A Coast Guard plan to combat terrorism by creating the maritime equivalent of an air traffic control system in the coastal waters here, a test for a nationwide effort, has fallen far short of expectations.
The Coast Guard installed long-range surveillance cameras, coastal radar and devices that automatically identify approaching vessels to help search out possible threats.
But the radar, it turns out, confuses waves with boats. The cameras cover just a sliver of the harbor and coasts. And only a small fraction of vessels can be identified automatically.
Officials acknowledge the limited progress that the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard have made toward creating a viable defense here in Miami or at harbors nationwide against a maritime attack, despite the billions of dollars invested in port security since 2001.
“The more vigilant and alert you are, the less likely the adversary will decide this is a good way to strike at you,” said Capt. Dana A. Goward, director of the Coast Guard project, called Maritime Domain Awareness. “For now, there are lots of cockpit doors that have not been reinforced.”
In fact, the Coast Guard estimates that 14 boats smuggling drugs, guns or immigrants or engaged in other crimes reach United States shores every week.
In 2003, for example, a Cuban patrol boat, armed with two machine guns, landed at a Key West resort, its crew seeking to defect. The Coast Guard is often asked, “How in the world did they get through?” Captain Goward said. Quoting a former commandant, he responded, “With all due respect, how did they get through — what?”
The frustrating pace of progress is due to several factors, say officials, port security experts and government auditors:
The communications, boat tracking and surveillance equipment rarely lives up to its promised capacity; for the largest systems, work is far behind schedule and over budget.
Unlike the relatively unified command over the nation’s skies, control of the waterways and coasts is divided among at least 15 federal agencies, which sometimes act more like rivals than partners.
Even if the federal government can successfully gather tips on vessels that might present a threat, it will be of little help because the Coast Guard does not have enough armed vessels or planes to take action before it is too late.
Miami, a city with miles of waterfront condominiums and glistening office towers, was selected to serve as a laboratory for the Maritime Domain Awareness project.
The city not only has a major container port serving as a distribution point for much of Latin America, but it is also the world’s largest cruise ship destination, with as many as 18 ships lined up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale in the winter peak season.
And the waterways are usually packed with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of small boats, any of them capable of the sort of attack that damaged the Navy destroyer Cole in Yemen six years ago, killing 17 people and injuring 39.
Some progress has been made here and at other high-profile ports since 2001. Ships approaching the United States must provide notice 96 hours before they arrive. The Coast Guard then determines whether to board a vessel before it lands — it did that about 10,000 times in 2005.
At the Miami harbor, a protective zone around the cruise ship terminal is enforced by security guards on boats. The Coast Guard has significantly expanded its fleet of small, fast harbor patrol boats. And in Miami and a dozen other ports, the service has set up teams of officers to respond to a hostage crisis or other emergency.
The surveillance effort in Miami, known as Project Hawkeye, was intended to search out vessels that might present a threat, allowing the Coast Guard to try to foil an impending attack.
Using radar, the Coast Guard would track boats larger than 25 feet within 12 miles of shore. Smaller vessels — as little as a Jet Ski — would be tracked with infrared cameras up to five miles offshore. The surveillance would cover an area stretching 150 miles, from Fort Lauderdale to the Florida Keys.
To identify which vessels among the thousands might pose a danger, the Coast Guard would rely on sophisticated software that would assemble and analyze all this data. Under the plan, Coast Guard officials would be alerted when boats entered restricted waters, loitered in a vulnerable spot or displayed an unusual course or speed.
The cameras have at times proved helpful, allowing the Coast Guard to investigate how a ship went aground or to monitor security contractors at the cruise ship terminal, to make sure they are doing their job, said Capt. Liam Slein, deputy commander of the Miami sector.
But the cameras, it turns out, are not powerful enough or installed widely enough to track small boats approaching the many inlets in the Miami area. The radar system is so unreliable — mistaking waves for boats, splitting large ships in two or becoming confused by rain — Coast Guard staff personnel have been told not to waste much time looking at it.
And technology the Coast Guard has required for large ships and wants installed on commercial fishing vessels, devices that automatically identify an approaching ship’s name, location and course, has also provoked concerns.
The Automated Identification System, as it is known, was first developed as a collision avoidance measure, not a security system, and was not made tamperproof. A captain or crew wanting to hide or disguise their location could simply turn the system off, or enter data that transmitted false information about the vessel’s whereabouts and identity.
“This is a serious design flaw for a security system,” wrote Jay Creech, a retired Coast Guard captain, and Capt. Joseph F. Ryan of the merchant marine, in an analysis of the system.
Most critically, the software system intended to make sense of all the collected data has not yet been installed in Miami. That means that very little of what the cameras are filming or the radar is tracking is ever used or even watched. The data is of such limited value that at least for now, the Coast Guard has assigned only volunteers to deal with it.
One recent day one of those volunteers, Eduardo Burbank, 68, a retiree and boat enthusiast, was sitting at a computer terminal using the Automated Identification signals to confirm the identity of container ships approaching the harbor. Anything smaller — meaning most boats in the harbor — was ignored.
“Every little boat that comes in, we can’t check all that,” Mr. Burbank said.
A surveillance system similar to the one in Miami is supposed to be installed at as many as 35 ports. But given the challenges here, and the unwillingness of Congress to finance the still-unproven effort, the Coast Guard has delayed expanding the effort to other ports until at least 2014.
Some port security experts say it is Congress, not the Coast Guard, that deserves much of the blame for the slow pace of progress. The total spending to date on the Miami surveillance effort has been about $10 million, and similar projects nationwide total less than $100 million.
Elected officials remain fixated on costly plans to scan cargo containers for nuclear weapons or on measures like security fences at port terminals, critics say, instead of the greater threat presented by small boats packed with conventional bombs.
"The United States is wasting money by doling out millions of dollars in port security grants that are not adding much security," said James Jay Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who urged that spending on programs like the Miami surveillance project be accelerated.
The delays in the program are part of what has become a pattern for the Coast Guard, when it comes to high-tech initiatives to increase security or enhance maritime safety.
Rescue 21, a 911-like emergency call dispatch system considered a critical precursor to the Maritime Domain Awareness effort, was supposed to be installed nationwide by 2006, at a cost of $250 million, allowing faster and more reliable tracking of boats in distress.
Now estimated to cost as much as $872 million, the project will not be ready nationwide until 2011, Congressional auditors say. And it will not work as promised: the Coast Guard will not initially be able to use the system to track its own boats.
The Coast Guard is also still struggling to settle on an approach to gather all the data it and other federal agencies collect about potential maritime threats globally and nationally. But the commitment to work together has not always been honored by all the federal agencies.
During a drill in which officials pretended that a ferry had been hijacked by terrorists, the Coast Guard and the Federal Bureau of Investigation competed for the right to take charge, a contest that became so intense that the Coast Guard players manipulated the war game to cut the F.B.I. out, government auditors say.
“Unless such differences over roles and authorities are resolved,” a Justice Department report issued this year said, “the response to a maritime incident could be confused and potentially disastrous.”
Here in South Florida and elsewhere across the United States, another obstacle exists to blocking possible threats.
Last month, the Coast Guard pulled from service 8 of its 10 patrol boats stationed at Key West, after the just-renovated boats suffered hull breaches and mechanical problems. Among the ships the service said it planned to use as a replacement were slow-moving buoy tenders.
Outside New York, the Coast Guard has used a 43-year-old ice-breaking tug boat to patrol around the Indian Point nuclear power plant. The ship has a top speed of 10 knots and no weapons, other than the handguns carried by some of the crew.
“I don’t know how the Coast Guard intends to stop a high-speed boat, loaded with explosives,” Representative Sue W. Kelly, Republican of New York, said at a recent hearing where she questioned a senior Coast Guard official.
Lt. Justin W. Noggle, chief of the Miami sector command center, said he recognized that many of the antiterror tools the Coast Guard had installed were falling far short of their goals. But it still is progress, Lieutenant Noggle said.
“We are just in the infancy of this effort here,” he said. “But if you don’t start somewhere, you don’t get anywhere.”