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Protecting Sea Lines of Communication

Allies, Partners Tap into Technology to Monitor Maritime Domain

The oceans and seas that dominate the Indo-Pacific present a challenge of immense proportions to safeguarding sovereignty and upholding freedom of navigation and commerce — an obstacle that military planners call the “tyranny of distance.”

Increasingly, satellites, sensors, uncrewed aerial and surface vessels, and other technologies — combined with comprehensive information-sharing endeavors among like-minded nations — are key to bridging these distances to monitor the maritime domain.

“Maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the Indo-Pacific is moving from an abstract aspiration to a functional collective security approach for managing the region’s dynamic offshore spaces,” noted an April 2023 article in PacNet, a publication of Pacific Forum, a Hawaii-based foreign policy research institute. “Much of the cost-savings in maritime enforcement activities is due to emerging technologies including access to satellites that provide clearer and more accurate images, as well as artificial intelligence and big data platforms dedicated to vessel tracking, prediction, and anomaly detection.”

HawkEye 360, for example, uses space-based radio frequency technologies to detect and monitor vessels, including “dark vessels” that disable their automatic identification system responders to conceal illegal fishing and other illicit activities. The United States-based company provides data and analytics to assist the U.S. and partner nations in securing their exclusive economic zones and other maritime spaces. The U.S. and its Allies and Partners assure economic prosperity via safe and secure sea passageways.

More than 60% of global maritime freight is unloaded in Indo-Pacific ports, while over 40% is loaded, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. With seaborne trade a lifeline for the region, the risks of disruption are magnified “whether due to shipping accidents, piracy and armed robbery incidents, sanctions evasions through ship-to-ship transfers, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, or, of increasing concern, unilateral sea grabs or a naval blockade at vulnerable chokepoints,” Ariel Stenek, a doctoral student at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, wrote for PacNet. “These threats, many of which are transnational in nature, have motivated the search for a networked and cooperative solution among like-minded states,” Stenek noted.

Those efforts include the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness, unveiled by the leaders of the Quad partner nations — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — during their May 2022 summit in Tokyo. The initiative seeks to employ commercially available data and technology and extend information sharing among regional fusion centers to “transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the leaders said in a statement. 

The ability of those fusion centers, including in India, Singapore and Vanuatu, to tap into high-quality data will boost regional MDA, according to Dr. Arnab Das, a retired Indian Navy commander and founder of the Maritime Research Center in Pune, India. “Automation and machine learning are critical for real-time identification of suspicious behavior from diverse data sources,” he wrote in FORUM. 

For the region’s navies, coast guards and other maritime enforcement agencies, unfettered access to vital sea lines of communication is being tested by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggressive posturing, including in the contested waters of the East China and South China seas. In late October 2023, for instance, a convoy of CCP coast guard, navy and maritime militia vessels tried to block two Philippine Coast Guard ships and two other boats from delivering food and supplies to Philippine forces stationed at Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. CCP vessels struck a Philippine Coast Guard ship and supply boat during the incident, prompting a diplomatic protest by Manila over what U.S. officials called Beijing’s “dangerous and unlawful actions.”

“By using gray-zone tactics such as maritime militias, a militarized coast guard, and prosecution of legitimate competing commercial vessels and platforms, China has slowly attempted to challenge the existing free-and-open maritime commons in the first island chain, referring to Taiwan as ‘essential strategic space for China’s rejuvenation’ and a ‘springboard to the Pacific’ in official military writings,” U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Samuel Heenan Winegar wrote in the December 2022 issue of Proceedings, a journal of the U.S. Naval Institute.

That is heightening the need for a network of sensors to detect and deter such activities “in times of peace as well as war,” Winegar noted. Satellites and sensors can “provide strike assets with battlespace awareness well beyond their individual tactical horizons and can offer ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capabilities at essentially global ranges,” Winegar wrote. “Sensors employed by ships and other strike resources may not be able to offer sufficient organic targeting data on potential targets without accepting undue risk to their host platforms. The placement of networked sensors along the first island chain would be a logical extension of current and planned U.S. and Japanese operational planning in the region.”

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