Dr. Stephen Flynn presents on Global Supply System vulnerabilities and potential to build resilience
by Julia Borgida
December 20, 2019
On Monday, November 25th, GRI’s Founding Director, Dr. Stephen Flynn, hosted a lecture entitled: “Bolstering the Security and Resilience of the Global Supply System.” Dr. Flynn explained society’s broad reliance on the global supply system, and how to best address the vulnerabilities and threats the system currently faces.
Dr. Flynn began by defining resilience in the context of the global supply system. Resilience, he explained, is the ability to ensure continuity of things that are both valuable and vulnerable. Our current society is more hyper-connected and interdependent than ever before, bringing increased consequences from disruptions and threats. Fostering resilience involves the ability to prepare for and adapt to such changing conditions, and recover from those potential disruptions. When it comes to the global supply system, resilience must be built not just among the transactions that occur, but to protect the actual ships, trucks, and other transport methods that are often taken for granted, yet have the potential for large scale disruption. Dr. Flynn gave the example of the Newark Liberty International Airport, located next to a major turnpike, a railway, and one of the largest container terminals in the northeast. A disruption to just one of these systems has the potential for cascading failures throughout them all.
Dr. Flynn went on to explain the expanded use of the global supply system in recent decades. The current volume of container throughput is seven times what it was in 1992. Containers often have a dwell time as short as four days in container yards, as operators must quickly make room for incoming ships. Dr. Flynn framed the container revolution as a rapid need for improved efficiency, reliability and cost, while security was filtered out of the discussion. Despite the worldwide increase in container shipping usage, the system holds enormous threat potential. Dr. Flynn gave the example of a global gridlock scenario. It’s possible for a bomb or weapon to be placed in a container all the way in Singapore, shipped to the port of Los Angeles, then taken by train to Newark. If it is set off at the container terminal next to the Newark airport, everything in that area will be shut down and produce a ripple effect. Airports, trains, and ports across the country will respond with a shutdown. It is estimated that in two to three weeks, the global inter-modal transportation system will be in gridlock, and take at least a month to reset.
Following his explanation of the potential to disrupt our global supply system, Dr. Flynn explained how there is currently no government or industry plan in place for managing such a scenario. The U.S. currently has a disconnected approach, where multiple government agencies provide different levels of security measures. Dr. Flynn shared his proposed solution and path forward, involving an industry focused inspection of the supply process. In his solution, all containers would have to drive through an inspection gate that can scan for alarming materials upon entry to a terminal. This inspection gate would collect data on all containers entering the terminal, and source that data to a third party who can evaluate it. If an alarm is triggered, that truck would go through a second inspection, and then if a problem is still identified, a higher energy system would inspect the the container. As all the data is collected, it would be possible for the host country of the container to locate it and do a physical inspection, without disrupting other processes. This solution would improve supply chain resilience through a comprehensive and fast approach. Higher inspection rates and broad data collection would reduce disruptive risks and improve efficiency. By investing in a more resilient system, we can protect against the extreme vulnerabilities our current global supply system is facing.