A Mind Puzzle

August 2010


Yesterday I attended the Homeland Security 2020: The Future of Defending the Homeland conference at the Heritage Foundation – which turned out to be very insightful. If you didn’t catch it on C-SPAN you can find a video of the panels here. During the second panel, Dr. Steve Bucci raised an interesting mind puzzle that I think is excellent for the kind of collaborative discussion one can usually finds in blog comments.

The scenario is straight forward – a large container ship still a few hundred miles off the US coast is believed to have a nuclear bomb. It is unclear, but all detection capabilities and intelligence suggests that one of the several hundred containers may have a nuclear bomb. How do you find out for sure? Where do you unload these containers so you can get to the one setting off sensors? Where do you send the ship? Are you going to sink a 70,000 ton bulk carrier because an imperfect detection system is giving you a suspicious reading, and intelligence is giving you a 50% probability that there could be a nuclear weapon on the ship?

Bottom line, nobody has any idea what we are going to do. It is one of many mind puzzles where the details that would constitute a real plan for dealing with deadly scenarios remain elusive.

The conversations at the Heritage event were very informative. The first panel put a great deal of intellectual energy into the global trade system and an examination of policy decisions to date that impact and influence our trade system. I highly suggest listening to Michael Barrett if you are not familiar with him. He is one of those young guys on this subject who has already developed an enormous resume – and will be a voice in this conversation for decades. The second panel was also very good – with Dr. Steve Bucci adding a bit of humor to the discussion.

I also thought VADM Terry Cross provided an interesting assessment of Deepwater.

Posted by galrahn in Homeland Security, Maritime Security

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  • Enginoob

    One piece to the puzzle, how you selectively offload containers: ONR’s LVI Lo-Lo crane


  • Derrick

    Can that LVI Lo-Lo crane be mounted on a ship and sent to sea? I ask because if a ship was suspected of carrying a terrorist nuclear weapon, it would be politically controversial to allow the ship to dock at any port until it had been thoroughly searched.

    How far out to sea would such a suspect ship have to be intercepted, so that in case of detonation, there would be no impact to civilians at shore? Is it something which the coast guard could handle, or would such an intercept require naval warships?

    Is there a way to remotely disable detonation of a nuclear device? I ask because if such a scenario occurred, I would assume that even if the ship was intercepted out at sea and boarded, the ship’s crew would probably detonate the device anyway just to take the lives of the boarders with them.

    Also, how does one “detect” a smuggled nuclear weapon remotely? I’m assuming there is some sort of radiation sensor with range that will do this, or will suspect ships be determined based on some form of intel, like spying or what-not?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    1. Intercept and board. Remove, sequester and interrogate the crew. Confiscate the manifest and the Hazmat Manifest. Conduct a thorough search for remote detonation equipment or unusual cargo status monitoring equipment.

    2. Search unsuccessful? Sink the ship (in shallow water if possible). Pay claims resulting, promptly, based on the manifest and bills of lading.
    Don’t apologize or complain.

    3. NO PRESS, or as little as possible, initially.

    4. Investigate, detain and interrogate everyone who touched a container loaded on said ship. Take your time.

    5. Massively fine the ship owners and shipping agents, so that those remaining will be motivated to be conscientious. Refund if no bomb found after step 5.

    5. Wait 90 days then raise the ship, if sunk in shallow water, tow it to a remote location and disassemble with EOD supervised Indian ship breakers, paid once in a lifetime high wages and large life insurance. If no bomb found reimburse shipowner and operator.

    6. (Massive)media campaign once matter resolved.

    Expensive, but cheaper than losing New York. Oh, all right. San Francisco too.

  • One suggestion has been to develop floating “screening ports” for containers – not very efficient, certainly, but a thought.

    See The Atlantis Garrison: A Comprehensive, Cost Effective Cargo and Port Security Strategy, Strategic Insights, Volume IV, Issue 4 (April 2005, by Dr. Michael J. Hillyard at http://www.nps.edu/Academics/centers/ccc/publications/OnlineJournal/2005/Apr/hillyardApr05.html

  • Enginoob

    Derrick, to answer your first question: LVI was a post-fit onto a TAC-S ship (via a giant steel column in one of the cargo holds) and tested in the gulf in SS3 back in May.

  • Derrick

    As a civilian who doesn’t live too far north of the US, my primary concern is that ships suspected of carrying terrorist weapons of mass destruction be searched far from shores, so I don’t get radiation poisoning (just in case). 😉

    Floating screening ports look expensive; perhaps fitting those LVI onto TAC-S ships as mentioned above, and then bringing these ships to the suspect vessels would be cheaper?

    What happens if the suspect ship tries to ignore orders to change course? Is it possible for a jet to intercept and destroy its propellor?

  • Matt Yankee

    Who cares about the ship? It seems to me the more important problem is the fact that such an attempt even occured. Why wouldn’t we treat it as if some country fired an ICBM at us? The first thing that comes to my mind is to find out who it was, as soon as possible and with little regard for lawyers or anyone searching…speed is what matters…and respond with overwhelming firepower. Would Usama be deterred if he was aware our response might be eleminating Mecca? I think every muslim in the world should understand that if they open Pandora’s Box they will be the ones to suffer more than us…by 1000 time over. The fact is we have the means to inflict massive damage with non-nuclear weapons ie. biological & chemical. If the terrorists or any state believes our response to an anonymous nuke will be just talk it will increase the probablitliy of the weapon being used. The answer is deterrence…without that attempts will be made until success and then you will find yourself in the same situation of responding somehow. Such talk about how we are more concerned with everything but deterring and/or killing the attacker is not helpful. When will we say enough and tell the world it is either we will keep the peace or we will make the peace but we will never be defeated…ever.

  • Chuck Hill

    As usual I like Grampa’s comments.

    Entirely possible that the crew and ship owners have no knowledge of what is in the container. May have been taken on board under the guise of a load of socks for Walmart.

    If I were the terrorist, I would fuse it based on an algorithm using inputs from GPS that would recognize when it arrived in the target area, with backup fuses for time and opening the container.

    What kind of response we would see if the Coast Guard called for backup is a very good question. I think the result would be about as good as on 9/11, too little, too late. I don’t think anyone is prepared for this. We need to war game it.

  • Chuck Hill

    Matt, all Muslims are not terrorists or extremists, they are not a cult, they are the second largest religion in the world with about two Billion people. To make all Muslims our enemy is to play into the hands of Osama and his kind.

  • Matt Yankee

    I’m not saying that all muslims are terrorists…it’s about detterence. All Japanese were not the ruling military yet that is who we targeted by bombing entire cities. All Germans were not Nazies…should we have attempted to selectively assassinate just the Nazi leadership or did we in fact hold the entire culture responsible so that the leadership were forced to surrender? Who are the leaders of the Muslum world…I don’t hear too many screaming that the terrorists are hijacking their culture…I hear it is the US that is who they perceive as their enemy.

    This thinking may be crazy to some but they are probably the same people who look at the atom bombs dropped on Japan as some great tragedy…it just isn’t the case.

    We were a more realistic people in WWII, who understood money does not in fact grow on trees and war must be fought with limited resources in mind. We could not afford invading Japan why do we think we can afford to send a Hellfire missile at every single terrorist or invade every sigle country that sponsors terrorists while being oh so careful not to kill civilians. Now we’re supposed to build some kind of port at sea with more IOU’s .

    Chuck what will be your solution if we do go bankrupt? Secretary Gates has recently said the military has had a culture of not worrying about expenses as we spend multiples of every other nation on the earth. Isn’t Usama’s intention to bankrupt us instead of defeating us on the battlefield…I have never in my lifetime thought bankruptcy was an option for this country until the last few yrs. I choose to live and I would hope this country chooses to live if the choice is between this country and the middle east…sorry for being so cynical.

    I did not say kill all muslums either…just fill them all with the knowledge that their actions could have an impact on their most sacred assets…and we should be so creative as to figure out which of their buttons to push.

  • Derrick

    Can terrorists be deterred? I thought they want to die??

    Can ships manned by terrorist crews be intercepted and stopped far enough away from shore to render WMD’s ineffective?

    Can GPS signal be controlled over an area? For example, can I fix the GPS satelllites so that every vessel in a small portion of water thinks they are in the Arctic Ocean?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Since you asked?
    In order:
    “Can terrorists be deterred?”

    Yes, but it is messy and troubling.
    Kill them in the most humiliating (by their lights)way and desecrate the corpses in the most humiliating (by their lights) way. Take care to descecrate the corpses, but not the shrines of Islam. Blood feud with a million families can be dealt with if you are willing to put your own soul in jeapordy. A final solution to the Muslim problem to prevent their final solution to the Crusader problem is not recommended. See also Yamamoto, recommendation concerning war with US, mythical … last line of Tora Tora Tora.

    The trick is to be the cutting edge, not feel it.

    “I thought they wanted to die.”

    Not the bosses, and not that way. Decapitation (killing the leaders wholesale, not literal head chopping) leads to fatalistic acceptance of defeat. (Inshallah, it is not yet God’s time.) Nations guilty of nuclear terrorism should be reduced to permanent impoverished rural backwardness, with the entire (small) surviving population supervised by something like the Guardia Civil,for at least 75 years. Why? Well, el Caudillo was a mean SOB, but when he died Spain would never go back to the Civil war, and it avoided WWII. By his lights, he was a lifesaver for the Spanish people

    Coopt the survivors and control the education of their children.
    Won’t coopt? Don’t survive. In any case control the education of kids. All radical school teachers get life on a midpacific island, with freedom to practice what they preach. Single sex only. Heavy coastal patrols, NotMar and NotAm do not approach within 100 miles.

    Descriptive, not prescriptive. Solutions are possible, just remember what Machiavelli had to say about effective Princes’ hope of heaven. I’m describing NOT recommending.

    Can ships manned by terrorist crews be intercepted and stopped far enough away from shore to render WMD’s ineffective?

    Sometimes. If the crews are terrorists, just kill them and sink the ship with a spread of 3 Mk 48 torpedoes and a harpoon, TOT. If the crews are held hostage, the welfare of hostages held by anyone holding a nuclear weapon will not be considered. Ever.

    “Can GPS signal be controlled over an area? For example, can I fix the GPS satelllites so that every vessel in a small portion of water thinks they are in the Arctic Ocean?”

    Interesting thought, but utimately minor tactics and hence pointless. The terrorists need to become one with the Waffen SS. A bad memory and some powerless old men, but most of them just dead.

  • Matt Yankee

    Who really believes the terrorists leadership wants to die? They make others die for them…it is a fact 9 yrs after 9/11 UBL, Zawa-Harry, and Omar are all alive and well. They will not kill themselves for their cause. Has anyone even heard of a direct family member to the leadership…any of them…Hamas, Al Qaeda, the Taliban…ever being homicide bombers? No…they groom them to become leaders also. Terrorist are not aliens without human weaknesses…their leaders can be deterred.

  • Francis Dane

    I agree with Grandpa. I would say that a more realistic scenario would be a container with a dirty bomb, not a full fledge nuclear bomb. Is it possible to put a small dirty bomb in a lead lined container so that the radiation couldn’t be detected at all?

  • Derrick

    I’m still wondering whether a terrorist WMD can be disabled remotely, as preventing detonation would ultimately give US authorities/navy time to do their work.

    Is it possible to direct smaller craft, like speedboats, to intercept ships carrying terrorist WMDs? To look at it in extremes, I’d hate to lose a $5 billion? aircraft carrier by having it intercept a terrorist ship who decided to set the WMD off once caught.

    What is the maximum sized nuclear weapon that could be smuggled on a terrorist cargo ship? What would its blast radius be?

  • Matt Yankee

    I know in our port we have a few Bob Hope class supply ships with massive cranes which would be capable of offloading containers at sea and the ship wouldn’t be too big a loss.

    The size of the weapon would be unlimited because if the warhead is small enough to be carried to space on a rocket, a container ship would have no problem. Also, from their perspective if you were going to launch a nuclear strike on the US why would you want to fart around with dirt bombs and not go for the big one.
    Such an attack would be epic and the terrorists would want to be remembered for the size of the bomb attack. The bigger the better.

  • Derrick

    So the trick is:
    We have to detect the weapon early enough so that the ship can be stopped far enough away from shore such that even if the weapon goes off, the mainland won’t be affected.

    So how can we detect the weapon, and what technologies are readily available to terrorists in order to hide the weapon’s signature?

    Note detection becomes tricky, because only looking for radiation assumes the weapon is nuclear. What if the weapon is biological or chemical in nature?

  • Derrick

    Also, can someone tell me the minimum distance from US shoreline a terrorist nuclear weapon can be exploded without impacting the US?

    How long would it take to send a fighter jet to intercept a boat at that distance?

    What is the range a radiation detector is effective for?

  • Chuck Hill

    This scenario is dependent upon good intel. Otherwise we would have no idea the bomb was aboard. We are trying to get containers screened before thy are loaded in the ports of embarkation. There is almost no point in having them screened in the ports of debarkation in the US, because they could be exploded there and accomplish their objective.

  • Chuck Hill

    Derrick asked: What is the range a radiation detector is effective for?

    The range of detection is very limited. You can’t fly over a ship and know that it has a nuclear device on board. The way containers are screened, they have to pass through a device that essentially places sensors all around the container in close proximity while it towed through, sort of like going through a car wash.

  • Derrick

    OK…so to correct myself:
    Is the trick to get US customs officers (ie people we can trust) in place at all the ports of embarkation outside the US to screen suspect containers.

    Isn’t that prohibitively expensive? How many ports of embarkation are out there?

  • Chuck Hill

    We are doing that to some extend and tracking containers, but Derrick you have hit on the crux of the problem.

    And if we get the container problem under control, there is also the problem of sailboats and other small vessels that go in and out of our harbors with virtually no control.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    I am using public information to avoid any unauthorized disclosure of classified information. About ten years ago, Russia claimed to sensors that could detect the presence of a nuclear weapon on any ship transiting the straits at Istanbul.

    In a widely publicized statement by I believe the Swedish Minister of defense maybe twenty years ago or so, after a Russian diesel powered submarine ran aground and remained stuck for several days (a.k.a. Whiskey on the Rocks) well inside the the foreign nation’s territorial waters, the statement claimed off board sensors confirmed the presence of nuclear weapons (torpedoes) on the Russian sub.

  • Chuck Hill

    On the other hand, if these sensors were widely available and reliable we would not still be checking individual containers.

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    As in the ESM game, there are moves and counter-moves for most sensors. In the case of nuclear weapon sensors that use passive detectors for radiation, shielding around the nuclear weapon can reduce sensor range. There are other technologies that use a variety of active senors. These can be thought of as x-ray machines. Shielding jumps off the screen with most of these sensors.

    Bottom line is screening at container level is still required.

  • If the intelligence exists that is able to determine the vessel is suspect at a few hundred miles off the coast we are already ahead of the game. You stop it there, by what ever means are available. The vessel should not be allowed to come any closer. It should be held at a distance until the appropriate equipment is brought to it in order to conduct a search. If the vessel refuses to be boarded or searched I would think the solution would be apparent. The quality and clarity of the intelligence should point the way in a matter of this nature.

  • Derrick

    Hmm…so a possible solution to this puzzle would be:

    1) Posting US customs officials at different ports of disembarkation to screen containers. This prevents large terrorist nuclear weapons from getting through.
    2) Perhaps buying some nuclear weapon sensors for coast guard aircraft and ships, and assign them on regular patrols around US coastline to catch the smaller nuclear weapons. The small sailboats and watercraft used by terrorists for this type of attack should be too small to carry weapons with extensive shielding, so sensor range should be sufficient, correct?

    How much would this cost?

    Also, this thread topic is limited to terrorist nuclear weapons, which leaves out the better way of terrorizing North America: infecting suicide terrorists with biological weapons that only show symptoms after 2-3 weeks, so these terrorists can slip by customs and disease the masses.

    Also, what about terrorists using chemical weapons? How can those be detected?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    None of the above is going to happen. We are going to lose a seaport.
    Just a matter of time.

    Then what will we do? Dither and play security drama until we lose more.

    Eventually, deterrence will be reestablished. About 150 megatons later.

    I could be wrong. Please tell me why.

  • Chuck Hill

    Bombing targets with only religious significance won’t deter terrorist, it will play into their hands.

    Who are you going to target?

  • Derrick

    I would target illegal narcotics facilities. I thought that’s where a good deal of terrorist financing comes from?

    Though I’m way off topic now.

  • Chuck Hill

    There is certainly a connection, but (1) We are already targeting them, and (2) they are not targets for Nuclear deterrents.