Ship tracking plans need review: GAO

The Coast Guard should ensure that its security efforts to update programs to electronically track ships in open seas do not needlessly overlap, according to investigators. The Government Accountability Office also cited delays with one future program to track ships and potential problems with tracking small ships.

GAO said the Coast Guard needed to coordinate its plans for improving its ability to track ships in the United States’ ports, coastal areas and inland waterways, along with its long-range tracking capabilities. In an unclassified version of a report released April 16, GAO's investigators recommended the service review its plans to deploy a commercial long-range automatic identification system (AIS) to track ships.

GAO said the data gathered from larger ships through the planned AIS might duplicate information the guard already can get from its present system, a new long-range identification and tracking system (LRIT), and notices of arrival from ships. The report said the service estimates the long-range AIS would not be ready until 2014 because of delays by contractors and said its eventual cost was not clear.

The investigators said after fully operational, the LRIT and AIS “will largely duplicate each other both in terms of the vessels they can track and the information they provide, although AIS would provide some additional information.”

GAO said the guard's parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, agreed with the investigators’ recommendation that after completing a concept demonstration of the AIS, the Coast Guard review the need for it. However, DHS also said the two systems are complementary and provide different information, apply to different classes and sizes of vessels, and are under separate requirements, GAO said.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard operates a land-based AIS to track ships that have AIS equipment in ports, coastal areas and inland waterways. However, many smaller ships — which are seen as a potential security threat, particularly after the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai — and noncommercial ships are not required to carry AIS equipment.

In a statement, senior members of the House Homeland Security Committee said the report showed improvement was needed.

“With piracy on the rise, past terrorist attacks targeting Mumbai last year and the USS Cole in 2000, the Coast Guard should use everything at its disposal to track vessels at sea as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the panel's chairman. "New technologies must be coordinated correctly to ensure that even the smallest vessels can be tracked.”

“This report is helpful in identifying the possibility that our various tracking systems may be duplicative,” added Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member. “I will continue to work with Chairman Thompson and DHS to ensure that the tracking systems we utilize provide efficient, effective security for our maritime transportation system and that we expand our capabilities to monitor small vessels that could pose a threat.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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