by Steve Wolff
The attempted bombing of cargo aircraft, with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) concealed in printer cartridges, in 2010, once again demonstrated that terrorists continue to have an uncanny understanding of our critical weaknesses and grow more sophisticated in their attempts to smuggle IEDs on board commercial aircraft using different vectors. Steve Wolff looks at current and emerging technologies and explores where we are in countering the ever-evolving threats through screening.
Air cargo is an ideal terrorist target for several strategic reasons. Firstly, it leverages the fact that successful aircraft attacks have a significant impact well beyond the immediate loss of life. For example, many more people die per year from e.g. shootings in the US than were killed on 9/11, yet these individual tragedies don’t disrupt the economy, influence infrastructure spending or affect the national psyche in the same way. Secondly, for cargo, a successful attack, and especially our response to it, has the potential to severely impact the flow of commerce and hence the global economy, given that airfreight is crucial for rapid movement of goods and components in our ’just in time’ (often ’just in the nick of time’) economy. As economic disruption of the West is one of al-Qaeda’s key goals, a successful attack against air cargo (or attacks against mass transportation if they led to draconian screening methods that impacted commerce) would have a more substantial economic impact than an attack via other threat vectors, such as passengers or baggage.
Where We Are
Regulators worldwide have cooperated extensively to develop internationally recognised air cargo security strategies, including initiatives such as improving the supply chain process. Trials of SecureFreight – where shippers are ’known’ and cargo has been validated and secured upstream and maintained throughout the supply chain – are underway. IATA has been advancing its Air Cargo Advanced Screening Programme (ACAS) with the goal of global harmonisation and increased use of electronic waybills and e-cargo security declarations. This approach, which loosely amounts to ’profiling’ cargo, is another example of risk-based screening. Centralised screening facilities (CCSFs in the US), run by the private sector, provide screening to international (or regional) standards. However, there is a critical problem in dealing with ’unknown’ cargo: screening technology for cargo lags about 20 years behind systems that are available for baggage. Fortunately, this may be about to change.
Today’s technological workhorses for cargo inspection have been X-ray (often just single view, low penetration systems) and trace detection. Most of the major X-ray manufacturers sell pallet-capable dual energy X-ray systems with either single or dual views as well as larger systems. Where needed, due to the inability to see inside dense objects, these have been supplemented with physical search, explosives trace detectors (ETDs) and, in some countries, the use of dogs, either via an innovative sampling, remote K9 inspection process called REST (formerly RasCargo) or using Free Range Explosive Detection Dog teams (FREDD). For certain types of non-metallic cargo containers, metal detection technologies have been considered, but obviously would be of questionable use if non-metallic chemical timer/triggering mechanisms were used as they have been by terrorists inside the aircraft cabin. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and others have explored – and permit – the use of Certified Explosives Detection Systems (EDS) but the small apertures of current EDS systems create an operational problem as cargo pallets need to be broken down for screening and reassembled afterwards, increasing processing time, cost and the potential for damage and theft.
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