Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security

Ports, Waterways and  Coastal Security

Department of Homeland Secuirty - U.S. Coast Guard

Office of Counterterrorism & Defense Operations Policy (CG-DOD)

Ports, Waterways & Coastal Security (PWCS)

Last Modified 10/31/2014


The Homeland Security Act of 2002 divided the Coast Guard’s eleven statutory missions between homeland security and non-homeland security. Reflecting the Coast Guard’s historical role in defending our nation, the Act delineated Ports, Waterways and Coastal Security (PWCS) as the first homeland security mission. The Commandant of the Coast Guard designated PWCS as the service’s primary focus alongside search and rescue.

The PWCS mission entails the protection of the U.S. Maritime Domain and the U.S. Marine Transportation System (MTS) and those who live, work or recreate near them; the prevention and disruption of terrorist attacks, sabotage, espionage, or subversive acts; and response to and recovery from those that do occur. Conducting PWCS deters terrorists from using or exploiting the MTS as a means for attacks on U.S. territory, population centers, vessels, critical infrastructure, and key resources. PWCS includes the employment of awareness activities; counterterrorism, antiterrorism, preparedness and response operations; and the establishment and oversight of a maritime security regime. PWCS also includes the national defense role of protecting military outload operations.

The definitive source for information regarding the Coast Guard’s port security history remains Coast Guard Pub 1 and the Coast Guard’s historian. PWCS is a new name for the Coast Guard’s mission previously called Port and Environmental Security (PES). PES included port security, container inspection, and marine firefighting. 

In 2003, the Coast Guard addressed its PWCS responsibilities and functions by initiating Operation Neptune Shield (ONS). The Coast Guard supplemented ONS with tactical and strategic documents:  the 2005 publication of Chapter 10 to the Maritime Law Enforcement Manual, the 2006 Coast Guard Strategic Plan for Combating Maritime Terrorism, and the 2008 Combating Maritime Terrorism Strategic and Performance Plan.

The July 2005 terrorist bombings in London highlighted the need to protect U.S. mass transit systems, including ferries. Later, the effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita highlighted the criticality of preparedness for recovery of the MTS following a large-scale disaster. The 2008 terrorist attack via the maritime domain against Mumbai, India, highlighted the tie between border security and PWCS. After each event, the Coast Guard reviewed its PWCS strategy and made adjustments where appropriate.

The Coast Guard’s systematic, maritime governance model for PWCS employs a triad consisting of domain awareness, maritime security regimes, and maritime security and response operations carried out in a unified effort by international, governmental, and private stakeholders. 


Maritime domain awareness means the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the U.S. Attaining and sustaining an effective understanding and awareness of the maritime domain requires the collection, fusion, analysis, and dissemination of prioritized categories of data, information, and intelligence. These are collected during the conduct of all Coast Guard missions. Awareness inputs come from Field Intelligence Support Teams, Maritime Intelligence Fusion Centers, Nationwide Automatic Identification System and other vessel tracking systems, and public reporting of suspicious incidents through America’s Waterway Watch.

Maritime security regimes comprise a system of rules that shape acceptable activities in the maritime domain. Regimes include domestic and international protocols and/or frameworks that coordinate partnerships, establish maritime security standards, collectively engage shared maritime security interests, and facilitate the sharing of information. Domestically, the Coast Guard-led Area Maritime Security Committees carry out much of the maritime security regimes effort. Abroad, the Coast Guard works with individual countries and through the International Maritime Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations. Together, regimes and domain awareness inform decision makers and allow them to identify trends, anomalies, and activities that threaten or endanger U.S. interests. 

Defeating terrorism requires integrated, comprehensive operations that maximize effectiveness without duplicating efforts. Security and response operations consist of counterterrorism and antiterrorism activities. 

Counterterrorism activities are offensive in nature. The Maritime Security Response Team (MSRT) is a highly specialized resource with advanced counterterrorism skills and tactics. The MSRT is trained to be a first responder to potential terrorist situations; deny terrorist acts; perform security actions against non-compliant actors; perform tactical facility entry and enforcement; participate in port level counterterrorism exercises; and educate other forces on Coast Guard counterterrorism procedures.

Antiterrorism activities are defensive in nature. As a maritime security agency, the Coast Guard uses its unique authorities, competencies, capacities, operational capabilities and partnerships to board suspect vessels, escort ships deemed to present or be at significant risk, enforce fixed security zones at maritime critical infrastructure and key resources, and patrol the maritime approaches, coasts, ports, and rivers of America. Coast Guard cutters, boats, helicopters, and shoreside patrols are appropriately armed and trained. Many current and planned antiterrorism activities support the Department of Homeland Security Small Vessel Security Strategy. Twelve Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSSTs) enforce security zones, conduct port state control boardings, protect military outloads, ensure maritime security during major marine events, augment shoreside security at waterfront facilities, detect Weapons of Mass Destruction, and participate in port level antiterrorism exercises in their homeports and other ports to which elements of an MSST may be assigned for operations.  

Viewing maritime initiatives and policies as part of a larger system enables a better understanding of their relationships and effectiveness. A well designed system of regimes, awareness, and operational capabilities creates overlapping domestic and international safety nets, layers of security, and effective stewardship making it that much harder for terrorists to succeed.