There’s No Plan B for Port Security

Privatization and automation have left global shipping fatally exposed.

Unless you’re Finnish, you’ve probably never heard of Turku, never mind its port. Though the old university city located on Finland’s southern coast gets plenty of visitors, barely any of them pay any attention to the lowly port. Even Finns don’t think about it much. But thanks to Turku’s port, Finnish supermarkets are full of the things they need daily, from oranges and bananas to Estonian vodka and Italian wine. Like all of us, they depend on the maritime nodes of our globalized economy. That makes the recent news of Russian targeting of Finnish ports particularly alarming—and a sign of a vulnerability we all underrate.

“We’re completely dependent on uninterrupted sea transport,” said Robin Haggblom, a Finnish naval reservist who blogs under the name Corporal Frisk. “We have short land borders with Sweden and Norway, and at any rate, our rail gauges differ from theirs, so cargo would have to be reloaded at least once.” During a typical month, more than 150 ships arrive at the port of Turku, delivering or collecting nearly 3.7 million tons of goods (as well as nearly 250,000 passengers). That’s 119,000 tons of goods every single day.

Finland’s dependence on ports made national news in September, when the authorities conducted a massive raid against a mysterious company located on a small island near Turku and Naantali, another port that is also home to a petroleum refinery. The company, Airiston Helmi, was suspected of tax evasion and money laundering. Here’s the twist: The company’s business purpose is unclear, it has consistently made losses, and it’s owned by Russians, who had bought Finnish Navy surplus vessels and equipped their property with a helipad, Finnish news media reported.

Airiston Helmi is not an isolated case. A 2016 Finnish government report showed that since the early 2000s, Russian nationals have consistently been buying properties near strategic assets such as critical national infrastructure and military bases. They have even set themselves up near schools where Finnish reservists would gather in case of mobilization. Now the Finnish parliament is debating new legislation that will make it more difficult to buy properties near such strategic assets.

The company’s activities may, of course, be totally innocent, but a Russian-owned company setting itself up on an island in the middle of a strategic naval route suggests there may be more going on than money laundering. As personal travel switched to the plane and the highway, ports disappeared out of the public imagination. But 80 percent of the world’s trade still goes by sea. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the 40 largest ports handle 60 percent of all the goods shipped around the world. That loading and unloading used to be done by hand, back when dock work was a mainstay of industrial cities. But, as noted by Mark Hagerott, a retired U.S. Navy officer who is now the chancellor of the North Dakota University System, “ports are designed for efficiency: automation and low cost,” and all of it is digitally connected. “In case of a digital disruption, we don’t have the ability to revert a Plan B using more manual offloading. There aren’t enough dock workers on site, nor does the cargo lend itself to manual movement.”

The world’s extreme dependence on shipping—and the lack of a Plan B—makes ports an attractive target. “Ports and railyards have long been targets in warfare, but today an adversary no longer has to go for the hard kill and bomb them,” said Hagerott, who previously taught at the U.S. Naval Academy. “You can simply hack a port’s IT system. And many ports are privately owned. How can a port operator stand up to a country?”

How, indeed? Today’s hybrid warfare targets not only the armed forces and governments but private companies as well. As Hagerott put it, infrastructure is becoming the front line—and so is the population. If, say, operations at the ports of New York, Rotterdam in the Netherlands, Los Angeles, or Bremerhaven in Germany—all among the world’s 40 largest—were disrupted even for 48 hours, consumers would quickly feel the consequences as shops’ supplies of fruit, meat, shoes, or gasoline ran dry.

Ports have, of course, long been a target in warfare. During World War II, the United States mined Japanese ports in the aptly named Operation Starvation; in the 1980s, the CIA even helped the Contras mine Nicaraguan ports. Estonia is still clearing World War II mines from its harbors. But while it’s relatively easy to determine the state of an adversary’s regular weaponry, determining its offensive cyber-capabilities is a completely different matter. “In traditional arms races, you count bombs and submarines and know what your adversary is up to. That’s what we did with Japan and Germany in the 1930s,” Hagerott said. “But in cyber you don’t have that option. You don’t know when they’ve achieved a strategic breakthrough.”

Ports are also the point where old and new warfare converge. “Russia could launch a missile strike against most seaports and airports immediately at the beginning of any potential conflict to cripple or neutralize our ability to rapidly reinforce,” said retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who until last year commanded U.S. Army Europe. “EFP [NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence] battlegroups and host nation forces are there to deter and fight, but their concept is based on rapid reinforcement, so the ports of Northern and Western Europe are essential and must be protected.” Germany and the Netherlands could expand their Patriot missile defense systems to Baltic Sea ports, Hodges proposed. Although governments increased spending on port security following the 9/11 attacks—for example, by increasing the number of inspections of arriving vessels—today’s hybrid warfare poses a different challenge.

And since an adversary doesn’t even need missiles when it can conduct cyberattacks, Hodges argued that government investments in port security should qualify as defense spending—which means it would count toward the NATO defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP. That’s a good idea and not just for NATO. Government spending on critical national infrastructure would also be a wake-up call to the public, which expects ports, power grids, railways, and mobile networks to work without disruption. To be sure, port security is not the traditional kind of defense spending. But since NATO is based on burden sharing, investments in the security of the ports on which both the military and the population rely makes eminent sense.