Containerized weapon systems are weapons built to carry everything they need to function inside a standard shipping container. Many nations including Russia, Israel, China, and the United States have had various “containerized” weapons in their stockpile for years now.
In 2010, it was reported that a Russian company is marketing a devastating new cruise missile system, the Club-K system which can be hidden inside a shipping container, giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier. A promotional video for the Club-K on the website of Moscow-based makers Kontsern-Morinformsistema-Agat shows an imaginary tropical country facing a land, sea and air attack from a hostile neighbor. It fights back by loading three shipping containers concealing Club-Ks onto a truck, a train and a ship, disperses them, and then launches a devastating strike on its enemy, destroying its warships, tanks and airfields.
In 2017, Israel entered the containerized weapons bazaar, test-firing its LORA ballistic missile from a standard shipping container sitting on the desk of a commercial freighter.
At a 2016 trade show, Beijing not only confirmed those rumors, it was offering for sale its own precision-guided system, consisting of four hypersonic cruise missiles, each with a 1,500-mile range, all neatly concealed inside a standard 20’x8’x 8.5’ shipping container. In 2019, it was reported that China is likely to build a variant of its YJ-18 long-range cruise missile that could be fired from shipping containers. This variant would be called the YJ-18C. This new weapon could help China turn its fleet of freighters into potential warships, and commercial ports would then become missile bases. This missile would be a land-attack variant of an advanced anti-ship missile that would be deployed in launchers appearing to be standard international shipping containers from the outside. Such containers are being used all around the world for moving millions of tons of goods, and are often placed on the deck of large freighters.
However, a secondary and more nefarious use for containerized weapons could be the concealment of missile systems in port cities around the world. In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of both the Silk Road Economic Belt which will link China with Europe through Central and Western Asia, and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road which will connect China with Southeast Asian countries, Africa and Europe. The two were collectively referred to first as the One Belt, One Road initiative but eventually became the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The maritime portion of the Silk Road links China’s seas with the Mediterranean through the Indian Ocean, the Arabian seas, and the Red Sea.
China operates or is building a string of deepwater ports in several strategic locations around the world, including in the nearby Bahamas, Jamaica and Panama, and on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast, all of which could be used as ports-of-call for commercial ships covertly carrying containerized missiles, Hammes and other military experts say. China also maintains a naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, which commands the strategic Bab el Mandeb Strait at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
In 2020, Beijing sent nine satellites into space aboard a single ballistic missile that had been launched from a container on the deck of a large commercial freighter in the Yellow Sea. “This has created a new and dangerous capability,” Hammes, now senior research fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, told SpyTalk. “Our ability to defend against these missiles is limited.”
Such container missiles could also be deployed on commercial ships that can sail off U.S. coasts or within American ports prior to a conflict. It would then be an incredible advantage for China in an open armed conflict against the U.S. armed forces. Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said a containerized YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile would add a significant threat to the Navy given the volume of Chinese container ships that enter U.S. ports on the west and east coast, well within the range of the vast majority of the U.S. fleet.
Fanell, the former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, however, has no doubt China already has placed its containerized weapons systems aboard its commercial ships. “Given the fact that the Chinese were pursuing this containerized missile system, they don’t just put it on ice and not develop it further,” Fanell said. “They clearly have made progress in the last two years. And given everything they’ve done with their rocket forces, the idea that they haven’t continued to develop this containerized capability seems far-fetched.
European missile consortium MBDA offered a containerized short-range air defense system utilizing the Mistral heat-seeking missile. The multi-national company is pitching the system as ideal for use on support ships, such as naval supply vessels that do not have their own fixed defenses, but it could have other roles, including on land.
US Marine Corps is restructuring its forces to confront China inside the coastal waters that its anti-ship missiles protect. According to Rep. Rob Wittman of Virginia, ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Seapower subcommittee, the restructuring will include, among other things, new, fast-moving amphibious ships equipped with long-range cruise missiles hidden inside containers. “The good news is the Chinese will have no idea what’s inside those containers,” Wittman told SpyTalk. “It could just be supplies for Marine Corps units, or it could be a battery of anti-ship or long-range strike missiles.”
Fanell and other former military officials add that the long range of China’s cruise missiles also means that a merchant ship carrying such containerized weapons wouldn’t even have to get very close to key U.S. facilities to be an immediate threat.
“They can easily get these containers into our ports because we don’t have a strict regime that tracks, opens and inspects every cargo container,” says Fanell, who estimates U.S. officials check the cargos of no more than 10 percent of containers arriving at U.S. ports. ”Then, by launching their missiles at nearby American military installations, they could generate electromagnetic pulses that would take out our military’s communications without the risk of using a nuclear weapon to accomplish that.”
These containerized weapons give the advantage of stealth and carrying out a surprise attack. There is also the risk that these weapons get proliferated in the hand of terrorists who use them to carry deadly attacks.
Whether the threat is nuclear, chemical, or biological, and whether it comes from a terrorist network such as Al Qaeda or a terrorist state such as Iraq, cargo containers offer a frighteningly simple and anonymous way to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States. For years, criminals have used cargo containers to smuggle narcotics, firearms, and people into our country, writes Committee on Governmental Affairs.
With no known technology that can determine a container’s contents without inspecting it, “it would be like finding a needle in a haystack,” said retired Vice Admiral Michael Franken, a 40-year Navy veteran who last served as the deputy director of military operations for the U.S. Africa Command.
There are about 180 million containers worldwide. These containers move back and forth among major seaports more than hundreds of million times a year. Every day, more than 21,000 containers arrive at American seaports from foreign countries filled with consumer goods–from televisions to clothes to toys. In fact, about 90 percent of U.S.-bound cargo moves by container. We must ensure that these containers carry nothing more dangerous than sneakers or sporting goods, not “dirty bombs” or even Al Qaeda terrorists.
The Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security inspects only a small percentage of cargo containers. Some are scanned with x-ray equipment; others are physically opened to verify their contents. Either way, the process is time-consuming and burdensome, and historically, Customs has been able to physically screen only about 2 percent of these containers.
Detecting container ships from Air and space
There is a need to detect container screening from Air or satellites before they reach ports or succeed in their mission. The satellite images give a unique vantage point of the stuck ship Ever Given, as crews work to free the mega container vessel that blocked the Suez Canal for four days in March 2021. The enormous cargo carrier is more than 1,300 feet long and about 193 feet wide. It weighs more than 200,000 tons. One end of the ship is wedged into one side of the canal and the other stretches nearly to the other bank
Maxar Technologies’ WorldView-2 satellite captured high-resolution images, with a close-up look at the dredging operations underway to free the ship. Imagery captured by the European Space Agency’s Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellite showed shipping traffic backing up in the Gulf of Suez. A synthetic aperture radar image captured by Capella Space gave another look at the Ever Given, showing how deep it was wedged into the wall of the canal.
However, detecting container contents from space or air is a herculean task. Some of the technologies which can be useful be hyperspectral imaging, or low-frequency SAR which can penetrate the container.
Port Security Technology for Closed Container Inspection
Improving security at U.S. ports is thus one of the nation’s most difficult technical and practical challenges because the systems developed for screening cargo must operate in concert with ongoing seaport activities. Container security is not primarily about port security;
it is about everyplace security. Indispensable and ubiquitous, a container is an excellent vector, or carrier, for weapons of mass destructions (WMDs) such as nukes or “dirty bombs’.
The container screening device (CSD) is the tool for checking for materials that can be used to build weapons of mass destruction, concealed
contraband and illegal substances, and identifying fraudulently labeled containers. Active, non-intrusive interrogation technologies are
inspection systems that take advantage of an externally applied “source” to perform traditional imaging of, or to stimulate characteristic emissions from, an inspected object
There are two primary types of technologies currently available on the market that can perform non-intrusive cargo inspection. The first uses a radiological source to generate gamma rays, which pass through/interact with the container to be inspected, providing a picture of the contents. The second type of technology uses a radiation machine (an x-ray generator or linear accelerator) to electrically generate and emit x-rays, which perform the same function as do the gamma rays.
Neutron based explosive inspection systems can detect a wide variety of substances of importance, for a variety of purposes from national security threats (e.g., nuclear materials, explosives, narcotics) to customs duties, shipment control and validation, and for protection of the environment. The inspection is generally founded on the nuclear interactions of the neutrons with the various nuclides present and the
detection of resultant characteristic emissions. These can be discrete gamma lines resulting from the thermal (n,γ) neutron capture process or inelastic neutron scattering (n,n´γ) occurring with fast neutrons.
The pulsed fast neutron analysis (PFNA) cargo inspection system (CIS) uses a nanosecond pulsed beam of fast neutrons to interrogate the contents of small volume elements — voxels — of a cargo container or truck. A color display shows the three-dimensional location of suspected contraband, such as drugs or explosives. The neutrons interact with the elemental contents of each vowel, and gamma rays characteristic of the elements are collected in an array of detectors. The elemental signals and their ratios give unique signatures for drugs and other contraband. From the time of arrival of the gamma rays, the position of the vowel within the truck is determined. The PFNA CIS is designed to scan five or more trucks per hour. The operator interface has been designed to assist in the rapid identification of drugs, explosives or other contraband. What is unique about the PFNA is that the technology offers real time detection and the location of contraband or explosives hidden inside the cargo container.
Ultra-high speed gas chromatography is a powerful analytical method for analysis of odors, fragrances, and chemical vapors produced by explosives, chemical and biological weapons, contraband, and hazardous industrial materials. Using ultra-high speed chromatography, chemical vapors within containers can be speciated and their concentration measured in less than 10 seconds with picogram sensitivity using a SAW sensor with electronically variable sensitivity.
The use of chemical profiling with high speed gas chromatography adds a new dimension and tool to cargo inspection technologies. By being able to chemically detect sample vapors and odor intensity from explosives, contraband drugs, hazardous chemicals, biological life and money, these sensors provide a reliable, fast and cost effective screening tool for CBP inspectors.
The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and its Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL)
The DHS Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) and its Transportation Security Laboratory (TSL) in Atlantic City, NJ, have developed a way to test technical solutions to this need: the Container Security Test Bed (CSTB) – an outdoor “laboratory” allowing researchers and developers from government, academia, and industry to explore novel ways to detect threats in a cargo container.
The CSTB is run by TSL engineers and simulates exactly the cantilever cranes used to unload container ships. The CSTB allows a container to be picked up, moved, and put down in minutes, mimicking both the way and the timeframe in which each container is taken off a ship and put onto the dock.
“Give me the right tools – a gas chromatograph, a mass spectrometer, and an hour’s time – and I can tell you what’s in a 40-foot container,” said Dave Masters, the S&T Program Manager who oversaw the creation of the Test Bed. “But a maritime container terminal can’t spare an hour. It needs its cranes to move goods, not run experiments. The CSTB gives any new sensor system a real-world workout that replicates both screening the items in a shipping container, as well as the standard loading/unloading operations at a seaport. Sensors must survive the container being hoisted up, moved quickly, and slammed down – they cannot be so delicate that they cannot survive gritty port conditions.”
S&T researchers are encouraging technology developers to test any kind of sensor at the CSTB. Detection technologies constantly undergo improvements in order to detect trace amounts of substances — and do so very quickly. Chemical-based sensors, currently in use for aviation security, may find trace amounts of explosives, drugs, or other illicit substances, while laser-based methods that can “read” the physical properties of target molecules detection methods are also in development.
Alternatively, sensors may be built into the cargo container and programmed to send information on any illicit content to the receiving seaport while the container is still en route. In October 2011, ConSearch, LLC conducted a feasibility demonstration of their in-situ chemical and radiological detection capability. The demonstration consisted of simulating a trans-oceanic voyage of a 40-foot container that contained several threat types and employed a method of using multiple sensors to obtain a comprehensive view of the chemical/radiological content.
To evaluate explosive detection methods, TSL scientists are also are testing methods to present samples to sensors more quickly and accurately. “We’re exploring the art of the possible. The things we’re doing, you can’t do on paper. You need to get your hands dirty,” says Masters.