Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, has been on a mission for going on three years now: To raise awareness of the security vulnerabilities presented by small boats on America’s largely unregulated and unrestricted waterways.

It’s a tougher mission than you might think. When the man responsible for protecting our waterways speaks about his number-one priority, people listen right? Well, that depends.

As Allen notes, recreational boating is big business in the United States. And boaters bristle at the notion of new regulations. Some, Allen observed, even seem to think the right to go where you want in a boat is carved right into the Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights up there with gun-ownin’ and free speechifying.

And just about every congressional district has its share of water – whether in the form of coastline, rivers, lakes, ports, gulfs, flooded streets or whathaveyou. Which means the politics of regulating small boats ain’t, as they say, bean bag. After all, what member of Congress in his or her right mind would want to go back to an angry district and take a stand on a potentially explosive national reform issue. …Er, okay, let’s rephrase that … what member of Congress in his or her right mind wants to go and take another whuppin’ from voters and constituents on something like recreational boating after the scars they’ve gotten in the health care debate?

So what’s the political answer? The usual … ignore the problem until you just can’t ignore it anymore. Toss in a red herring, if necessary. Congress has done both.

Despite repeated testimony from the Commandant about the need to address small-boat vulnerabilities in the United States, Congress has failed to even establish a serious conversation on this issue. Instead, the entire maritime and port security focus of the political class has been an unhealthy obsession with cargo security.  Not that cargo security itself is an unhealthy obsession – but the overly simplistic solution legislated out of Washington was to mandate the scanning of 100 percent of all cargo entering the United States. Yes, that’s right, every one of the 12 million or so containers entering the country’s ports every year.

Unlike telling weekend boaters that they may need to register their watercraft, telling the private sector that it must find a way to scan every piece of cargo is a politically popular position that comes with no (direct) cost to the federal government. Never mind that it would likely cripple the supply chain and result in less security over the long run.

As Allen has previously (and repeatedly) observed: Small boats pose a greater threat to port security than the “nuke in a box” scenario. “All of our threat and vulnerability assessments for the major ports around this country tell us that while containers are important, we may be thinking too container-centric since the events of 9/11, and the notion of a water-borne improvised explosive device needs to be dealt with,” Allen told an audience of the Surface Navy Association.

While Congress is urging that untold resources be dedicated to examining the contents of millions of cargo containers (regardless of the likely threat level of individual containers and shipments), a terrorist could simply motor an explosive device via a small boat right up to a liquid gas facility. Or just about anything else. Because there is no – none, nada, zip – regulatory infrastructure in place to prevent it.

Sound far-fetched? Remember the USS Cole?

Or how about this one: Mumbai? The Pakistani terrorists who rained gunfire on residents in the Indian city of Mumbai got into position by beaching a small watercraft in an unsecured area, guided by the kind of handheld GPS devices you could pick up at Radio Shack, and simply walked into the city to launch their attack.

During a Coast Guard media pen and pad hosted by Allen last week, he returned to this theme and noted several ways in which small boats could be easily used to inflict damage:

  • Using a shoulder-held rocket from a small boat strategically positioned. (Remember that rocket-propelled grenade launchers are a commonly used weapon among al Qaeda and its ilk.)
  • Delivering a weapon of mass destruction via a small boat
  • Using a small boat to deliver an improvised explosive device (as with the Cole)
  • Strategic landing of terrorists (as with Mumbai)

Allen compared to the regulation of the airways, which also have recreational users, to the lack thereof when it comes to the waterways. In aviation, practically everything is controlled; in maritime, practically nothing is.

The Commandant noted that there are a number of different approaches that could be considered, from the use of registration, as in the aviation sector, to less comprehensive tactics such as prohibiting waterway access near facilities of national security significance. He appears open to compromise and new ideas. He just wants to get the debate going.

“It shouldn’t take a public event to start a debate,” he said.


Chris Battle founded Security Debrief as a forum for the homeland security community to discuss pressing issues and current debates in national security, counter-terrorism and law enforcement. After a long fight against kidney cancer, Chris passed in August 2013. Read More