Global Trade: America’s Achilles’ Heel

By James M. Loy and Robert G. Ross Defense Horizons 7



Much has been written in the aftermath of September 11 on the porosity of America’s borders and the failure of various agencies to share, fuse, analyze, and exploit available information to stop foreign threats before they enter the country. The resources and methods available to U.S. border control agencies appear to be no match for the myriad threats that could arrive from outside the country. Nowhere is the gap between vulnerability and capability greater than along the Nation’s sea borders. Asymmetrical military and terrorist threats have a natural gateway into America via the marine transportation system.

In the uncertainty following the September attacks, the immediate response of security services around the country—the Coast Guard included—was to shut down the systems under their control until measures were taken to ensure that additional attacks were not already in progress. These system stoppages were generally short-lived because the economic impacts were intolerable, not only in dollar costs but also in potential loss of access to the essentials of daily American life. The United States is a trading nation, both domestically and globally, and relatively unimpeded movement of goods and people is necessary for its economy to function. Transportation is our social and economic cardiovascular system, and ensuring its continuation is vital. The post-attack shutdowns were a tourniquet to control bleeding but had to be released quickly to preserve the patient.

Given the importance of international goods and materials to the American economy, closing our borders for more than a short period is infeasible. Furthermore, with our growing reliance on just-in-time delivery of foreign goods, even slowing the flow long enough to inspect either all or a statistically significant random selection of imports would be economically intolerable. However, the transportation system, especially the maritime component, remains highly vulnerable to attack or other exploitation by terrorists. Thus, a major challenge facing the responsible agencies in the post-September 11 “new normalcy” is to develop border controls and transportation security measures that reduce the threat of the national transportation system’s being used either as a weapon or as an essential logistic link in some other kind of attack. Moreover, we must develop ways to better protect the Nation without sacrificing economic vitality or overwhelming the Federal, state, local, and corporate budgets.

Information is the key. Our national ability to detect potential threats in or to transportation can be significantly improved through effective use of information that, to a great extent, is already available. With sufficient advance information on inbound ships, cargoes, crews, and passengers, the various border control agencies will be better able to separate the good from the bad and intercept the bad before it becomes a problem for the country. This notion—exploiting available information to discern threats and concentrate resources to stop them—is at the heart of the maritime domain awareness (MDA) concept.