Military explores greater role in maritime security

The commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command said recently that the difference between military and civilian responsibilities for maritime security is a "gray area" that might require more military involvement.

NORAD is exploring options to provide additional support to the Coast Guard for handling maritime security operations, said Air Force Gen. Ralph Eberhart, who also is in charge of Northern Command, during a conference last week.

"My intuition is that we need to take NORAD to the next level, that we in fact need to include some sort of maritime piece to this and probably some civil support," Eberhart said. "Obviously, we're doing the analysis and then we'll develop" recommendations.

Northern Command is responsible for the Defense Department's homeland defense operations, such as defending against a ballistic missile attack, while civilian federal agencies are responsible for homeland security, such as securing transportation infrastructure. The Coast Guard has both a civilian role and operates as a specialized service under the Navy in time of war or when directed by the president.

Eberhart questioned what would happen if the Coast Guard approached a civilian ship and discovered that it had a cruise missile on board with a weapon of mass destruction. He said the Coast Guard is prepared for noncompliance when boarding ships, but not outright opposition.

"It's fine with me if the Coast Guard has the lead, but we ought to have some capabilities on its way in formation with it that can deal with an opposed boarding once we get there," he said. "Or, in the worst case, if they pull the tarp off a cruise missile and they're going to launch it, we can neutralize the ship."

A Coast Guard spokesman said Wednesday that he was not aware of any negotiations to augment the Coast Guard with military capabilities. He said standard maritime security procedures do not involve military assets, adding that the Coast Guard is capable of handling almost any situation, including an opposed boarding. The Coast Guard is in constant communication with the military, he added, and would call for assistance if needed.

Eberhart said the possibility of expanding NORAD's role in maritime security was raised last year in discussions between the United States and Canada. He said a planning group is exploring the possibility of creating a "naval NORAD."

"If [the threat] is of a nature that no one can deal with it other than the military, then we ought to not hesitate to use the military to counter that threat, protect our citizens and protect our infrastructure," Eberhart said.

"It's kind of like the issue of a hijacked airliner," he added. "You get into debates all the time that this isn't a homeland defense issue, this is a homeland security and law enforcement issue, and so the military ought not to have any role. My response is very simple. If not the military, then who?"