RAND puts ferries at the top of the list of emerging terrorist threats

Published 30 October 2006

With their wide decks, slow-moving ferries are extremely vulnerable to even the slightest explosions; suicide bombers, mines, and boat-borne IEDs among likely methods of attack; screening ferry crews and increased wharf surveillance are best responses

The 1960s Liverpool band Gerry and Pace Makers once instructed its listeners to “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” This may no longer be so advisable. Security planners are increasingly worried about the vulnerability of these craft — “essentially huge aircraft that go very slow,” in the words of one expert — and believe that active steps must be taken to protect them. The largest threats, a recent RAND study found, were: suicide bombing aboard a ship; sinking a ship with a boat-borne improvised explosive device (IED); sinking a ship with a submersible parasitic device, or mine; and a stand-off attack using artillery.

Experts consider attacks on ferries to be relatively easy to execute comparative to the payoff. The February 2004 explosion of the Superferry 14 in the Phillipines, for instance, cost only $300 and involved less than five kilograms of TNT. The bombing killed 116, wounded over 300, and boosted considerably the reputation of the seemingly moribund ASG terrorist group.

In addition to providing a slow moving target with a large number of ready victims, the very construction of a ferry boat makes it extremely vulnerable to even the slightest explosion. Roll on-roll off ferries (or “ro-ro”) are built with large decks to accomodate passenger vehicles, but this design “makes these vessels acutely sensitive to subtle shifts in their center of gravity, largely because they lack stabilizing bulkheads on their lower sections,” RAND reported. As one high-ranking official with the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) in London put it: “One [event] and that’s it; these boats have no damage limitation at all.” As little as a single foot of water could capsize them.

Experts say the cost of increased ferry and cruise ship security could reach into the hundreds of millions, with sea marshals, surveillance systems, and screening of ferry workers receiving the most attention. In just one example, closed circuit television cameras have been in place on every Sydney, Australia wharf since before the 2000 Olympics and are now scheduled for a $5.5 million upgrade.

-read more in this RAND PDF report