Watching the Water

From air, sea, and space, geospatial technology is helping nations monitor one of their biggest and most understated threats: the open ocean


In ancient Greece, Zeus was king of the gods. Among ancient Greeks, however, the preeminent deity was likely his brother, Poseidon, God of the Sea, to whom fishermen and mariners prayed prior to each voyage. It’s no mystery why: With its mountainous landscape, scant farmland, and vast coastline, Greece had no choice but to cultivate a maritime economy, shipping goods abroad to trade for food. Smooth sailing was paramount.

Today, 90 percent of the world’s trade travels by sea, according to the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization (IMO). Its most recent survey of international shipping, published in 2012, concluded the amount of cargo traveling by sea has grown more than three-fold in the last 40 years, increasing from 2.5 billion tons in 1970 to 8.4 billion tons in 2010. As of 2011, IMO estimated, the world’s merchant fleet consisted of 104,304 ships manned by approximately 1.5 million seafarers of nearly every nationality.

Though Poseidon retired long ago, smooth sailing is as important as ever.

“You can buy a boat that’s capable of going across the ocean a lot more cheaply than what most people imagine,” said George “Guy” Thomas, former science and technology advisor to the U.S. Coast Guard and co-founder of Collaboration in Space for Global Maritime Awareness (C-SIGMA), an international initiative with the goal to foster a global exchange of space-based maritime surveillance information. “If terrorists ever got their hands on a weapon of mass destruction, that’s how they’d bring it in.”

That they haven’t means there’s still time for prevention. The solution: water-, air-, and space-based systems that provide persistent maritime domain awareness (MDA) by focusing assets to monitor any area of the global maritime domain in order to expeditiously assess potential adversaries.

An Ocean of Trouble

Ten members of the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba commenced a four-day siege of Mumbai, India, on Nov. 26, 2008. Over the course of 56 hours, the group carried out 12 attacks on civilian targets, including two taxis, two hotels, a train station, a restaurant, a hospital, and a movie theater. By the end of their marathon of terror, the attackers had killed 164 people and wounded another 308.

The Navy MQ-4C BAMS is a broad area surveillance, maritime derivative of Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, designed to provide the Navy with persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance coverage of wide oceanographic and littoral areas. In this illustration, the BAMS is shown here alongside the Boeing P-8 Poseidon. Photo credit: Northrup Grumman

Next to the carnage inflicted, the most terrifying thing about the attacks was how the terrorists entered Mumbai in the first place—by sea.

“Ten practicing terrorists went out to sea on a Zodiac inflatable boat, commandeered an anchored Indian fishing vessel, then executed the crew and steered that ship 600 miles across the Indian Ocean to the port of Mumbai,” explained Commander Richard Schgallis, former MDA and space operations officer for the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet and former military deputy to the Naval Research Laboratory’s Naval Center for Space Technology. “It’s a prime example of why maritime domain awareness is so critical.”

Indeed, the attacks may have been prevented—if only someone had been watching the water.

“There’s a lot of stuff plowing the oceans, and there’s very little awareness beyond the radar horizon as to what’s out there,” continued Schgallis, who is also operations director of the Coalition Tactical Awareness and Response (CTAR) joint capability technology demonstration (JCTD), a collaborative effort of the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Homeland Security (DHS). “The maritime environment is largely unregulated, yet most of our commerce is in the maritime domain. This creates a threat axis that has to be dealt with.”

Preventing terrorist attacks isn’t the only benefit of improved MDA. It also can be used to protect cargo and crews from pirates, who, according to IMO, executed 245 armed attacks against ships in 2013; to establish sovereignty in areas rich with disputed natural resources, such as the Arctic; to stop illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, which contributes to global economic losses of up to $23 billion per year; to execute successful search-and-rescue missions; and to protect the environment from corporate polluters.

Of Space and Sea

The need for an international MDA system became apparent on 9/11. Although terrorists had attacked the U.S. by air, an obvious question was: Where could they strike next? The answer—by water—had the U.S. Navy scrambling.

“On 9/11, the head of the Navy was tasked to figure out what our vulnerabilities were to maritime terrorism, and what we could do about them,” recalled Thomas, who was in September 2001 a researcher at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab. As the lab’s liaison to the Naval War College, Thomas led numerous technology-focused war games and at-sea exercises, including a series of war games and discussions beginning Sept. 24, 2001, to determine why and how to build a maritime traffic tracking system.

From the war games emerged two proposals, both of which have since been enacted: One, all ships bound for the U.S. should be required to report their positions several times daily via satellite communications. Two, their locations should be confirmed from space using Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals.

AIS began as an at-sea anti-collision solution: Nearly all large commercial ships are equipped with both a transmitter and receiver to share its name and position locally with passing vessels, thereby avoiding crashes. Fusing these signals in space with unclassified commercial satellite imagery and GPS coordinates provides governments with maritime situational awareness they previously lacked.

“With the assistance of observation satellites, we can see all the vessels in the ocean at a given time and match them with their AIS position,” said Olivier Surly, senior sales director at Astrium GEO-Information Services, the GEOINT line of business within France-based Airbus Defence and Space. “If [they don’t match] it means there’s something wrong.”

Being able to tell when something’s wrong is half the battle. Consider the equivalent problem set in aviation: Because aircraft are required to report and transmit their location, anomalies stand out on radar.

“Space-based AIS gives us the ability to track ships just like we can track airplanes,” Thomas said.

Almost. Although space-based AIS and space-based radar are ideal matches, the former has its flaws.

“The major limitation with AIS is that it’s a cooperative system,” noted Surly. While AIS transmission is required of all large commercial vessels by international regulations, any vessel with bad intentions can switch off its equipment and stop emitting.

Polar Epsilon delivers space-based, day and night, all-weather maritime surveillance information and monitors vessels within Canadian and international waters using RADARSAT-2, providing maritime surveillance information to decision-makers within minutes. Photo credit: MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates, Ltd.

Making Waves

Since the introduction of space-based AIS in 2005, numerous stakeholders have employed the technology to advance MDA. Leading the pack is Canada, which has made MDA a top priority pursuant to its interests in the oil-rich Arctic Circle, where the country competes for sovereignty with Russia, among others.

“The Canadians are huge into maritime domain awareness,” Schgallis said. “They have a lot of water they’re trying to monitor, and they’re doing that with a combination of AIS and synthetic aperture radar satellites.”

Synthetic aperture radar (SAR) technology is capable of generating all-weather, broad-area, high-resolution imagery. Canada has been on the cutting edge of it since 1995, when the government and Canadian satellite operator MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. collaborated to launch the RADARSAT-1 observation satellite. When the company subsequently launched RADARSAT-2 in 2007, it gave rise to one of the world’s most evolved MDA programs to date, known as Polar Epsilon.

“Polar Epsilon is a maritime surveillance and security program that provides near real-time monitoring of Canada’s coastline out to 1,000 nautical miles,” explained David Belton, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates’ vice president of geospatial services. “There are satellite data reception facilities on both of Canada’s coastlines that take down imagery from RADARSAT-2 and generate ship detection reports within six to eight minutes after the targets have been illuminated.”

In 2018, Canada will evolve its maritime surveillance capabilities even further when the Canadian government and MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates launch the RADARSAT Constellation Mission, three satellites that will provide high-resolution, all-weather imagery and coincident AIS data collection of 95 percent of the world on a daily basis.

“What Canada is doing today is a pretty good template for what the rest of the world should be doing,” Belton continued. But Canada isn’t alone. In the past decade, the European Union, India, South Africa, the Philippines, and Japan have all taken an active interest in maritime domain awareness.

In the United States, MDA is a strategic priority for both DoD and DHS. One area where DoD and DHS are working cooperatively to advance MDA is through the CTAR JCTD program, which seeks to improve MDA by facilitating rapid tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination of commercial satellite imagery at the operational level within the Navy. The CTAR JCTD leverages many of the same technologies employed by the Polar Epsilon program in Canada, a method expected to allow for easier collaboration between these allied countries.

“For so long we’ve treated GEOINT—especially from space—as an intelligence product,” Schgallis said. “CTAR is trying to take that data in near real-time and push it into the common operating picture.”

At press time, the DoD Executive Agent for MDA (DoD EAMDA) was in the process of creating a five-year strategic plan, to be published in Q4 2014 and provide guidance on future DoD MDA investments.

“[The report is] one of the priority efforts for our office … to provide updated goals, objectives, and desired effects not only to guide the activities and investments of the department, but to keep us moving forward based on the progress the department has already made,” said Doug Wilcox, DoD EAMDA Director of Strategy and Policy. “About 40 different organizations are providing input, so it’s something we continue to work on.”

Sea Change

Although maritime domain awareness has evolved considerably in the past decade, gaps remain. Filling them will require a sea change in three principal areas: data collection, processing, and sharing.

Data Collection

Together, space-based AIS and radar are a powerful means of collecting maritime information. But combined adoption is scant. As of 2013, only 15 commercial and government satellites were orbiting the earth with AIS receivers, according to Thomas.

“Use of satellites for maritime applications is still very limited,” Surly said. “When you speak with navies, they still use vessels for monitoring wide areas, which is not very effective.”

Along with more AIS-equipped satellites, a major priority is more coverage.

“One of the key capabilities that needs to be better developed is persistence, or at least consistency of surveillance,” Belton said.

Although space-based data collection is critical to MDA, its cost and limitations mean a more holistic approach is essential. For that reason, companies such as Boeing and Northrop Grumman are hard at work on air- and water-based platforms that, in collaboration with space, paint a complete maritime picture.

At Boeing, efforts are concentrated in the P-8 Poseidon, a military derivative of the Boeing Next-Generation 737-800. A long-range, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, the P-8 is capable of flying 12- to 22-hour manned MDA missions. It lacks the persistence of a space-based platform but offers many other advantages. Principal among them, for instance, is its response capabilities: While space-based platforms can identify threats, air-based platforms can respond to them.

“The true asset that a manned platform gives you is its crew. You have humans in the decision loop who are on-station in the domain with which you are surveilling, which gives you a rapid response capability—both unarmed and armed,” explained James Detwiler, Boeing P-8 business development director, adding that other benefits include all-weather surveillance and ultra-high-resolution imagery. Boeing, whose P-8 customers include the U.S., Indian, and Australian navies, also has a smaller maritime surveillance aircraft that’s not yet operational, and an unmanned underwater vehicle currently in development, which ultimately will be able to monitor sub-surface maritime threats by collecting acoustic intelligence and detecting biological or chemical agents indicative of everything from terrorism to illegal dumping.

“We’re working to link all these platforms through various data transmission paths so you have a true family of manned and unmanned systems that give you a full maritime-domain-awareness picture,” Detwiler said.

Northrop Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton UAV will offer another piece of that picture when it becomes operational in late 2017, with the U.S. Navy planning to fly four jets each from at least five land-based locations beginning in 2019.

“Triton gives us long endurance—a 24-hour unblinking eye that can cover some two million square miles in a mission,” said Mike Mackey, Northrop Grumman’s Triton program manager. “Under satellite conditions, there’s a track the satellite follows, which gives you some level of coverage for a specific time, but not a complete time. [Triton] has the ability to move to a specific area that we want, any time of day or night, and stay in that area. In addition to long endurance and detection in vast areas, what that gives you is the ability to track an object of interest until you can bring in other resources, like a manned P-8 platform, which we’ll work in conjunction with. It provides a complete operational picture.”

The future of MDA is as dependent on sensors as it is on platforms, according to Schgallis, who envisions a slew of maritime sensors—including long-range acoustic sensors to detect vessels, optical sensors to classify them, and multispectral cameras to determine their contents and crew—affixed to a future network of stationary buoys.

“There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a network of buoys populating wide expanses of water with cameras and radar on them, up-linking their data to a satellite overhead every time they pick up a new contact,” he said. “It’s a huge undertaking, but it could be done.”

Data Processing

Like most GEOINT missions, the MDA problem set hinges not only on data collection, but also on data processing.

“In the human body we have all these wonderful senses—hearing that is 360 degrees; peripheral vision that is 180 degrees, and the ability to walk over to somebody and question them if they’re doing something odd,” Schgallis said. “The human brain brings all these senses together in an integrated way so we can evaluate the situation in front of us and make real-time decisions. We need the same decision-making matrix [for MDA]—the ability to get disparate data into one place so one person or one machine can quickly aggregate it and look for anomalous information we can act on.”

Unclassified multi-INT solutions such as MacDonald, Dettwiler, and Associates’ BlueHawk, which fuses SAR and AIS for automated threat detection, support the decision-making matrix.

“BlueHawk gives operators and analysts tools for detecting suspicious activity, but there are still opportunities to develop additional capabilities to maximize value to decision-makers,” Belton said. “We need more sophisticated fusion and analysis tools that can filter out all the noise and help operators focus on which vessels are real threats.”

Data Sharing

Data sharing is the final piece of the MDA puzzle, according to Mario Garza, deputy chief of the Political Military Affairs Division of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), where MDA efforts are focused primarily on drug trafficking and its potential nexus with terrorism.

“The maritime domain is a vast area vulnerable to exploitation by well-funded, creative, and adaptive criminal groups,” Garza said. “The U.S. and its regional partners believe the best approach to counter challenges in the maritime domain is to share information and capabilities in order to better understand this operating environment and the threats moving within it.”

SOUTHCOM’s commitment to MDA data sharing is evident in ongoing efforts such as Operation Martillo, launched Jan. 15, 2012, to counter illicit trafficking and transnational organized crime in the Central American littorals. By sharing maritime intelligence, SOUTHCOM and its regional partners have observed a significant decrease in drug trafficking via small “go-fast” boats using littoral routes in the Eastern Pacific.

“Central America is a region that experienced sharp increases in drug trafficking and violence following regional successes against transnational criminal networks elsewhere in our hemisphere,” Garza continued. “[Operation] Martillo is supported by more than a dozen Western Hemisphere and European partners working together by sharing information and capabilities to deny drug traffickers use of Central American coastal waters.”

Despite successes, maritime data sharing presents challenges, such as who owns the data and who pays for it.

“Each country has developed solutions that uniquely fit with its national institution,” Surly said. “However, the threats are global because the maritime domain is a global medium … So, the ultimate goal for MDA is really to increase cooperation and interoperability among countries.”

Sharing will not be effective without global standards, according to Jay O’Brien, technical director at the U.S. Coast Guard Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center Atlantic in Virginia Beach, Va.

“Looking ahead, it’s critical that we focus on standardized sets of data,” O’Brien said. “When we typify vessel activity, for instance, is it with the latitude/longitude of the vessel, its name, its IMO number, or its document number? How we typify the vessel to our various agencies’ and partners’ databases can really be improved by making sure we’ve got standards and disciplined data labeling.”

Data standardization is already a major DoD objective, according to Jaci Knudson, data strategy lead in the Program Executive Office for Command and Control Capabilities of the Defense Information Systems Agency. In collaboration with the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC), Knudson helped launch the Geo4NIEM initiative in fall 2013, which improved geospatial standards within the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) that is used for information sharing across the U.S. government.

Knudson said standardizing maritime location data could eventually result in a direct-usage model for maritime decision-makers.

“We will be able to take the attributes of maritime data that’s reported and treat AIS data just like we treat any other kind of transponder data … so you can get actual location,” she said.

When advances are made in these three key areas, MDA will do the work of many Poseidons, securing the sea not with spears and high surf, but with GEOINT.

Featured image: The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Halsey, right, and the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, participate in a maneuvering exercise. Halsey is on patrol in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Photo Credit: U.S. Navy Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Bradley J. Gee

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