Maritime Domain Awareness:
To Know and To Act
by Edward Lundquist
RUSI DEFENCE SYSTEMS FEBRUARY 2010
Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) , Whitehall, London, UK
Edward Lundquist retired from the US Navy in 2000. He is
currently a senior science advisor with Alion Science and
Technology where he supports the US Navy’s Surface Warfare
Directorate in the Pentagon. In this article he discusses the
importance of information and intelligence as an essential
element in taking action against anything in the global
maritime domain that could adversely impact security, safety,
economy or the environment
Most of the Earth is covered by water, and the global economy
is connected by the oceans, not separated by them. There are
more than 20,000 ships over 300 tons under way right now. Add
to that pleasure boats, fishing boats and other smaller craft.
The amount of petroleum, bulk commodities, or containerized
cargo at sea at this very moment is staggering. But there is
also human smuggling, drug trafficking, gun running, weapons
proliferation, crime, piracy and terrorism. How do we really
know what’s out there, and what do we do about it?
Maritime Domain Awareness, or MDA, is the effective
understanding of anything associated with the global
maritime domain that could impact security, safety,
economy or the environment.
MDA is both surveillance and intelligence, and requires a
fundamental and thorough understanding of the maritime
domain and its many dimensions. It does not merely focus on
the thousands of vessels and boats at sea, but the cargos and
crews, as well. Most importantly, MDA must tell us what doesn’t
belong on those ships, so that appropriate action can be taken.
The US National Strategy for Maritime Security (NSMS) looks at
MDA as “the ability to know, so that preemptive or interdiction
actions may be taken as early as possible”.
Most of these vessels are involved in international
commerce, so the problem cannot be isolated as a national
issue. Through a cooperative network that brings together
human intelligence, imagery, communications and other
sources of information, a problem may be discovered on a
vessel far from home waters. While it may appear to be a
distant threat, it may transit through domestic waters or be
bound for a domestic port. That problem must be dealt with
as far from the home waters as practical.
The 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that surrounds
the continental US, Alaska, Puerto Rico and a number of Pacific
Islands such as Hawaii and Guam, is the world’s largest EEZ. “A
variety of sensors, analysis tools technologies and partnerships
combine to guard our waters”, says Curtis Dubay, the Coast
Guard’s director for MDA programme integration.
The US Coast Guard is one of many agencies that participate
in this layered approach to MDA. “We need to increase
discoverability and access to information, to improve decisionmaking.
Achieving and maintaining MDA is a complex process
of observation, collection, fusion, analysis, dissemination and
decisions, all of which must extend far beyond our borders, and
even far from the edges of the US EEZs,” Dubay says.
The Maritime Security and Safety Information System (MSSIS)
shares non-classified Automated Information System (AIS) data
between participating agencies and nations, using a simple but
secure web-based, real-time data sharing system to enhance
maritime safety, security and commerce.
Automated Information System
Today, all vessels of 300 tons and greater must have AIS, a
maritime version of the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)
systems used to track aircraft movements. The AIS transponder
provides information about the ship, course, speed, and
destination. The transponder can be queried by other ships,
satellites or land-based transceivers. Long-range identification
and tracking (LRIT) systems help monitor the positions of
40,000 large commercial vessels anywhere in the world by
satellite, and vessels of interest can be closely monitored for
AIS is one tool that can be coupled with other information
and intelligence to build an understanding of what is going on
around an area of interest in the maritime domain. Dubay says
AIS is a cooperative system, established under international
standards, that provides a vital capability that can be used
to enhance safety, improve security and enable better
stewardship of the maritime domain. As an open broadcast
system, it takes one of the first major steps in improving
transparency. The recent advent of a commercial capability for
receiving AIS from space will be an extremely valuable tool.
“Although we know we won’t see all vessels, AIS can help
us better focus our efforts on the vessels that may pose the
greatest threat. But AIS does not reveal their intentions. That is
a more complicated problem,” Dubay says.
And there are new technologies becoming available, including
space-based systems. “We know what the technology is,” says
Guy Thomas, science and technology advisor for the National
Office for Global Maritime Situational Awareness (OGMSA)
and the Global Maritime and Air Intelligence Integration office
(GMAII). “We just need the political will to do it.”
The various sensors, tools, systems and decision-making aids
can be developed to look for anomalies in traffic patterns
to identify suspicious contacts which might indicate a vessel
involved in illicit trading activities. But many vessel movements
look like anomalous behaviour at one time or another.
Rear Admiral Robert Parker, USCG, director of security and
intelligence for the US Southern Command, says MDA requires
operational knowledge and battlespace awareness across all
four domains: maritime, air and space, land and cyberspace.
Even with a great deal of very good intelligence, Parker says,
there is still the matter of getting the right information to those
who must act upon it. “How do we get the information you
need to you when you are in a rigid hull inflatable boat moving
to board a target of interest?”
What constitutes a threat? Is it one container carrying a dirty
bomb on a ship with 5000 other containers? Is it a terrorist
masked as a crew member on a supertanker? Is it a waterborne
improvised explosive device on a pleasure boat in a busy
harbour? The answer is that each of these is a true threat, but
each carries unique challenges.
The maritime industry not only has a major stake in safety
and security on the oceans, but the men and women at sea
are a vital source of information. While many mariners are
entrepreneurial, competitive and independent to the point
of being ‘libertarians’, they do have a good sense for what
does and does not belong at sea, as well a strong desire to
keep the sea lanes safe and secure, says Captain Gordan Van
E. Hook, US Navy (Retired), a senior director for innovation
and concept development with Maersk Line Limited, the US
flag entity of the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group. According to Van
Hook, there are a million professional seafarers. Wherever
there are professional mariners on the sea, there is a bubble
of awareness of what is within their visual and radar range.
“A company such as Maersk, with a thousand ships, each a
bubble of awareness, can contribute to the overall maritime
“The mariners at sea are the first line of defence for safety,
security and the environment,” says Kathy Metcalf, director of
maritime affairs for the Chamber of Shipping of America.
“We rely on the people who live and work here, the way a
community relies on a neighbourhood watch,” says Captain
Leon Nixon, chief of the Port of Los Angeles Police Department.
“We visit the bait piers and talk to the fishermen. We hear
from the residents who live aboard their boats in the marinas.
They’ll tell us if something doesn’t look right.”
The National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC) is the
central point of connectivity to fuse, analyse, and disseminate
information and intelligence for shared situational awareness
across classification boundaries.
Smaller commercial vessels and pleasure craft less than 300
tons represent a different and more pressing challenge.
While there are about 80,000 ships above 300 tons operating
in some capacity today around the world – mostly registered,
regulated, inspected and tracked – there are nearly 13
million registered recreational vessels and another 8 million
non-registered recreational vessels in just the US alone,
along with another 80,000 fishing vessels and thousands
of other commercial vessels. The overwhelming majority
of pleasure craft and small commercial vessel operators
are responsible and law-abiding. But a small, seemingly
innocuous vessel has tremendous potential to deliver
dangerous people, or weapons of mass destruction.
A small boat, packed with explosives, was responsible for the
damage to USS Cole in Yemen, and the French supertanker
M/V Limburg in the Gulf of Aden. “If you consider what a small
boat did to the USS Cole, then you can understand why I say
there is nothing that worries me more than a waterborne
improvised explosive device in one of our ports,” says Admiral
Thad W. Allen, Commandant of the Coast Guard.
“Every Coast Guardsman is a potential sensor,” says Dubay.
“MDA supports operational decision-making across every
mission area of the Coast Guard – from saving people at
sea and enforcing laws and treaties to securing our ports
and waterways from maritime threats. Helping to increase
our understanding of activities in the maritime domain is
everyone’s job. Sensors and technology provide an important
part of the picture, but the observations, knowledge and
experience of our people in the field and in our operations,
analysis and fusion centres are absolutely crucial to success.
Maritime domain awareness is all about building a better
picture – and then using the picture better,” Dubay says.
“Situational awareness alone doesn’t provide complete and
effective understanding, nor does it allow a commander to
position forces optimally to meet a potential or emergent
threat. Rather, this awareness must be combined with up-todate
intelligence and threat analysis. In that way, we hope to
respond to threats before they occur and as far away from our
shores as possible”.
“It isn’t enough to know what’s out there at any given time. To
be effective, we must be able to conduct persistent monitoring
of the maritime domain anywhere on the globe,” says Dubay.
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