terrorism” did a thing to protect against it.
If those billions had been spent on (among other things) enforcing court-ordered psychiatric treatment, perhaps the Virginia Tech disaster could have been avoided…
Brandioch Conner • June 1, 2007 4:25 PM
“Some people think that you should not defend against underwater attacks until you’ve suffered an underwater attack.”
Gotta love that “some people”.
Strawman at its best!
“I wonder what these people were saying the week after 9/11, when everyone was saying we should have prevented that event, the first in history of its kind.”
Why don’t you find some of “these people” and ask them yourself?
Just about everyone else has heard of Kamikaze pilots. Unless you somehow did not learn about WW II in school?
“Maybe they are being consistent–but there were plenty of people who thought we should have been proactive rather than reactive.”
In some cultures, beating a strawman is considered a sign of virility.
“I’m obviously in the minority here, at least among those who stick their necks out to comment. I’ll quietly bow out now. Enjoy your nice homogeneous discussion.”
Maybe if you focused on the specific points instead of kicking your strawman you’d make some progress?
No one is saying that terrorist divers with limpet mines could NOT happen.
What is being said is that spending money to prevent such an attack is a waste of money because the terrorists will focus on easier ways to strike at easier targets.
That is the essence of “movie-plot threats”.
Look at what has to happen for your divers with limpet mines attack to work.
#1. Terrorists have to be in the country (or close enough to swim ashore).
#2. They have to have a specific kind of explosive device.
#3. They have to have diving gear.
#4. They have to be trained in the use of such gear.
#5. They have to be trained in the use of limpet mines.
#6. They have to use their diving skills with the diving gear to get to the ship to use their demolition skills to attach the limpet mines and damage the ship.
It makes a good movie script.
Or the terrorists can:
#1. Be in the country.
#2. Get a car bomb from someone with experience in making car bombs.
#3. Use their driving skills.
#4. To drive to the mall and blow themselves up along with a bunch of other people.
Fewer steps means better reliability. And less chance of detection. What’s one more car at a mall? There are lots of cars there. What’s one diver around a ship? That depends upon the ship.
Herman • June 1, 2007 4:55 PM
If those billions had been spent on (among other things) enforcing
court-ordered psychiatric treatment, perhaps the Virginia Tech disaster could
have been avoided…
True. And if only a fraction of the war on terrah and war in Iraq money would be spent on improving life for everyone on this planet then maybe less people would be determined to piss in your cornflakes.
In some cultures, beating a strawman is considered a sign of virility.
David • June 1, 2007 5:33 PM
I think I’ve got it.
There is no such thing as a movie-plot threat. Really. Not by itself.
What there are are spectacular threats that are impossible to defend against economically. (By “economically”, I mean that it isn’t worth spending the money to defend against it.) Therefore, a movie-plot threat is a spectacular threat with no defense that can be anywhere near justified by a cost-benefit analysis. Find a cost-effective defense, and the threat ceases to be a movie-plot threat, without the nature of the threat changing in the slightest.
Consider the specific threat of kidnapping newborns from hospitals. That’s pretty spectacular, and quite specialized. However, there is an inexpensive way (non-removable bracelets and some simple security procedures) to cut down on that threat dramatically.
Now, consider the specific threat of firing surface-to-air missiles at airliners taking off. Pretty spectacular, quite specialized, and there’s no way it’s cost-effective to equip every airliner with countermeasures, with current technology. If the countermeasures were light, didn’t spoil the aerodynamics, and cheap, on the other hand, it might well be worth it, and this wouldn’t be a movie-plot threat.
Defending ships against scuba divers with limpet mines has some utility. A ship can make a good terrorist target, and for a terrorist organization it’s the best way to attack a ship. It may not defend against other attack vectors, but they aren’t as dangerous to ships. It doesn’t protect school busses or shopping malls or sports arenas, but if the defenses are cheap enough they’re worthwhile. (They probably aren’t cheap enough.)
It is worthwhile to screen airline passengers for guns, but trying to screen them for knives does not appear to be worth it. It is worthwhile to check nonremovable bracelets in maternity wards, but hooking them up to an automatic security system with automatically locking doors isn’t.
In the meantime, it’s always possible that somebody thinking about a movie-plot threat will come across a cost-effective means of neutralizing it. That’s one less thing (admittedly out of thousands) we’d have to worry about.
John Anon • June 3, 2007 1:15 AM
The more interesting thought here are the potential alternate applications. Someone else mentioned search-and-rescue; how about a step towards traffic control within a busy harbor?
Anonymous • June 3, 2007 6:45 PM
How do they use sonar and signal analysis to discern the intent of a swimmer?
It seems like the best they could do is identify something as a swimmer, and whether it had some technology assist. They’d still have to dispatch the barbor patrol or whatever to investigate.
And I think the easiest way to get close a ship is to rent a sailboat (or powerboat), fill it with explosives from the trunk of your car (disguised as a Coleman cooler), then pilot it very badly until you were near your target, then boom. We’d have to train the harbor patrol to distinguish between real incompetent boaters and fake incompetent boaters.
Hullu • June 4, 2007 2:37 AM
I’d still guess the heated exchange of comments here forgot to emphasize on the point.
As a military application, harbor defense is probably worth it.
Against terrorism it most likely isn’t cost-effective.
It is probably being built for the former, and the latter is used as an argument for the funding since it historically makes a good argument when you need funding.
And, that, is what I think the general consensus is attacking. Using the word ‘terrorism’ for funding and attention on a project that is not even meant to fight terrorism.
Generally anything specific is a waste of money against terrorism although it can protect against the normal criminal threat. Terrorism is so spectacularly rare(compare to crime), focusing a lot of money on any single antiterrorism countermeasure is most likely not worth it.
wm • June 4, 2007 6:39 AM
@Anonymous 04:05 June 1: “the most recent terrorist attack of note at Virginia Tech”
That wasn’t a terrorist attack, it was simply a multiple/mass murder.
If you do a Google search for “define:terrorism” (with no spaces either side of the colon) you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of definitions require that the actions be committed for the purpose of (some form of) political change or control.
Calling apolitical murders “terrorism” just conflates two completely different activities and makes it harder to have a rational discussion about either.
derf • June 4, 2007 9:57 AM
Why worry about harbors? There are more interesting, less protected marine targets than just consumer goods shipping.
If you want to hurt the country, think oil and gas. These are high priority marine targets that NEED some extra protection. After seeing the TSA and INS in action, though, I seriously doubt the US government’s capability to protect any domestic resources.
Anonymous • June 4, 2007 6:09 PM
@wm: “If you do a Google search for “define:terrorism” (with no spaces either side of the colon) you’ll see that the overwhelming majority of definitions require that the actions be committed for the purpose of (some form of) political change or control.”
And that video rant the perpetrator published wasn’t an attempt to drive some sort of political/social change?
As far as I can tell, this was a deliberate attack on otherwise-uninvolved civilians for the explicit purpose of getting national media coverage for his video.
Ergo: a Terrorist Attack.
Filias Cupio • June 4, 2007 6:30 PM
I’ll just point out that the French sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in about 1986 is perhaps the best example of this attack happening in real life. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_Rainbow_Warrior
However, these attacks would need to be vastly more common before such defenses in civil harbours would make sense. Also note that the French attack was well funded, well trained and involved a large number of people. I think no currently known terrorist organisation could conduct such an attack so well, although that doesn’t mean they might not do well enough to succeed.
wm • June 5, 2007 3:19 AM
@Anonymous 06:09 June 4: “And that video rant the perpetrator published wasn’t an attempt to drive some sort of political/social change?”
Well, maybe we have different views on this point, but in my opinion, no.
My interpretation of that event [Virginia Tech shootings] is that it was motivated by vengeance (against a society he felt wronged by), rather than being a real attempt to change that society. The video seemed to me to be a justification (possibly a self-justification) of what he was about to do, not a demand for change.
It all seemed more in the nature of “this’ll make them pay” rather than “this’ll make them change”. Terrorist campaigns require lots of attacks, over a period of years, to achieve any political effect — this guy was only ever going to get to do one attack, and he wasn’t part of any organisation that would continue to mount other attacks after his.
The issue of port defence is constantly being reviewed not just in the US but worldwide. In recent years intelligence has revealed cells with plans for a ‘diver’ related attack on strategic assets (don’t forget we missed the last groups training activities!)
Consider for one moment the impact on global trade and economy if an offshore rig is destroyed, an oil tanker is hit in a major shipping channel, a warship is targetted in its home port, a cruise liner is hit in Florida.
We can place sentries with firearms in watchtowers and along the fences, we can build the fences very high, we cah place thermal imaging cameras, dogs, ground sensors – all sorts of different pieces of hardware……. but we forget in the words of one US congressman “the soft underbelly of the soft underbelly”
Terrorists do not go for the easy option as argued in other postings, they attempt to demonstrate their capability and identify a vulnerable weakpoint – one that creates a chain reaction with politicians, stock markets etc…. an action that if repeated is not just about killing or maiming but induces a panicked response
resetpt • January 10, 2008 10:26 PM
Thank heavens mideastern radicals are rather incompetent in the water.The established Countries such as Iran, syria for example manifest substandard capabilities in unconventional warfare namely in the combat swimmer spectrum. Perhaps rouge elements/individuals of former members of lets say ..french komandoubare, german kampswimmers etc is of REAL CONCERN should they be contracted for
hire. LET US PRAY THAT this never happens. the water has a unique way of affording total deniablity.
low volume • January 12, 2008 6:44 PM
Solid point indeed! Should a former expert within that tradecraft of the subsurface realm cross over, the impact will be felt. “Swimmer” skills takes YEARS to dail into.Nonless, The threat is very real & extremely difficult to defeat. Especially against motivated, highly trained professionals.All the emplaced Harbor defense measures sport limitations.
Finbag • January 23, 2011 6:06 PM
This threat is very real, I was involved in military diving and maritime EOD and I have attacked warships that were told we were attacking. At night with rebreathers (not as good as one you can order online) at very shallow depths you can hear motorboats and avoid them. If you use a cheap depth gauge and a reasonable diving compass you can stay at the depth of your targets keel. This keeps you away from underwater obstructions. As well the compass keeps you on course to your target and if done right, it can only take 5 seconds or less to take a “peek” and be back on a corrected target heading. With a good heading at the center of a target from outside jetty or target illumination your final swim in should assure you of hitting the hull submerged. Of course any attacker would have to admit that risk from sentries, scare charges, acoustic energy, hooks and nets are present, but their effectiveness is lower then believed and except for acoustic energy the use of the other preventative measures are a drain on supplies and personnel. Yes there are some harbours with dangerous sealife, but everyday in harbours across the globe, including Sydney, divers routinely conduct underwater work in normal diving gear. Diver death or injury due to sealife is a low risk and no deterrent. Finally, unless it is defended by ROVs or mammals (yes I swam against mammals and they stopped us in practise everytime) most targets of terror attacks like small tankers or grain ships not yet started to unload (grain dust burns fast and violently) they will cause sufficient public damage to insight public panic and possibly shutdown a major harbour for a period of time costing possible billions.
And then there is the diver who doesn’t care if it is only a one way swim!
Subscribe to comments on this entry
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.
Leave a comment