It’s a pleasant day in the South China Sea aboard USS Benfold. The deck officer is taking all precautions to ensure a smooth voyage toward the Paracel Islands. Outside the glass windows of the pilothouse, the lookouts see hundreds of ships sprinkled throughout the horizon. But when the deck officer takes a look at the identification transponder, he only sees four dots. Why is that?
In 2021, the Chinese government passed two laws allowing vessels to turn off their transponders in some of the most congested and contested waterways in the world. Instead of seeing the hundreds of boats traveling through Asian waterways, seafarers see a picture that doesn’t correlate with what they see out of the window. China’s new Data Security Law and Personal Information Protection Law protect nefarious smugglers, illegal fishermen, and potential proliferators that evade sanctions and international law.
Criminal threats like these are becoming more of the norm in the Indo-Pacific and threaten the maritime security of the region. Therefore, the United States, members of the Quad, and other Indo-Pacific states have recently become motivated to take a positive step toward enhancing maritime awareness in the region. In May 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden announced the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), an initiative with regional partners and allies to promote a free and open Pacific. The IPMDA intends to connect regional partners and allies with American technologies to provide greater maritime situational awareness in real-time.
Though maritime domain awareness is a vital tenet to securing the Indo-Pacific, this is the first time the United States has included nations in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region in a single framework. The IPMDA will funnel investment into commercially available data, existing technologies, and existing regional fusion centers, improving partners’ ability to protect their waters and resources vital to Indo-Pacific economies and deterring illicit Chinese maritime activities.
But effective maritime domain awareness does not rely solely on new software or a single state. Both the United States and other nations need to work with existing technology and existing organizations with shared goals to solve the challenges surrounding maritime domain awareness.
The Biden administration needs to take a closer look at the issues that the IPMDA will face in implementation and the potential strains the initiative will have on smaller allies in the Indo-Pacific. For this initiative to be successful, partners must prioritize solving challenges related to the identification of vessels, the collaboration of forces, technology interoperability, and resource availability.
Vessel identification stands as the IPMDA’s most pressing issue. For the IPMDA to succeed, efficient and expedited identification of suspicious vessels must be a priority. Smugglers, pirates, and other non-state actors have long engaged in the illicit trafficking of nuclear material, drugs, humans, and critical resources. These vessels and criminals can be hard to spot since many operate under the cover of night or withhold information about their destination or cargo to avoid being tracked in congested waterways, ports, and the open ocean.
Smugglers and criminals of this type can exploit a loophole that is unique to maritime traffic identification: flags of convenience. Ships, though owned and operated by organizations under the jurisdiction of a specific country, are legally allowed to choose to flag their vessel under another nation, sometimes unbeknownst to the host nation. This amounts to a loophole through which vessels escape oversight. Shipping companies and illicit financiers prefer this arrangement as it allows the company to avoid taxes and makes it difficult for government entities to interdict and board suspicious vessels.
In part because of flags of convenience, attempts to locate, stop, and deter maritime crime have met with minimal success. Many Asian nations affiliated with the United Nations’ Global Maritime Crime Program (GMCP) lack the resources to effectively police their own waters. In these instances, passing information about traffickers or smugglers to another maritime agency or law enforcement office can be fruitful but rarely ends up in an arrest or seizure.
Identification, even with all the right tools, can still be a nightmare. Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) radars, as upgraded and sophisticated as they may be, cannot independently track and assess the massive amounts of fishing or sea traffic that travels through the Indo-Pacific daily. Even radar signatures can be questionable in a contested or degraded environment. Issues with legacy technology replacement parts, weather patterns, or operator error all play a hand in the efficacy of capturing electronic signatures.
Further, smaller vessels are significantly harder to acquire visually or by radar. The international rules of the road, a governing document that promotes navigational safety, mandates that vessels under 12 meters are only required to have some type of lighting device and sound-making device. In the Indo-Pacific, many fishing dhows and smaller vessels operate under the light of cell phones out to sea and rarely use Automatic Identification System (AIS), radar, or identify themselves in any way. In congested fishing havens, this can make it difficult to maneuver and identify every contact you hold visually and electronically. You would be hard-pressed to find any dhows actively using all of these methods to positively identify themselves, especially if vessel operators engage in activities that are less than above-board.
This is where publicly available information sharing technologies and other identification systems can help rapidly identify ships more reliably. Integrated commercial technologies, like First Alert, quickly facilitate maritime information exchanges to partners by compiling publicly available data from numerous streams to provide greater maritime domain awareness to stakeholders. The platform “transforms publicly available information into actionable breaking news alerts” and identifies the most relevant information in real time. According to the Navy AppLocker, First Alert processes and translates billions of data units from alternative social media, blogs, Internet of Things sensors, audio transmissions, and the deep web.
The program, used by many international partners, however, is only as good as its input. Operators must realize that the platform, like other publicly available information like AIS or SeaVision, provides the who, what, when, and where, but gives no synthesis to actions.
To close the data loop on maritime domain awareness, partners must combine these technologies with an investment in human capital. While acknowledging the inability for humans to handle the vast amounts of latent data associated with maritime domain awareness, trained maritime law enforcement teams in conjunction with improved digital goods run by algorithms will offer the greatest impact in the IPMDA.
The United Nations’ GMCP operates in both the Indian and Pacific Ocean and has trained over 2,500 officers and prosecutors on boarding party procedures, detention processes, and information sharing mechanisms. To maximize the value of the partnership, the IPMDA must partner with these forces to enable the efficient sharing of information about crime trends and patterns. Maritime law enforcement teams from East Africa all the way to the Cook Islands have vast experience in multi-agency approaches meant to enhance regional cooperation.
Further, equipping teams with cutting-edge technology solutions that can remotely patrol and deliver information to a variety of stakeholders can help streamline the detection and identification process. In 2021, the United Nations provided aerial drones, X-band coastal radars, and biometric facial recognition equipment to 14 Indo-Pacific nations’ maritime surveillance centers to upgrade their capabilities. Sharing information among maritime stakeholders with a presence in the area, in addition to nonprofit organizations like C4ADS, can help alleviate the burden of missing information needed to expose illegal fishing and crime.
Further, human lookouts and informants are one of the best ways to spot smaller vessels, preemptively identify and react to potential collisions, and spot suspicious activity out to sea. A human can take vessel information, radar picture, bearings, vessel markings, and corroborate all the data to accurately identify anything from a vessel transporting dual-use technologies for uranium enrichment to a dhow engaged in illegal fishing in a contested exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Maritime law enforcement groups in the area have spent years building social capital to earn the trust and cooperation of locals in stopping illicit crime. These boarding and interdiction teams can provide trusted and effective methods of communication to fishermen and other seafarers to report suspicious activity. The local populace can provide accurate, real-time information regarding vessels of interest. In this case, providing very high frequency (VHF) radios to maritime law enforcement officers and trusted agents out to sea can exponentially cut down on the latency experienced when reporting real-time information. As an added bonus, this is a fairly robust and cheap solution.
Although identification, human capital, and collaboration seem like the only obstacles that the IPMDA may face, the partnership must still field concerns regarding resource diversion and bandwidth. A U.S. Navy carrier strike group may initially leave port with the resources and availability to track, target, identify, and apprehend illicit cargo traders lurking near the South China Sea. In the face of other national security priorities, however, a carrier strike group or guided missile destroyer’s tasking could quickly shift to supporting a different set of mission objectives in a matter of hours.
As American policymakers and defense strategists acknowledge China’s growing illegal presence in the South China Sea and the country’s aggression towards its neighbors, assets will inevitably get divided between two competing priorities: deterring an aggressive Chinese presence in international waters and maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific that harbors less crime and illegal activity.
If the United States shoulders the mounting pressure to make good on promises to its Asian allies, those partner nations will also feel the crunch of resources as their already strained governments try to deal with the demands of their domestic priorities and participate in large-scale naval exercises, information sharing programs, and maritime technology integration, all in the name of the IPMDA.
While the United Nations is making strides in equipping the maritime teams of less developed nations, these teams are still at a disadvantage as they typically operate adjacent to, and not with, their government’s navy and do not possess the manpower, resources, vessels, or funds to track and target each potential suspect that enters their territorial waters. To bolster the process, the IPMDA should begin to engage in multilateral exercises that flex the muscles of partner navies, the United Nations GMCP, and other maritime law enforcement organizations with the goals of integrating an equipped and knowledgeable force capable of overcoming the current threat environment at sea. In the interim, partners in the IPMDA must determine how to best fan out resources across the Indo-Pacific to not sacrifice the integrity, quality, and timeliness of data and arrests.
IPMDA collaborators will need to rely on new digital tools that source publicly available information to protect trade routes, fishing havens, and other maritime activities within the Indo-Pacific. The push for greater acquisition of COTS products across the United States government must not deter partners from pursuing new technologies that can handle data and support processing in light of these nuanced issues.
Simple marine radars from Furuno won’t cut it anymore – the IPMDA will need to invest in interoperable and robust radar systems and data management software powered by artificial intelligence to provide real-time information between authorities on the water and data centers on land. The true key to interoperability with a variety of stakeholders in this region will be to develop, source, and invest in innovative technologies and digital public goods that will seamlessly integrate the operations of boarding teams, navies, non-governmental organizations, and other maritime law enforcement entities throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Ultimately, the IPMDA could act as a flagship to prove the worth and prowess of the Quad as a legitimate security grouping to be reckoned with. Immediately stopping and exposing China’s illegal fishing schemes, illicit nuclear trafficking rings, and firearms shipments will likely remain a priority of the Quad and is certainly feasible given the current intentions and capabilities of IPMDA partners. The question remains as to how quickly and how well Indo-Pacific partners will be able to carry the increased burden of tracking, targeting, and interdicting nefarious actors out to sea.
Quad leaders and Asian allies must urgently cooperate or accept that the Indo-Pacific will invariably fall exclusively into the Chinese sphere. China’s illegal claims on the EEZs of other nations are the exception, not the rule, and must be deterred by a stronger, more capable unified maritime front in the Indo-Pacific.