November 1, 2009  

Off course

The dark side of tracking all shipping: Pirates can do it too

Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is imperiling global maritime security. Developed and implemented correctly, MDA is one tool among a panoply of naval and coast guard capabilities for increasing maritime security. However, few appreciate the risks associated with creating vast shared networks of MDA. Some of the networks for MDA are vulnerable to penetration by pirates and terrorist groups, turning them into systems for targeting civil shipping. Other MDA networks are only accessible by coastal states, but some of these nations can misuse the information to impair the safety and freedom of navigation.

The concept of MDA was developed by the U.S. Coast Guard during the late 1990s. After Sept. 11, 2001, a combination of new and valid perceptions over vulnerabilities in maritime homeland security, and advances in off-the-shelf technologies for vessel tracking, gradually served to bring the Navy, among others, into the MDA orbit. President George W. Bush approved a Maritime Domain Awareness Plan in 2005, and significant MDA growth has unfolded since then. In addition, MDA efforts have developed in accordance with the national information and data sharing guidance of Executive Order 13388. There are multiple definitions of MDA, but the 2005 plan states that it “is the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States. … [The] Maritime Domain is all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.”

Fast-forward to the present, and MDA appears to be permeating every U.S. government entity that possesses vessels. Even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is spearheading the development of an MDA construct — the Integrated Ocean Observing System, a national network of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes observation capabilities with 17 federal agencies and 11 regional associations. What is different now, however, is that MDA is becoming the tail wagging the dog of maritime security, and unfettered obeisance to producing and sharing information — with anyone — can reduce rather than improve maritime security. The U.S. government’s MDA infrastructure shows no signs of retreating. A National MDA Governance Structure has a generous bureaucracy: the Coordinating Committee, a stakeholder board, an architecture management hub and information sharing subcommittee, a vessel hub, an infrastructure hub, a cargo hub and a people hub.

Some MDA systems are accessible by anyone who purchases inexpensive off-the-shelf equipment, and these networks serve as a trustworthy targeting system by nonstate rogue actors bent on maritime piracy and terrorism at sea. These systems are not secure and do not protect privacy or market-oriented ships’ information, such as the location of an oil tanker relative to spot market energy prices. However, even systems that are restricted to governments make no distinction between responsible states and those that might misuse the information, such as Iran. The strategically important sea routes for commercial shipping firms could be compromised. Coastal nations may tap into MDA information-sharing systems to impair or impede freedom of navigation by foreign vessels lawfully exercising high seas freedoms in contested offshore areas.

This becomes especially worrisome for transits in the vicinity of the many coastal states that have asserted excessive maritime claims, providing such nations with a mechanism for intercepting or impeding legitimate shipping. Several states prescribe or require prior notification, in contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for transits in the Exclusive Economic Zone based on, among other things, the ship’s means of propulsion or cargo being transported. Indeed, environmental bureaucracies in the U.S. and other countries can scarcely wait to begin tapping the cornucopia of MDA information to strengthen and enforce environmental regulations. In the end, MDA systems strengthen the position of states challenging the framework in the Law of the Sea Convention by aiding them in enforcing excessive maritime regulations and laws.

No system can eliminate maritime domain challenges. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 350 ports, 10,000 miles of navigable waterways, 110,000 commercial fishing vessels and approximately 70 million recreational boats. Collectively, $700 billion annually in merchandise moves through U.S. ports and waterways. The ability to collaboratively gather and analyze information, detect anomalies and identify maritime threats is critical to national security and economic stability. Greater awareness is a necessary pursuit; however, it is apparent that current MDA initiatives require considerably more refinement and development to avoid unintended consequences.

The European Union and close allies such as Australia already have imposed environmental restrictions that are incompatible with internationally accepted standards, threatening to impose a global crazy quilt of incompatible and onerous coastal state regulations that would be impossible for international shipping to meet. What happens when coastal states use MDA to enforce security, safety or environmental laws or impose fees for transiting an area that are incompatible with the time-honored principle of freedom of the seas? Ensuring freedom of the seas is a historic mission of the U.S. Navy and a modern necessity for securing regional and global peace and stability.

The requirement for actionable, or “precision-guided,” intelligence is not new, as both the Defense Department and the Coast Guard employ systems ranging from national technical means to port informants to disrupt the movement of illicit cargo into the U.S. and other coastal nations. MDA embraces surveillance and intelligence and requires partnering/collaboration to be effective. The most prominent public MDA systems emerged from the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). A result of the Titanic disaster of 1912, SOLAS is a comprehensive, multilateral treaty that sets standards for the safe navigation of ships. There are two sets of SOLAS amendments that have been adopted to enhance the security of the global shipping cargo chain by bringing greater transparency to the maritime domain. Using technology to pinpoint the location of merchant shipping, the amendments are designed to provide the commercial fleet and port, coastal and flag-state authorities with greater maritime situational awareness. By understanding where legitimate shipping is located, authorities seek to better focus scarce resources on anomalous contacts and sort civil commerce from suspicious activity.

Used properly, maritime situational awareness is a key component of maritime defense in depth and a critical factor for ensuring maritime homeland security. The systems also may be used to increase the security of commercial shipping, fishing and other lawful users of the sea. The goal of developing maritime situational awareness is to create an environment in which partners can embrace and achieve the common objective to conduct lawful activities on the oceans. The two primary systems for collecting and sharing information are attached to the SOLAS Convention: the automatic identification system (AIS) and the emerging satellite-based Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system. The section on safety of navigation in Chapter 5 of SOLAS was revised to require all ships weighing more than 300 gross tons or that carried 12 or more passengers on international voyages to install AIS. LRIT and AIS complement other sources to secure information, including air surveillance, radar, video cameras and fast patrol craft.

Maritime situational awareness serves to simplify the complex and ambiguous maritime security environment by meeting the following strategic goals:

• Enhance transparency in the maritime domain to detect, deter and defeat threats as early and distant from U.S. interests as possible.

• Enable accurate, dynamic and confident decisions and responses to the full spectrum of maritime threats.

• Sustain the full application of the law to ensure freedom of navigation and the efficient flow of commerce.

Achieving maritime security situational awareness depends on the ability to monitor activities so that trends can be identified and irregularities differentiated. Data must be collected, fused and analyzed, and computer data integration and analysis algorithms can assist in handling the disparate data streams. Toward that end, there are Maritime Intelligence Fusion Centers, Field Intelligence Support Teams, Area Maritime Security Committees and Interagency Operational Centers.

A ship with AIS is able to display to similarly equipped vessels or shore receivers information such as vessel size, heading and speed. Originally, AIS was developed as a navigational aid in the 1990s to make transit through the Panama Canal safer. The system is based on VHF maritime band, so the range is restricted to line-of-sight coverage of approximately 60 kilometers. A long-range AIS that could potentially track vessels up to 2,000 nautical miles at sea is being developed, but it is not projected to be fully operational until 2014. The AIS signal is transmitted effectively on a continuous basis, but when vessel stations are transiting the ocean, it cannot be picked up readily and used by shore-based security centers. Today, the system is used throughout the world and especially along chokepoints such as the Strait of Gibraltar.

U.S. European Command has worked with the states of Africa and the Mediterranean basin to collect and fuse AIS data into a shared Internet-based application called the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS). Participating states commit to a “user agreement” with the U.S. that provides the network’s means, procedures and rules. As a scalable and accessible Web-based platform, MSSIS is called “wiki on the waves” and is a fusion point for AIS transmission from commercial vessels with information that is to be used only for government maritime safety and security purposes. The system provides a near-real-time view of vessel activity including speed and direction, cargo type, location of embarkation and destination and ship type. This information is available over the Internet, with a user name and password, and it is used by naval forces to support activities such as NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour. The system is also used by coastal states to enforce environmental and safety regulations. The program involves more than 50 nations and is being marketed by the Coast Guard’s Office of Global Maritime Situational Awareness (GMSA) to countries all over the world, including Pakistan, India and Turkey. Another system, the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Marine View, also known as MarView, fuses information about the Marine Transportation System and has approximately 1,000 industry, government and academic users.

This suggests that it is easy to confuse MDA as a synonym for maritime security, rather than as one of a number of tools that can be used to enhance maritime security. Maritime domain awareness is a single component supporting a constellation of efforts to enhance transparency and security in the maritime operating environment. Some suggest that the expansion of maritime domain awareness should “make the oceans like the airspace,” in which the location and course of every aircraft is carefully plotted by professional air traffic control. After all, ships are slower and larger than aircraft: If a global network of air traffic controllers can maintain real-time information on aircraft, then why not vessels? Certainly governments and the aviation industry benefit from decades of investment into air traffic control in a framework established under the International Convention on Civil Aviation (ICAO). Although MDA can be a valuable element of the overall approach to collaborative maritime security, it is not an unmitigated public good. Coastal states and nonstate maritime rogues such as terrorists or pirates may collect and misuse MDA data. Moreover, there could be significant and adverse economic effects if the tracking data associated with shipping firms are compromised. Coastal states could use the information to impede freedom of navigation, and international criminal organizations could use the data to attack or disrupt legitimate shipping.

There are other concerns with some of the MDA systems. A March Government Accountability Office report on vessel tracking concluded that AIS and LRIT are “dependent on cooperation on the part of vessel operators” and said the systems “are potentially effective, but each has features that could impede its effectiveness.” Moreover, “vessel tracking systems and equipment will be challenged to provide a warning if a small vessel is moving in a threatening manner.” The report continues: “If the [LRIT or AIS] equipment is turned off, such vessels will be invisible to these systems. Additionally, for AIS, some information that is transmitted must be programmed by the vessel operator. If that information is improperly programmed, either intentionally or not, the Coast Guard will not receive accurate information about the vessel.”

Operation of AIS increases maritime security and at the same time raises security concerns because information is broadcast and made available to anyone, including people planning acts of piracy or terrorism. For this reason, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) Assembly adopted a resolution in November 2003 that permits ship masters to switch off AIS in areas where they believe the ship may be in imminent danger from attack. Some analysts suspect that Somali pirates used AIS to locate and hijack the 1,000-foot supertanker Sirius Star, which was transiting 450 miles off the coast of Kenya in November 2008 when it was hijacked and taken to Somalia. The Liberian-flagged vessel, which is owned by Aramco in Saudi Arabia, was carrying 25 seafarers and more than $100 million in oil cargo bound for the U.S. For many areas, however, particularly near the restricted entrances to congested ports and harbors, the AIS provisions of SOLAS are an important component for strengthening maritime situational awareness.

Because of its limited range and open-access architecture, AIS has substantial limitations. At the IMO Maritime Safety Committee in May 2006, states adopted another amendment to SOLAS Chapter 5 that approved the concept of LRIT. More secure than AIS, LRIT is a satellite-based vessel identification system that was advocated by the Coast Guard as an important component for maritime homeland security after 9/11.

Once fully operational in 2009, the LRIT will make vessel location and identity information available worldwide to governments for ships flying a nation’s flag or entering its ports, and also to coastal states for those ships passing within 1,000 nautical miles of their coastline but not entering a port. Vessels transmit position reports periodically to cooperating national, regional or international LRIT data centers which are still in development. The new system is mandatory for ships 300 gross tons or greater traveling on international voyages, including passenger ships, cargo ships, high-speed craft and mobile offshore drilling units. Each flag state should collect at least one position report every six hours (four times per day) from ships flying its flag. The information will be used for managing maritime safety and security, environmental protection, and search and rescue. Information fusion centers will deliver data to SOLAS contracting governments entitled to receive it over a closed network and for official use only. An international data exchange will serve as a “router” of the data among data centers. The LRIT system promises to provide reliable, secure and persistent global surveillance of maritime traffic for the purposes of detecting, identifying and classifying vessels; it may be employed on more than 40,000 vessels this year.

The problem with LRIT, which could cost between $4 million and $5 million annually in the U.S., is that not all coastal states can be expected to use the information appropriately. Even though LRIT data is more secure than AIS data, during LRIT negotiations at the IMO, data protection was a key issue. Numerous coastal states — from Canada to China — make excessive maritime claims in an attempt to assert their sovereignty and jurisdiction over international waters. Moreover, many other states have lawfully drawn areas to demarcate national waters or exclusive economic zones, but then purport to apply coastal state laws and regulations within the area to limit the freedom of navigation of foreign-flagged vessels. These states may have environmental laws that are more restrictive than applicable international standards, or they may impose discriminatory fees for transit or try to block ships carrying particular cargoes, such as nuclear waste.

Nations also may try to impose unlawful impediments to freedom of navigation by erecting “security zones” or claiming vast areas of ocean as “sovereign territory,” and MDA can serve to alert coastal state authorities and assist them in vectoring patrol vessels and aircraft to interfere with safe and lawful navigation. Ensuring coastal states do not have greater license or capability to interfere with freedom of navigation is not a theoretical concept, but rather is a cornerstone of U.S. economic prosperity and global trade, and the essential element for U.S. national security and meeting global commitments.

It is important that fusing, analyzing and disseminating information and intelligence to operational commanders remains a top priority. But ultimately, profusion of MDA requires a more careful balance between the value it serves for increasing maritime homeland security and assisting in the interdiction of drug trafficking and other threats at sea, and the risks and costs associated with the potential for diminishing the exercise of global freedom of navigation. MDA has a place in maritime security, but its role should be more carefully shaped to reflect the darker side. MDA is not an unmitigated public good.

CMDR. JAMES KRASKA is a member of the faculty of the International Law Department at the Naval War College. He previously served as oceans policy adviser for the director of strategic plans and policy, Joint Chiefs of Staff. CAPT. BRIAN WILSON is the commanding officer of the Region Legal Service Office, Naval District Washington. He previously served as oceans policy adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. The views expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Navy or Defense Department.