James McAden/HawkEye 360
Radio frequency (RF) space-based technologies aid in maritime domain awareness (MDA) and in the detection of dark vessels or dark ships. At sea, such vessels have disabled their automatic identification system (AIS) responders to avoid the tracking of their location, identity, course and speed, potentially to carry out nefarious activities. MDA poses a challenge, particularly given nations’ limited resources and the vast geography of the seas. It remains critical, however, to protecting maritime resources and national interests in the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of sovereign nations.
Dark ship activity is documented in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as other unlawful maritime activities, and remains a global concern. The practice has costly implications, including environmental resource depletion, lost revenue for legal fishing enterprises, food scarcity in coastal areas, illegal shipping of drugs and other illicit goods, and clandestine encroachment in a country’s EEZ for underwater resource exploration.
Many Indo-Pacific nations rely on AIS for their MDA, which can create a significant vulnerability. While AIS is helpful, it requires the voluntary transmission of a vessel’s identification and location, which ships can easily switch off or alter to avoid detection. With RF detection and geolocation, nations do not have to rely solely on voluntary AIS to monitor their EEZs and maritime areas of interest. RF detection and geolocation from space provide an innovative and cost-effective tool to address these challenges.
During SEACAT 2022, a 10-day multilateral United States Navy-led exercise based at the Information Fusion Centre in Singapore, RF data and analytics from HawkEye 360, a Virginia-based company, were integrated into SeaVision to support exercise objectives. HawkEye 360 specializes in the detection and geolocation of RF emissions from its constellation of low-Earth orbit satellites, and provides data and analytics to the U.S. and international partner nations for a more secure world.
SeaVision is a web-based maritime situational awareness tool that lets users share information to improve maritime operations, increase maritime security and build partnerships within the maritime community.
More than 20 regional maritime partners participated in or observed SEACAT and saw firsthand how RF data can reveal potential dark vessels within their areas. The demonstrations also highlighted how this data could inform mission planning for other assets such as maritime surveillance aircraft or surface patrols.
In recent years, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has repeatedly made aggressive moves in the South China Sea — a hotly contested region rich in resources and trade routes — and illegal incursions in the waters around Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. By creating, occupying and militarizing artificial features such as reefs, islands and atolls in the South China Sea, in particular, the PRC seeks to assert dominance and diminish other countries’ sovereignty claims.
Greater transparency is required to counter such moves as AIS transmissionvs alone are insufficient. HawkEye 360’s RF data can provide a more complete picture of activity in the South China Sea and in other regions such as the Senkaku Islands, allowing nations to respond accordingly to protect their waters.
The 3.4 million-square-kilometer South China Sea borders Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, the PRC, Taiwan and Vietnam. Tensions between the PRC and other claimants over the strategic waterway have run high for years, with Beijing’s arbitrary and expansive claims being dismissed by an international tribunal as legally invalid.
The Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army has constructed military outposts on reefs and islands, and its coast guard and navy patrol the waters. The PRC has shown itself willing to push the limits of international regulations and laws to establish dominance in the sea to the detriment of neighboring nations.
The PRC was able to occupy strategic territory in the South China Sea, in part, because of difficulty monitoring vast expanses of water. However, HawkEye 360’s RF data can provide a more comprehensive picture of the region, allowing nations to deploy patrols more efficiently to combat the PRC’s illegal fishing activity and attempts to establish dominance over disputed islands.
Greater insight into the activities of the Chinese navy, coast guard, maritime militia and fishing fleet would give neighboring nations and the international community a stronger foundation to evaluate and counter such trespasses. Without enhanced monitoring, neighboring nations will be ill-equipped to police and secure their own waters from illegal fishing and other illicit activity.