Commercial Logistics: The Role of Aviation in National Security

Mar 4, 2020 | DTJ Online, Fall Meeting 2019 Videos

When thinking about national security, there is more to consider than simply supporting the mission. The other ways commercial carriers are reinforcing national security was the subject of discussion by Michael Taylor, Global Director of Public Sector Compliance & Governance for DHL Express during the 2019 NDTA-USTRANSCOM Fall Meeting.

As a global express carrier, DHL connects the world from one continent to the next 24 hours-a-day, every day. The sheer magnitude of touchpoints combined with the rapid pace of such a network makes maintaining its security all the more critical and challenging.

“In my world, the lane pairings—origin to destination—can be anywhere up to six and a half million different types of lane pairings. Is that a security threat to the United States? Absolutely,” said Taylor. “It may transit through the United States, but not be destined to the United States. Or, its origin can be the United States, and it may arrive through another country that may or may not be friendly. This is where from us, from an integrator standpoint, national security is a little bit different in our world.”

In 2003, a DHL aircraft was shot down by a Rocket-Propelled Grenade (RPG) during takeoff over Baghdad, Iraq. Luckily, the crew was able to land the aircraft back at the airfield, but this just one example of the types of threats commercial carriers can face.

An aircraft at Philadelphia International Airports was not so lucky in 2010 when undeclared hazardous materials (HAZMAT) in the back of the plane caught on fire. While some would argue a fire on a plane is not a matter of national security, it can be. Such an event compromises an international airport (US infrastructure), but, more importantly, what about the rest of the plane’s cargo? It could include things like diplomatic papers or any number of items directly related to our national security—all of which can be lost due to a hidden danger.

To mitigate this risk, Taylor says he cargo screens everything. All customers, no matter who and no matter how longstanding the relationship, are treated as unknown shippers. “We have to inspect literally everything, including sometimes documents, for hidden dangers. So, cargo screening is essential in our world,” he explained. “Not only to protect my assets and my employees across the globe but basically [the] national security of multiple countries, all of them that we service because it is an obviously growing threat.”

One disruptive technology that is a threat is 3D printing. The ability to construct just about anything, including weaponry or other items to be used for nefarious purposes, constitutes a clear danger. Such items are not detectible by modern x-rays, and that is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Information Technology (IT) issues, and specifically issues related to cybersecurity, present another challenge for commercial carriers. DHL moves over two and a half million packages a day, which amounts to a vast quantity of data being produced. From delivery aspects to customer information, everything is sensitive.

“We, as an integrator, have to constantly change. As an example, our IP address is once an hour. It has to move around from one server to the next just because we are afraid someone’s going to hack the information.” This is the case, despite the information being encrypted because, as Taylor explained, bad actors will continue to seek new ways to hack into networks.

Network intrusion via phishing schemes is one area of concern that people may not immediately recognize as having a potential impact on national security. However, consider what would happen if a sensitive government document was sent over a carrier’s network only to have it rerouted to somewhere different and to someone who was not supposed to have it. Now we have a problem.

The speed at which express carriers operate leaves little time to react. The average delivery time, from any origin in the world, is 72-hours or less. This causes express carriers to operate differently. Express carriers must constantly certify their facilities, secure the cargo mode, perform extensive cargo screening, and complete denied party screening, among other tasks. Their work encompasses much more than picking up and delivering packages. It encompasses US national security, as well as the national security of all the nations they serve.

“If you look at your mission, yes, we extend beyond where gray tails don’t go,” said Taylor adding that gray tails, sealift, or aircraft may not always reach or be available. But, looking at the logistics supply chain, all of these modes combined support military missions. “They all come with their unique challenges, and these threats are a part of that world.”


By Sharon Lo Managing Editor, Defense Transportation Journal and The Source

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