Effective global policing to interdict weapons of mass destruction-related components being shipped on the high seas is forcing would-be proliferators to increasingly smuggle contraband by air, which offers faster and more permissive transport, according to two senior Obama administration officials.
"Compared to maritime shipments, where states may have days or weeks to develop interdiction courses of action, in the air domain, time is truly of the essence," Rebecca Hersman, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, said on Tuesday. "There may only be a span of hours in which to receive intelligence and take action."
She was speaking at an event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies marking the 10th anniversary of the creation of the Proliferation Security Initiative, a U.S.-led multinational effort to independently and cooperatively halt the illicit transfer of WMD components, such as ballistic missile parts and atomic materials.
The PSI program now has 102 country adherents that have promised to collaborate in blocking suspected WMD shipments transported across land, over sea or through the air.
Government officials traditionally keep the details of PSI-facilitated interdictions secret. Still, the details of a few operations are known publicly, notably the 2011 sharing of information by PSI member Belize with the United States that a North Korean cargo ship, the M/V Light, sailing under its flag was suspected of ferrying illegal missile technology to Myanmar.
Even though U.S Navy forces were not able to board the vessel and seize the suspected contraband, the incident with the M/V Light ended relatively successfully. Because the transport took place at sea, the Navy had time to send vessels to intercept the cargo ship. Over the course of several days, Washington and partner Asian capitals built up pressure on Pyongyang to order the North Korean ship to turn around.
Going forward, the international community is likely to have less time to carry out interdictions, according to Vann Van Diepen, principal deputy assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation.
"The key difference between air and maritime really is time. Airplanes go a lot faster so that means you have a lot less time to detect an activity, characterize it, work with another country to take action against it," he told the CSIS audience.
For this reason, Hersman said, it is critical to enhance the capacities of PSI member countries to understand, through their national customs and border control mechanisms, just what types of equipment and materials are transiting through their airspace. Having quick access to that knowledge enables faster interagency communication, information exchanges with partner nations and decision-making.
"The bulk of interdiction activity is done through paperwork and customs inspectors and lawyers talking to lawyers, and various communication channels moving back and forth," said Hersman, whose Pentagon portfolio is focused on reducing chemical and biological weapons threats.
Van Diepen said it is also important from a business viewpoint to minimize the amount of time needed to assess the proliferation potential of each suspicious air cargo item.
"The economic consequences of time are very severe because the reason why legitimate trade wants to use air is because it's fast," he said. "If you start to intervene in ways that disrupt that speed of legitimate commerce, that's going to have a big negative impact.
"So there's a lot more balancing that has to go in and a lot more emphasis is going to be placed on adroit interagency and international cooperation," said Van Diepen, who previously served as a national intelligence officer focusing on WMD proliferation with the national intelligence director's office.
Neither U.S. official provided specific examples of attempts to interdict suspected WMD shipments through the air. However, Hersman noted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's meeting with Iraqi government leaders in March where he urged them to stop letting Iran use Iraqi airspace to send suspected armaments to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.
"Diplomatic outreach has been crucial and it has been happening at high levels," Hersman said.