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Maritime Domain Awareness: Global Maritime Information Sharing

By Tony Munoz 2013-01-04 15:14:00

Securing commercial shipping lanes and harbors has been at the forefront of national security long before the US declared its independence in 1776. In fact, Thomas Jefferson as second president of the newly established United States sent the US Navy to protect American shipping and its citizens from the scourge of pirates from the North African states of Tripoli, Morocco and Algiers also known as the Barbary Coast. Closer to home, the Founding Fathers established US Cabotage laws to protect US coastal waters, which essentially established a colonial homeland security policy.

Meanwhile, the Monroe Doctrine (1823) set forth the principles that the Western Hemisphere was no longer open for colonization by European nations and that interference in the western hemispheric affairs would be considered a threat to American security. During World Wars I and II respectively, Mexico allowed German and Axis spies to run freely in their country and the US established an integral network of counter-intelligence to intercept and protect against the threats from its southern border.

The attacks by terrorists on September 11, 2001, again brought forth the need to protect US sovereignty. Shortly thereafter, the US passed the ‘Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004’ (IRTPA) to ensure the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would have a central role in the information sharing environment. But, this task is monumental considering the US consists of 3.4 million miles bordering 95,000 miles of coastlines, which includes 360 commercial ports.

Furthermore, in a sophisticated world of cell phones, the Internet, and other advanced technologies, maritime domain awareness (MDA) has become even more essential to the operation of governments and commercial shipping. The Earth consists of 70 percent water, which is about 139.4 million square miles and, today, there are more than 135,000 commercial vessels, thousands of naval ships, and millions upon millions of small watercraft using these global waters. MDA is a process to understand what is going on in the maritime domain and how best to respond across a broad spectrum of marine activities.

America's liberty is not dependent on other nations embracing democracy nor is its prosperity dependent on the US Merchant Marine sailing the world’s seas. Yet, many anti-American regimes trade or want to trade with the US. Even as Hugo Chavez pounded the United Nations’ podium spewing anti-American rhetoric, the US remains Venezuela’s most important trading partner. In 2009, bilateral trade was about $37.4 billion with Venezuelan exports reaching $28.1 billion. The Chavez government shipped about 1.1 million barrels of petroleum per day to the US, which accounts for 12 percent of US imports of oil. Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic of Iran would gladly sell oil to the US if legal prohibitions were lifted.

While it took the capture of the Maersk Alabama on April 12, 2009 for piracy in the Gulf of Aden to become an issue in the US, piracy in the Malacca Straits and the Somali coast has long plagued commercial shipping for many years. Warships from around the world now patrol pirate infested waters and the stakes have become extremely high since violence and death have been introduced into the equation. In 2009, 406 incidents of piracy and armed robbery were reported by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB). Pirates boarded 153 vessels and hijacked 49 ships and 1,052 crewmembers were taken hostage. Meanwhile, sixty eight crew members were injured and eight were killed. And, another 84 ships had attempted hijacks and about 120 ships were fired upon. Somali pirates alone were responsible for 217 ship attacks with 47 vessels being hijacked and 867 crewmembers taken hostage.

Therefore, understanding the importance of international collaboration in the global MDA is critical in combating smuggling, piracy, pollution and theft. This is why the Office of the Department of Defense (DOD) Executive Agent for MDA was established in August 2008 and placed within the Department of the Navy to enable information sharing throughout the DOD, the US interagency community and with US trading partners worldwide.

The responsibility for MDA belongs primarily to the navies and coast guards worldwide, but none of them alone have the resources and manpower to manage everything required to protect nations from catastrophic events. Until recently, it has been the policy of most governments not to share critical information deemed assets of national security. But, the days of hoarding, holding or manipulating information cannot be tolerated anymore by either governments or commercial interests.

Achieving MDA is dependent on partnerships. But, often times the governments of non-civilians may not understand commercial shipping activities in such areas like ship management, cargo operations, marine terminal operations, supply chains supporting just-in-time delivery, commercial fisheries, tug and tow operations or passenger vessel operations. However, it is also important for maritime interest to also realize there are numerous illicit supply chains, smuggling of contraband, and potential terrorist threats in play in the marine environment. Today’s world trade is complex and it operates in networks of networks that no one truly understands completely. Although, we all realize port congestion is the bad guys force multiplier.

Forty percent of all marine containers enter the US through the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex. A recent GAO report mentioned a ‘Custom-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism’ (C-TPAT) simulated cargo scenario conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton in which smuggled weapons were detonated in cargo containers and all US ports were shut down for 12 days costing the US economy $58 billion. In this particular simulation, the terrorists did not close all the ports, the government did, and the impact of the $58 billion was self-induced. While 9/11 closed down all US airports for just five-days, the event forever altered security at airports around the world. Meanwhile, there are bulkers and freighters moving low-end cargoes such as gravel, coal or salt with mariners from third-world nations entering US ports, which also demand as much attention as high value cargoes entering territorial waters.

One of the 9/11 Commission’s major findings was the need to improve sharing terrorism related information across government lines. And, there has been a shift from “need to know” to a “responsibility to provide” paradigm. While MDA has no room for turf wars, sharing information has moved to the forefront of relations between commercial shipping operations and governmental entities. The “Neptune Coalition” in San Francisco Bay, which is comprised of 20 federal, state, and local law enforcement and response agencies, meets regularly and shares information is an example of best practices in the MDA.

The National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC) and its director of intelligence are by-products of the 9/11 Commission and they are responsible for establishing centers to integrate the full spectrum of maritime intelligence and security requirements, including military, criminal, economic and national sovereignty issues in aggregate. MDA has become far more complex as the types of threats have changed from direct military forces and nations against nations to terrorists and criminals wanting to disrupt and do harm to people, commercial interests and governments.

"Charting the Course for Maritime Domain Awareness” is the theme for the upcoming Global Maritime Information Sharing Symposium in Baltimore, Maryland on September 14-16, 2010. The annual symposium will bring together private sector, non-governmental organizations and government agencies to collaborate on global maritime information sharing. It will be hosted by the National Maritime Domain Awareness Coordination Offices (NMCO) on behalf of the Maritime Administration. As this critical and essential agenda moves forward, it is incumbent for commercial shipping interests to get involved and become part of the process. Without being a part of the process, your company or organization may be left to deal with the final analysis and procedures. To attend go to http://www.ndia.org/meetings/0420/Pages/default.aspx

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.