Port Vulnerabilities

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The marine system of the United States comprises of over 300 sea and river ports with a total capacity of over 3,700 passenger and freight terminals. Because of the numerous ports and the large number of containers and persons that are carried from and to US ports, they are frequently targeted by terrorists. These attacks have the potential to cause significant losses for the US and global economies, which rely heavily on the marine system as a convenient means of transferring products. Port vulnerabilities are flaws that terrorists may exploit, such as a large quantity of freight containers. Other words that are comparable to vulnerabilities are risks and threats, which are used interchangeably. The US state and federal governments are responsible for ensuring safety at the ports.

US Port Vulnerabilities

The US ports vulnerabilities include cargo containers, geographical layout of ports, high numbers of containers ships, many trucks, the human threat, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Cargo containers at the ports are as many as over 12 million in number. This makes their inspection, tracking, and security a great challenge. The limitation is both regarding personnel requirements and the high costs involved to make it possible. Some of the potential threats which relate to the cargo containers include smuggling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), “dirty” bombs, and terrorist operatives. Secondly, the geographical layouts also need to be checked to ensure the safety of everyone and everything at the harbors. The ports have no fences and are surrounded by cities with high population densities. Hence, terrorists can easily escape and hide within nearby cities.

Thirdly, the container ships anchored at the ports are stationary targets for terrorist attacks. They are prone to hijacking and being targets for explosive devices. Besides the container ships, there are also numerous trucks that enter and exit the US ports. A terrorist could easily hijack any of them and use it to transport WMD across the cities. The other port vulnerability is based on the supply chain which deals with exporters, exporters, and several firms. Lack of adherence to requirements such as contractual agreements, audit compliance, visibility of the movement of the cargo (tracking), and security policies and procedures pose security threats. Lastly, the human factor can be a huge security risk in ports. This happens when they engage in corruption and ignore good security practices.

Security strategies for curbing port vulnerabilities

To control port vulnerabilities, the management of the seaports must put in place strong port security measures. These actions include law and treaty enforcement and counterterrorism activities. In most cases, the state and local governments are responsible for the safety of the ports in their vicinity. However, there are also government agencies that are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring safety at the ports. Examples of such federal agencies include the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

The primary responsibility of the Coast Guard is to inspect all commercial ships docking on a port, counter any terrorist attacks, and protect the US Navy ships. The TSA, on the other hand, is responsible for all modes of transport in the US including air, water, train, and road transport. Finally, the CBP’s role is to inspect all cargo entering the US ports. They also check the passengers and ship crew aboard the ships received on the ports.

A case of terrorist infiltration in the US ports within the past five years

An example of a terrorist activity on the US ports includes an incident that was reported on April 4, 2017 on the New York Harbor. Terrorists used a shipnamed Umm Salat to attack the port by hitting the largest ship at the harbor. Prior to this attack, the terrorists are believed to have poured hundreds of naval mines in water causing water pollution. The incident led to the sinking of both the Umm Salat and the large ship that had been hit. Explosives denoted in the hundreds of shipping containers leading to the death of hundreds of civilians and Navy sailors. Such is a case indicating the danger of an attack on a US port. The authorities should guard against such an attack by all means.

Recommendations on improved ways of protecting US seaports

The security of the US ports can be improved by focusing on four main areas namely implementing standards, funding, cooperation, and policing. Port security agencies need to develop a set of standards that can be applied to minimize the security threats. Such measures can be used to assess port vulnerabilities. Besides the new rules, the users of ports and employees at the ports need to adhere to existing port regulations such as the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code. Ports also need to implement their Port Facility Security Plans including fencing of the ports and required identification for all persons who have access to the ports.

Apart from the standards, the ports need adequate funding to finance their activities. The large numbers of cargo, ships, containers, and passengers that interact with the ports demand high numbers of personnel to exercise vigilance. Hence, both the state and federal governments need to apportion enough funds for the ports. Increased funding is also necessary because applying security at the ports is expensive. Some of the monies are also needed to help in modernizing the ports so that they use the most recent technologies which make inspection and tracking of goods much easier.

Also, there needs to be better cooperation and coordination among the many stakeholders in the port securities network. Working as a team makes work lighter and brings about the synergy required in this critical industry. Furthermore, the harbor policing needs an additional workforce to take care of mundane issues such as illegal immigration, health and safety, safe docking of vessels, theft, and environmental protection such from spillages.


Port vulnerabilities pose a significant threat to the security of not only ports in the world but also US ports. These vulnerabilities include the large numbers of passengers, the many ships, the number of containers and goods, the supply chain, and the human factor. Dealing with the port vulnerabilities involves putting in place actionable standards, rules, and regulations. There’s also need to increase personnel such as harbor police and other port employees who deal with the inspection. The coordination of several agencies who work to ensure there is port security need to work together as a team so that they can capitalize on the synergy. To attain all this, there is the need for adequate funding. Most of the funding usually comes from the state governments. However, the federal government and other investors may assist in granting additional funding. Acting on these recommendations may go a long way in ensuring the US ports are safe from terrorist infiltration.


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May 02, 2023
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