Bahrain has taken a leadership role in providing maritime security and situational awareness for the region. Can you tell us about some of the steps you have taken to accomplish that?
More than 90 percent of world trade is carried by seaborne conveyance. This makes the maritime domain a vital interest to Bahrain and the region. The general concept of the Bahrain Coast Guard is the security and safety of our maritime border and territory. This does not just serve our own national interests, but also, the interest of all GCC states and allies in the region. Bahrain is one of the countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC Coast Guard Commanders have an annual meeting discussing topics of mutual interest and cooperation. We have been working together and sharing information for many years. In 2000 we began installing coastal surveillance sensors. We were followed by Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Oman has a very long coast, and is exposed to the ocean, so they not only manage their own maritime domain awareness but are also responsible for the LRIT (long range identification and tracking) which is implemented by the IMO.
Bahrain is a small island, and our sea area of responsibility is ten times bigger than the land. The maritime domain is unique with a range of challenges which we face on a daily basis. Therefore, there is a very important role for the Coast Guard today. Our strategy is to use advanced technology to help us perform and fulfill our mission efficiently and effectively. The Bahrain Coastal Surveillance System was designed with multiple integrated coastal sensors and a state of the art regional command and control center to provide the Coast Guard with a comprehensive maritime situational awareness and command and control capabilities.
We have a number of radars around the island and on a smaller island, Al Jarem, which is around 14 nautical miles from the mainland. They are connected to our Maritime Operations Center.
At this time, all of them are Furuno radars. But we are looking forward to upgrading some of them to Terma radars. Terma is an expensive radar, but I’m looking forward to upgrading three of our radars to Terma. The three Terma radars will give us good coverage. We have eight long-range FLIR cameras, positioned in a strategic areas. We use the radar to detect and track targets and we can assign the camera to identify a target.
How has your improved situational awareness changed your operations?
Since we improved our coastal surveillance system we can be more responsive. We don’t have to go out and constantly patrol; dispatch vessels when we detect something of interest. Even when there are many vessels present we can direct our patrol boats to the specific target of interest that was monitored by our surveillance system. As a result we have saved fuel and wear and tear on our boats by almost 50 percent.
What kind of vessels do you have?
We are not a navy; we are a coast guard. We don’t need big ships – at least not now. We might need bigger vessels – like an OPV – in the future if our mission expands. But today we have increased the number of boats we operate from 40 to 84 vessels. Another additional feature which we had added to our concept of operation for coastal security is the establishment of four checkpoints at sea which are located aboard accommodation barges – they are at the 12-nautical mile boundary of our territorial waters. They have their own radar and operations room. All fishing boats, pleasure boats, dhows or any vessel crossing our 12th nautical mile limit must stop at the checkpoint.
Are these vessels that don’t have AIS?
Even if they have AIS. All vessels must stop at the checkpoint get clearance.
You said you have 84 vessels?
Yes, and of different types, sizes and manufacturers. This includes our checkpoints, which are the accommodation barges. We have nine 20-meter boats from Spain and the U.K.; 12 16-meter boats from the U.K. and Turkey; and many others of different sizes, some RHIBs, but all fiberglass. Most of the smaller boats have outboard engines. The larger 20 and 16 meter boats are diesel.
Are these boats well suited for the kind of missions that you operate in Bahrain?
At this time, yes. But, do we need a bigger boat? Yes. There are some missions which really require a bigger-size boat which can do all the coast guard missions, and do them in high winds and heavier seas.
Do you do a lot of SAR missions?
We don’t call them “search and rescue.” We call them “search and rescue and assistance.” In some cases sea farers do not require rescuing, but are in need of some kind of assistance. In 2015, we have conducted SAR & assisted 469 vessels with 1130 individuals onboard.
Your missions are focused on security, on safety, and fisheries and environment. Do you treat those missions separately, or are you’re doing all those at the same time?
The main goal of the Coast Guard is safety and security. However, we also support and assist other agencies like the Port Authority, providing surveillance and control of the traffic. Also, we support the Fisheries Directorate because they have limited assets which are not effective in enforcing the fisheries laws so we have assumed virtually the entire mission.
Your fisheries are an important asset for Bahrain.
It’s a treasure, a resource for us. Fishing and Shrimping are part of Bahrain heritage. We are well known in the region for our fish and shrimp. Fishing and Shrimping are regulated in Bahrain by seasons and areas. Also, there are some types of fishing gear that are prohibited to use in Bahrain and by international law. We are constantly checking the fishing gear and fishing areas to make sure fisheries laws are enforced.
It is also important to note that we are the only GCC coast guard responsible for registering and licensing all small vessels less than 150 tons.
How about the environment?
We support the Port Authority and the Supreme Council for Environment in Bahrain for oil spill response. We can assist them in controlling the situation and can embark their inspectors on our boat and assist them in characterizing the severity of the spill and directing the response.
How closely do you work with the other coast guards?
Very closely. We work with the Saudis and the Qataris on a daily basis because we share the maritime border with them. We also share information with the other GCC nations, and any information they have they will send it to us. We also exchange information and data on fisheries violations, environmental incidents, accidents, and search and rescue missions. We also share expertise. If we have an expert on a subject from UAE, for example, we just ask them to come to Bahrain and they will come and just give a lecture or give his perspective on this topic. We also have an annual meeting of the GCC Coast Guard Commanders that I mentioned earlier, which is considered a very important meeting.
How about the Navy? Do you have a working relationship with the navies, or something you collaborate on?
Because we both work in the maritime environment, we have to have a good and close relationship. For me, personally, as an ex-navy officer, I know how the navy operates, and many of our people in the Coast Guard also have had naval service. The main difference is that the navy has a wartime mission that they must be prepared for.
Are your vessels and patrol boats armed?
All of our vessels have small arms. We have piracy in the region, but it has been contained since we have armed our boats. There haven’t been piracy incidents for the past several years in our waters.
Do you have cooperation from the other side of the Gulf?
We don’t have any relations. Many of the problems—piracy smuggling—come from their ports and coast.
What is the way forward for the Bahraini Coast Guard?
We have security in our area, but we have to constantly defend it. We have an asset; we have a resource; and we have to secure it.
Today do you feel pretty confident that you’re achieving that mission?
I think so, with the help of our friends – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman – and our stakeholders in Bahrain – the navy, the national guard, and other agencies and our allies in the region.
Courtesy of Surface SITREP, published by the Surface Navy Association (www.navysna.org)