The Yemen Air Cargo Attack Means Increased Security Measures Are Imminent

As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its allies in the intelligence community assess the serious attack on international aviation that originated in Yemen, these key considerations should be foremost in their minds:

1. Defeating the terrorist threat relies on multi-national information sharing;
2. Increasing economic globalization requires a dynamic and secure air cargo supply chain; and
3. Attacking international commercial aviation remains a terrorist priority.

In the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, it became increasingly apparent to the leaders of TSA and DHS that information sharing about people and potential threats with our allies should be a priority. This has not always been an easy task, however. For instance, there has been reticence to engage in robust sharing of personal passenger data to do risk assessments due to privacy concerns. The vast amount of supply chain data related to international air commerce is problematic to analyze in a timely way as well.

The same holds true for nominations to the no-fly and other terrorist watch lists. While there have been strides made in these areas and in the sharing of strategic intelligence, more progress for the air cargo sector is needed. We do assess certain cargo as high risk, but it now appears that more needs to be done.

Existing risk assessments do not accord the same level of risk to air cargo shipments as they do to commercial air passenger operations. There are two key issues that must be overcome. The first is cost – stepping up air cargo security will cost more for technology and personnel. Increasing X-ray scanning will require foreign airports, carriers or shippers to pay for more technology. The equipment does not operate itself and will require trained personnel to do the scanning.

Second, the primary assessed threat in air cargo was that a stowaway might overtake the air cargo flight crew and use the aircraft as a weapon. This latest incident reveals that the terrorists have an interest in either blowing up cargo aircraft in flight or at airports, or they want to use the global air cargo system as a delivery mechanism for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Details about the detonation cell phone device are only now emerging.

While DHS and TSA have done a pretty good job of protecting against the introduction of IEDs into cargo carried aboard passenger aircraft, the all-cargo aviation system is not as tightly protected. We may need to X-ray cargo originating from certain countries by the piece and only palletize it after tendering and inspection.

The fact that we do not do this now is for good reason and not a failing of DHS or other government policies. In order to facilitate global commerce, a multitude of handlers, including passenger carriers, air cargo carriers, indirect air carriers, shippers, and ground transport providers, must all participate and cooperate. At any given moment, a shipper or a handler will choose the best method and mode of transport available at that time. There is no assurance that parcels tendered to one air cargo provider/operator actually are carried by that provider. Introducing new security measures could have an unintended effect of slowing down just-in-time shipments or driving costs that will ultimately raise consumer prices.

These latest incidents will require a reevaluation and candid assessments of vulnerabilities on the part of international governments, shippers and others who play a role in the vital security of the international supply chain.