Agency Stands Watch Over Seas

February 2011
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Magazine
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Members of the U.S. Coast Guard detain personnel aboard a self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) vessel off the coast of Central America. Stricter identification verification processes at U.S. borders have led drug traffickers to use these high-tech boats to smuggle contraband into the country.

Data distribution is essential to tracking maritime role in crime and terrorism.

The convergence of threats is increasing the requirements for sharing unclassified data that address maritime domain awareness and homeland defense. The U.S. Defense Department’s Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness is coordinating the requirements of combatant commands, the services and the department’s four intelligence agencies to scrutinize the gaps and seams in data-sharing capabilities and technologies. Closing these gaps and tightening these seams is crucial to protecting U.S. shores from, among other dangers, weapons of mass destruction.

Recognizing the need for information sharing as part of a holistic plan, Capt. Bruce Stubbs, USCG (Ret.), director, Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness (EAMDA), the Pentagon, is taking his cue from President Barack Obama as he tackles all of his agency’s priorities. In April 2010, the president declared weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) as the single most serious threat to U.S. security in the short, mid and long term. “The ability to detect a ship or people conveying WMDs always has to be our number-one concern,” Capt. Stubbs states. Persons who would do harm to the United States are using innovative technologies to carry out their schemes, and the U.S. military must do the same in the maritime defense awareness (MDA) arena, he adds.

For example, in the 1980s, drug smugglers transported their goods on shrimp boats. Today, they are using stealthy self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) vessels to move their products 2,000 miles between Colombia and the United States. “I’m really concerned. If they can deliver cocaine surreptitiously, then they can deliver bad guys and weapons,” the captain says.

The improvements in biometrics technologies used to identify people as they enter a country are detecting and deterring criminals from using their usual routes, but in some ways this success contributes to the problem. “What are they going to do? They’re going to turn to surreptitious, clandestine methods of entry into the United States—by airplane, horse or boat,” he relates.

Capt. Stubbs emphasizes that this activity is occurring not only in the United States. The nexus between terrorism and criminal smuggling is large and sturdy; drug traffickers would very readily support terrorist activity. “We see all of this drug money from Afghanistan supporting al-Qaida. This is not something that is just about the United States and homeland defense; this is about global security,” he states.

Although hesitant to sound a speculative alarm, the captain admits that a collaborative effort that results in attacks is real. “We’ve seen an attack on Mumbai right from the water. They went in there and killed dozens of people. What would they do with a weapon of mass destruction? Everyone can come up with a scenario. Look at how close the Bahamas are to Miami. Get a cigarette boat, put a WMD in it, drive it up on a beach and detonate it next to a big hotel having a big convention. Bring it into the port of Miami and detonate it alongside a cruise ship as it’s pulling out. The threat is out there,” Capt. Stubbs warns.

The SPSSs are of special concern because they are stealthy and lack automatic identification systems, making them difficult to find. Capt. Stubbs shares that the Defense Department and intelligence agencies have the right technologies and algorithms to go after these vessels, but they need to be refined and expanded.

Technological developments and the work of the National Security Agency, the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Naval Intelligence have led to great strides in MDA. “We have made quantum improvements in our ability to track and identify ships on a global basis. There is still room for improvement, but we have a solution path and the technologies are improving. That is a tremendous ‘good news’ story,” he relates.

Of particular importance to locating and identifying these ships is the ability of intelligence analysts to sift through the terabytes of data they are receiving from platforms such as unmanned aerial vehicles. Gen. James E. Cartwright, USMC, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, is championing the push to develop technologies that automate this process, Capt. Stubbs shares. However, automation is only one of the capabilities required. Once analysts have crucial information, they must be able to share it quickly, which requires an increase in bandwidth, he adds.

While the threats can appear to be as large as those depicted in a Hollywood movie script, the means to combat them are far from glamorous. Capt. Stubbs explains that one of the EAMDA’s responsibilities is to assess the MDA road maps from the services, the combatant commands (COCOMs) and the four defense intelligence agencies. The organizations are not graded on these plans, he emphasizes. Instead, the information is used to increase the Defense Department’s understanding of these organizations’ perception of activities on the high seas, look across more than a dozen plans, synthesize them and then create a holistic assessment. With this information in hand, the EAMDA determines where the department can get the biggest bang for the buck.

Once similar requirements are ascertained, the information is shared with materiel commands, the acquisition community and technical support teams. “We look across the Defense Department horizontally to see what needs to be done and share that message through a megaphone as an advocate,” the captain says.


The Coast Guard confiscated bales of contraband from the hold of an SPSS captured in the Eastern Pacific region.

The most recent common need identified is solutions that facilitate sharing unclassified information. Specifically, the EAMDA has identified the need for tools that support collaboration/chat; information collection from others’ systems and sensors; fusion and analysis; and dissemination of information.

Because the agency integrates and coordinates the requirements from numerous sources, then shares the collated information with them, the organizations know how others currently are addressing information-sharing challenges. This approach helps eliminate redundancies and identify holes. “We’ve made great progress in sharing information, but hopefully we don’t rescind that because of activities like [Wikileaks],” he states. Partners must be prudent and judicious about how information is shared, he adds.

“We look at unclassified information sharing, and we can see, from our perspective, the differences between COCOMs and then connect them and save some money,” the captain continues. For example, the EAMDA team can identify one product that will support three COCOMs, and then standardize it to support all 10 COCOMs. “This is not high-visibility work. It is just good, solid staff work of coordinating between different entities,” he states.

Although the work is routine, Capt. Stubbs admits it can be challenging. At times, different COCOMs have different agendas. Each has its own mission and a system that it owns, maintains and supports; no one else can tweak or add widgets to it. On the other hand, the systems commands prefer standardized systems that serve all. Consequently, the EAMDA team must find paths to coordinate the efforts and address urgent needs versus sustainment over the long haul. “We know that one size does not fit all for COCOMs. We make sure that ‘the system,’ meaning the systems commands, is responsive and doesn’t try to come up with a cookie-cutter solution,” he adds.

For example, unclassified information must be shared during humanitarian and disaster relief. Nongovernmental groups, industry and nontraditional partners need to access data such as where supply ships are located and arrival times as vessels head toward an area of operations. This intelligence enables port authorities to stagger when and where ships will pull into port. These groups also need to know the supplies the vessels are carrying. “You want situational awareness among all these players so they know the location of planes, ships and people. They also need information about weather and topography,” Capt. Stubbs explains. “And they need this information in as near to real time as possible.”

MDA requires a large amount of information from many different sources for threatening missions as well, such as combating piracy. The goal is to determine how to examine and share available data. “One entity’s watch center may have situational awareness that isn’t being shared with another entity’s operations center. How do we capture and leverage what we have and not build new systems?” the captain asks.

To address this issue, U.S. Northern Command is sponsoring the Joint Integration of Maritime Domain Awareness test, which is evaluating current processes and procedures to apply nonmaterial solutions to today’s operational problems. The study involves  Canada, which gained numerous lessons from the 2010 Winter Olympics, the captain relates. Work began in August 2009 and is scheduled to conclude on July 31, 2012.

At the forefront in the international information-sharing realm is the European Union’s Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre–Narcotics (MAOC-N) in Lisbon, Portugal. The MAOC now is coordinating with the U.S. Joint Inter Force South. “This is a very positive indication because the threat of drugs is coming into Europe now via mainly West African countries brought in via ship or aircraft,” Capt. Stubbs shares.

The progress in this arena is due in large part to the work of Adm. James G. Stavridis, USN, former U.S. Southern Command commander and current Supreme Allied Commander and U.S. European Command commander. The admiral recently stood up the Joint Interagency Counter Trafficking Center in Stuttgart, Germany. The Maritime Illicit Trafficking and Analysis Cell in Naples, Italy, a Sixth Fleet activity, supports the center.

“So you see these great strides being made. The [U.S.] Navy is doing a great leadership job out in front of bringing a whole-of-government approach to information sharing. It’s very inclusive. They are strong champions of this unclassified information-sharing system capability, strong champions of whole-of-government. They recognize the need to bring these nontraditional partners together because the threat set is more than the military. The threat is terrorism and drugs. Human trafficking is a hideous crime that is in the Fifth Fleet area of responsibility in particular,” Stubbs shares. “Those areas indicate a maturation, a real progress that is being made. Operation centers are being set up. I’m very encouraged.”

Another of EAMDA’s goals is to ensure that all sensors are as effective and efficient as possible. The team is looking for a “delta” that is affordable and creates sensors that not only collect information about activities on land but also on waterways. “Sometimes capabilities are very specialized and no one is thinking, ‘We could use this in the maritime domain, too,’” the captain says.

In terms of cargo, Capt. Stubbs admits the problem is large. The integrity of the supply chain and bill of lading can be suspect. Some gaps and seams exist in validating the contents of containers, so customs, civil and law enforcement authorities in charge of handling this process should share their data with defense agencies when appropriate, he states.

That said, Capt Stubbs believes the focus should not be on ships or cargo but instead on the people who are involved in shipping goods. Having specific situational awareness is incredibly important in this area so that money can be spent where it is most useful: concentrating on criminal and terrorist network analysis. “That’s a discussion we frequently have. We need to be focused on networks, on people and going after them. Knowing things just for the sake of knowing is not going to help us,” he states.

The ability to share information among countries can be especially challenging in Southern Command’s area of responsibility; many but not all of the nations are allies. As a result, a system must be set up that enables information sharing and assurance so that sources and methods of information collection are protected.

“That’s going to be very important if we want to make this work,” Capt. Stubbs says. “That’s where industry needs to focus to get these automated fusion tools. Cargo is a great example. What are the tools that can do that [track cargo] cost effectively, fuse that data with personnel data and ship data with telephone data so permutations and combinations can be done, so that networking analysis can be done automatically?”

U.S. Defense Department Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness:
Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre–Narcotics:
Joint Interagency Task Force South:


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