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Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA): Port and Coastal Security for the Homeland Is Evolving

Partnerships, priorities, force protection, and a common operating picture

Commandant of the Coast Guard Adm. Bob Papp said people usually think of the Navy and Marine Corps when they think about national security and national defense within the maritime domain. Writing in The Washington Times on Sept. 20, 2013, he said they provide for control of the sea by naval supremacy, deterring aggression, projecting power, and fighting and winning America’s wars. “The Coast Guard is part of that,” he wrote, “but we are more than a military service, and national security is more than national defense.”

Papp explained the many vital roles the Coast Guard performs as protectors and stewards. And he talked about partnerships. “The Coast Guard can’t do it alone. We will continue to rely upon strong partnerships with the departments of State, Defense, and Justice along with a variety of bilateral international agreements to disrupt Transnational Criminal Organizations in the Western Hemisphere.”

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “… DHS and its component agencies have increased maritime domain awareness [MDA] and have taken steps to better share information by improving risk management and implementing a vessel tracking system, among other things. …”

A U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) September 2012 report acknowledged that “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), through its component agencies, particularly the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), have made substantial progress in implementing various programs that, collectively, have improved maritime security.”

“The Coast Guard has developed Area Maritime Security Plans around the country to identify and coordinate Coast Guard procedures related to prevention, protection, and security response at domestic ports,” the GAO report states. “In addition, to enhance the security of U.S. ports, the Coast Guard has implemented programs to conduct annual inspections of port facilities. To enhance the security of vessels, both CBP and the Coast Guard receive and screen advance information on commercial vessels and their crews before they arrive at U.S. ports and prepare risk assessments based on this information. Further, DHS and its component agencies have increased maritime domain awareness [MDA] and have taken steps to better share information by improving risk management and implementing a vessel tracking system, among other things. For example, in July 2011, CBP developed the Small Vessel Reporting System to better track small boats arriving from foreign locations and deployed this system to eight field locations. DHS and its component agencies have also taken actions to improve international supply chain security, including developing new technologies to detect contraband, implementing programs to inspect U.S.-bound cargo at foreign ports, and establishing partnerships with the trade industry community and foreign governments.”

Cross-border security

The CGC Escanaba and the Mexican patrol ship ARM Independencia under way in formation in the Caribbean Sea during UNITAS Atlantic 2012, Sept. 27. The United States, Mexico, and Canada, as bordering countries, cooperate closely on matters of mutual maritime security. UNITAS is an annual multinational exercise hosted by the U.S. 4th Fleet that promotes cooperation between the naval forces from partner nations, including France, Peru, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, France, and Canada. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Frank J. Pikul

The GAO reported that the U.S. Coast Guard and CBP encountered challenges in implementing initiatives and programs “to enhance maritime security since the enactment of the Maritime Transportation Security Act (MTSA) in 2002 in the areas of: (1) program management and implementation; (2) partnerships and collaboration; (3) resources, funding, and sustainability; and (4) performance measures.”

The Coast Guard’s closest partner is the U.S. Navy. Navy Rear Adm. Jonathan W. White, the oceanographer and navigator of the Navy, the person on the Chief of Naval Operations staff responsible for MDA, said, “The DoD [Department of Defense] definition is ‘the global understanding of the maritime environment as it applies to safety and security to the economy and environment’ – those four things, and more broadly any of our national interests in the maritime domain. In DoD, we especially focus on national defense and security, and sharing knowledge of the maritime domain with interagency and international partners. Our three main interagency partners at the U.S. level are the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the Coast Guard; the national intelligence community, which includes the Office of Naval Intelligence and the National Maritime Intelligence Center in Suitland, Md.; and the Department of Transportation. We work together to create a national understanding, a shared common picture of maritime domain awareness. And we work closely to do that. The sharing that takes place between us, and that common picture, is one of the big successes we’ve had over the last few years.

“The intent is a shared understanding of the maritime domain, to make sure that we’ve all got the best information available that we can get from each other,” he said. “The challenge is that you run into some sources of information that are not releasable to the other agencies. There is law enforcement information that cannot be accessed directly by the military, and there are military intelligence sources that cannot be shared with civilian agencies.

“We’ll never be where we want to be, but we’ve made a lot of progress in what we are sharing,” said White.

“The intent is a shared understanding of the maritime domain, to make sure that we’ve all got the best information available that we can get from each other.”

Data standards are very important, White said. “We need to have a standard way to share that data amongst the agencies and, when needed, with our international partners, especially Canada and Mexico. So you’ve got to have common data standards. That’s one of our big MDA efforts here. So no matter what kind of imagery or geospatial software our partners use, we all can view any photo or find any location.”

White said MDA is more than collecting and analyzing data. It’s necessary to determine if information is actionable, and how best to act on it.

“If it’s a safety or a homeland security function, it might be the Coast Guard. If it’s a national defense issue, piracy, or weapons, then it starts to come over to an MOC [military operations center] inside one of the DoD activities. We have interagency task forces, such as the Joint Interagency Task Force South at Key West [Fla.]. We have Navy ships with Coast Guard law enforcement detachments with the authority to go after a vessel suspected of carrying drugs.”

Environmental awareness, such as hydrographic, meteorological, and oceanographic data is also part of MDA. The sea services, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are very involved with gathering and analyzing that information. “We often think about MDA as surface contacts, but we’re dealing with subsurface and semi-submersible threats, too,” said White.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...