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Unsecured Foreign Ports Put Navy Ships in Harm's Way

Military: American vessels entering overseas harbors must lower their defenses and operate under conditions that make them almost sitting ducks.


WASHINGTON — The U.S. guided-missile destroyer Cole had detailed plans for protecting itself. It was operating at a heightened state of alert. And its anti-terrorist plans were being executed--down to the presence of armed guards on deck watching for signs of danger.

Why didn't the plan work? How was it possible that someone could apparently come alongside a modern warship bristling with sophisticated weaponry and detonate an explosive that struck with the force of a small missile?

And how was it possible during a time of violent crisis in the Middle East, and in the port of a country known to harbor terrorists?

The answer, based on the preliminary assessment of government officials and outside experts, is as simple as it is disheartening:

At sea, a Navy warship may be among the most secure places on Earth--able, as one expert put it, "to vaporize" intruders long before they get close. The Cole, for instance, boasts elaborate radar and a sophisticated close-in weapons system with two 20-millimeter Gatling guns, each capable of firing 3,000 rounds a minute.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 14, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 5 National Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Ship attack--A graphic appearing in Friday's editions that listed some previous attacks on U.S. Navy vessels inadvertently omitted several incidents, including the assault on the U.S. intelligence ship Liberty by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats on June 8, 1967, in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thirty-four people were killed.

Yet when such ships enter a foreign port, as Navy vessels routinely do everywhere in the world, they must lower their defenses and operate under rules and conditions that make them almost sitting ducks.

"Security in a harbor environment is an even more complex task than protecting commercial aviation," said Brian Jenkins, an anti-terrorism specialist who has worked with the government on airline and maritime security. "Going into a foreign harbor, you have all the hazards of an airport and none of the controls."

Moreover, although the apparent attack on the Cole will almost certainly lead to expanded security measures, guaranteeing vessels' complete safety will remain almost impossible.

"The starting point on all this is that physical security is never going to stop terrorism," said William C. Green, an international security specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Cal State San Bernardino. "At some point, somebody is going to find a hole in your system and exploit it."

"If you're going to be on guard all around the world, you are going to be exposed. There is no way to protect every American unit everywhere," agreed retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information. "This is the price you pay for being the police maintaining SWAT teams around the world."

Until now, terrorists haven't focused on U.S. Navy ships, experts say. "It's amazing that nobody ever figured this one out before," said Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration and now a senior official at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Korb compared the apparent Cole attack to such incidents as the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon and the 1996 assault on an apartment complex housing U.S. military personnel in Saudi Arabia. "This is just a different venue for the same thing," he said.

If warships as powerful as the Cole are so vulnerable in foreign ports, why are the harbors routinely used?

The answer is that the Navy has little choice.

With foreign governments increasingly unwilling to give the United States the right to operate permanent bases on their soil, Navy ships must depend on local ports and private contractors to provide fuel, supplies and docking facilities all around the world.

Refueling at sea from Navy tankers, known as "oilers," is standard practice when large flotillas of ships travel together. But it would be prohibitively expensive to provide such support to single ships such as the Cole, which was traveling alone from its home base in Norfolk, Va., to an assignment in the Persian Gulf.

"I can't recall a circumstance where an oiler was sent with a single ship," Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said at the Pentagon on Thursday.

And when a Navy vessel, especially a combat vessel, wants to enter a foreign port, it must follow procedures and submit to rules that sharply reduce its security.

To begin with, even a private sailboat must be cleared to enter a foreign harbor, and a warship must obtain permission even to enter the territorial waters of another country.

In the case of the Cole, Clark said, the procedure was for the U.S. Embassy in Yemen to notify the government 10 to 12 days in advance that a warship would be refueling at Aden.

Then a private firm that has contracted to supply fuel would be notified. The Cole burns high-grade kerosene in its engines, and such fuel is not available in sufficient quantities without advance notice. All this makes it difficult to maintain operational secrecy.

When a ship sails into a foreign port, it enters an environment teeming with other vessels large and small--and thousands of people who are beyond the reach of the kinds of individual security procedures commonly used at airports.

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