In response, the three countries overcame mutual distrust and signed the 2004 MALSINDO (Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia) agreement pledging cooperation on regional maritime-security interests, especially piracy. 3 Under this and subsequent agreements, they shared information and coordinated security patrols. 4 These efforts coincided with a reduction in piracy activity, which by 2005 had fallen to 12 incidents, and by 2009 to 2. 5 Other contributing factors may have been the 2004 Aceh tsunami and greater political stability in Indonesia.
The effectiveness of these counterpiracy efforts can be partly attributed to governance of the problem through a formal treaty, coordinated patrols, clarity of purpose, and information-sharing. These operations show the effect than MDA can have when participants coordinate and readily share data that can be used to cue operations. 6
MDA Is Not Fully Operationalized
While Navy efforts must address more complex maritime-security issues on a global rather than regional scale, the keys to effective MDA are similar: identify suspect vessels and share information with partners. Yet ambiguous governance, incomplete guidance, and undisciplined acquisition processes continue to limit capabilities and implementation. Despite significant investments, two core aspects are insufficient: the cueing of suspect vessels and unclassified information-sharing.
Technology has not delivered actionable cues: Vast amounts of maritime data—including detailed vessel descriptions, positions, ownership records, cargo-handling, route information, and records of those with financial interests in the shipping business—are readily available from varied sources. Processing these large quantities requires sophisticated data-mining techniques; however, it is not clear that current and near-term techniques will provide the actionable cues that are the touchstone of MDA.
The Navy has supported the development of an extensive set of MDA systems and software applications to sift data and attempt to differentiate threats from normal commerce. Despite these investments, the ability to generate actionable cues has not materialized. Analysts and operators do use the MDA tools to build case folders on suspect vessels and identify leads for further research, but such case building typically begins with a cue generated elsewhere (a source unrelated to the MDA analysis).
The Navy’s repeated requests for assessments of the MDA tool chest suggest that current systems do not fulfill their primary mission of providing a flow of actionable cues to operators. If effective MDA systems and applications were available and widely used, there would be little need to repeatedly study the Navy’s suite of them in search of those that can deliver the needed capabilities.
The unclassified domain is underserved: The Navy’s interests are global, but resources are limited. To address its concerns, the service depends on many partners. Leveraging their capabilities and coordinating responses to security issues depends partly on the Navy’s ability to share information. This is a key component of MDA. Yet apprehension about the release of sensitive information, and about placing data and tools on classified systems often thwart data-sharing. These issues affect both unclassified and classified data. Often, the classification of the system on which the information or tools reside, rather than that of the items themselves, limits access. For example, unclassified, commercial vessel data stored on classified systems are largely inaccessible to non-DOD personnel. The Navy relies on classified systems because of:
• Convenience: Users prefer to centralize data on a single system.
• Culture: Unclassified systems are often considered less reliable (i.e., data are inaccurate or less complete).
• Cost: Maintaining multiple systems requires resources.
• Confidence: Operating unclassified systems creates opportunities for the inadvertent release of data.
• Conflict: Maintaining parallel classified and unclassified MDA capabilities creates opportunities for conflicts when results of the two differ.
Once stored on classified systems, extracting the unclassified can be problematic. Each datum has to be evaluated, and unless it is tagged with a classification, review processes can be prohibitively lengthy and expensive (these same issues affect data-sharing across different classification levels). Operators tend to work at the secret level, whereas the intelligence community prefers working at higher classification levels. Like data, analytic tools are often difficult to access even though many are unclassified. They are installed on classified networks for many of the same reasons that unclassified data are stored on classified systems.
Barriers to Improvements
Of the many factors that affect the quality and completeness of MDA capabilities, the following three have enterprise-wide impacts. Addressing them is likely to have a significant effect on the Navy’s overall MDA capabilities.
Ownership of MDA in the Navy and DOD is unclear: Many MDA-related efforts lack alignment of responsibility and authority. Over the years the Navy, the DOD, and the interagency community have created several organizations to advance MDA capabilities, including the Office of Global Maritime Situational Awareness; the Executive Agent for MDA; and Director, Navy MDA. They have coexisted with established organizations, such as the Office of Naval Intelligence, OPNAV N2/N6, and the numbered fleets. Without clear descriptions of roles and responsibilities, all of these could select the MDA issues on which they worked. At times, their efforts were complementary, but they could also be duplicative and unproductive. Despite the limits of this approach, each agency’s area of responsibility has yet to be clearly articulated. 7
Recent MDA studies show the need for better definition of roles and responsibilities. In 2007–8, the Navy recommended continued funding for approximately ten tools and terminating the others, because many were redundant and costly. No organization acted on these results. In 2009, another part of the service funded a similar study to assess the utility of various MDA systems. The research pointed to approximately 150 tools and noted that MDA development had expanded rapidly since the previous study.
Despite this, the second study found that the original “short-listed” tools remained viable options. Much of the growth was redundant, and many systems had not been thoroughly tested. Once again, the second study recommended that the Navy continue to fund a small set of MDA systems and software applications and withdraw support from the rest. No organization has acted on these results. It is unclear who will implement that study’s findings, how it will be done, or whether the Navy will do it at all.
In 2010 a third organization chose to study the topic again, for reasons that are not clear, and the final results are pending. The fact that the same systems are studied again and again, with no implementation, suggests that ownership of MDA is ambiguous.
The Navy’s MDA experience underscores the need to align responsibilities with authorities and assign them to a strong lead agency. But the service has not done so, and MDA governance has suffered. To address this shortcoming, and because the ability to terminate unnecessary efforts is an essential management tool, the Navy can still task an organization to manage MDA investments and produce relevant results.
Unfortunately, though, the service has few options from which to select a lead agency. Creating a new one would likely only serve to contribute to the current chorus of organizations, while giving the role to an existing one would continue the practice of command-specific MDA solutions. Regardless of which course the Navy selects, key characteristics of any lead agency should include:
• Subject-matter expertise in MDA systems and tools
• Access to the data
• Experience with the intelligence community and numbered fleets
• Familiarity with commercial-vessel operations
• Acquisition and systems-testing experience
To be effective in its role, this organization must be able to recommend funding decisions on MDA-related systems, as well as decide which solutions can be deployed.
MDA acquisition and testing processes are insufficient: The rapid growth of systems suggests that current acquisition and testing processes have not thinned the field of candidates. Within the existing acquisition framework, there are few opportunities to compare one with another. Without rigorous testing, decision-makers have little or no basis for withdrawing support for one or another. Consequently, stakeholders and contractors continue to build, market, and field MDA tools with limited coordination, and their number continues to expand.
Greater scrutiny of the development of MDA systems and software applications would provide a mechanism for reducing redundant and ineffective efforts. Eliminating these would free resources and increase opportunities to address operators’ needs. If part of the lead organization were dedicated to evaluating MDA systems, decision-makers would be provided with the data to differentiate between the available options and ensure that new tools delivered new capabilities or significantly improved existing ones.
Current guidance provides little structure or direction: Numerous Navy, DOD, and federal documents provide broad, strategic guidance on MDA, but the concept remains incomplete. 8 Many begin with the same definition: “the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, or economy of the United States.” 9 But they provide little guidance on how to implement it. Different commands operationalize MDA differently.
Some numbered fleets focus on maritime safety and security, using MDA for theater engagement. Others emphasize a nation-state, threat-based approach, and yet others apply the concept to counterpiracy and counterterrorism. Fleets closer to U.S. shores emphasize homeland-security and interagency issues. The intelligence community views MDA as a function of information-gathering and analysis.
These divergent views illustrate how, without guidance that sets priorities and assigns roles, the MDA concept can be applied to a wide range of objectives, draining resources from the Navy’s priorities. 10 As previously noted, the systems, organizations, and processes that are required to support these different views can be mismatched. For example, the intelligence community has developed many classified MDA solutions, but fleet engagement efforts and information-sharing require data and tools at the unclassified level.
A task for the lead organization would be to move beyond the current strategic guidance and develop an implementation plan that:
• Differentiates MDA from conventional intelligence functions
• Describes the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders
• Establishes performance metrics and a reporting structure that can be monitored
• Drives investments toward defined priorities and desired end states
Without this guidance, MDA will serve an ever-growing list of interests and continue to drain Navy resources.
Move MDA Forward
The Navy should take advantage of improvements to the MDA developmental environment and strengthen cueing and unclassified data sharing.
Focus development efforts on tools that operationalize MDA: The breadth of maritime data is vast and complex. To review this manually in search of patterns that indicate illicit behavior is impossible. There are too many vessels, too much information about each one, and the data change daily. To be effective, analysts must use systems that mine these data and highlight activities of interest. Unfortunately, the cueing produced by current systems is insufficient. Those that support risk-scoring, in which tools use vessel data to compute a value showing a level of interest in the ship, have been developed; however, operators find the cues generated with this technique to be unreliable. Anomaly detection is a second technique, but it generates a large number of false positives. MDA is unlikely to reach its full potential unless automation can generate actionable cues.
Build an unclassified maritime common operational picture (COP): Significant impediments to sharing information with partners persist. 11 Building an unclassified maritime COP, distributing it widely to partners, and providing them with the means to use it would address this often-cited operational shortfall. The interests of Navy partners, such as combating violent extremism, piracy, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, are often consistent with U.S. security interests. By providing allies with a more complete maritime picture, the Navy can make better use of their capabilities and resources in pursuit of common objectives.
Vessel identities and positional data are likely to be essential elements of any maritime COP, but other types of information are necessary to provide an operationally useful one. Ownership, ports previously visited, safety violations, cargo, personnel, open-source reporting, and other vessel characteristics enrich the positional data. Several companies have collected and fused large amounts of such information and can make their unclassified products readily accessible to others. Although an unclassified COP may not be as complete or accurate as its classified counterparts, it could be easily shared because of the lack of classification restrictions.
The Navy and its partners can benefit from expanding current data-sharing efforts through an unclassified maritime COP. For the Navy, information-sharing improves situational awareness, informs decision-making, builds relationships, and facilitates combined operations, especially with nontraditional partners. Recent counterpiracy operations near the Horn of Africa and the Africa Partnership Station are examples of this.
Many nations have responded to pirate attacks by deploying warships to the region, and the U.S. Navy has operated and shared information with, among others, Great Britain, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Germany. Others with which the Navy has less operational experience, such as India, Russia, China, and Indonesia, have also deployed warships. Making an unclassified COP available to them would help coordinate and deconflict efforts among those engaged in these types of operations.
Through the Africa Partnership Station, the Navy continues to work with several nontraditional allies, including Senegal, Liberia, Cameroon, Cape Verde, and Mozambique. Many lack the ability to effectively monitor their water space, but one of the station’s goals is to “help build African maritime safety and security capability and capacity.” 12 Providing a maritime COP would strengthen the ability of Africa Partnership Station participants to monitor their maritime interests and facilitate combined operations with the U.S. Navy.
The emergence of MDA as a prominent concept reflected a significant change to the Navy’s role in national security. In the past, the service was largely concerned with defeating navies of other nations. After the attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) in 2000, the 9/11 strikes on the United States, and the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, it became apparent that commercial traffic and non-state actors posed a threat to the security interests of the United States, as well as many other nations. The Navy and Coast Guard were obvious choices to lead efforts to improve the understanding of the danger, and MDA is a key part of the undertaking.
The information required to support this awareness is widely distributed, yet not always readily available. Furthermore, the demand for security resources far exceeds supply. To address these shortfalls, the U.S. Navy must leverage the abilities of its partners. Without their support, efforts to build operationally relevant awareness and respond to maritime-security issues will be hampered. Despite MDA’s importance, capability shortcomings continue to limit the service’s ability to establish and maintain it. Without changes, opportunities to maximize the potential of others and address maritime-security issues will be lost because data were not shared with partners. Addressing the shortfalls outlined here will provide operators with the instruments they need to protect U.S. security interests.
1. DOD Needs a Strategic, Risk-Based Approach to Enhance Its Maritime Domain Awareness , GAO-11-621 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, June 2011), 14. Actions Needed to Assess and Update Plan and Enhance Collaboration Among Partners Involved in Countering Piracy Off the Horn of Africa , GAO-10-856 (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, September 2010), 47.
2. International Piracy Reporting Center, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships (Essex, United Kingdom: International Chamber of Commerce, International Maritime Bureau, 1992–2004). Michael Schuman, “How to Defeat Pirates: Success in the Strait,” Time , 22 April 2009. K.C. Vijayan, “Malacca Strait Is Off War Risk list but Piracy Attacks Up Last Month,” The Strait Times (Singapore), 11 August 2006.
3. Caroline Vavro, “Piracy, Terrorism, and the Balance of Power in the Malacca Strait,” Canadian Naval Review 4, no. 1 (spring 2008): 13.
4. Catherine Zara Raymond, “Piracy and Armed Robbery in the Malacca Strait, A Problem Solved,” Naval War College Review 62, no. 3 (summer 2009): 36–38. Andreas Graf, Countering Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in South East Asia and off the Horn of Africa (Hamburg, Germany: Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, 2011), 34–38. Schuman, “How to Defeat Pirates.”
5. International Piracy Reporting Center, Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships , 2004–9.
6. LCDR Donald R. Jamiola Jr., “The Strait of Malacca Formula: Success in Counter-Piracy and Its Applicability to the Gulf of Aden,” Naval War College thesis, 2009, 3–5.
7. DOD Needs a Strategic, Risk-Based Approach , 10.
8. Navy Maritime Domain Awareness Concept , Department of the Navy, 2007; A Cooperative Strategy for 21st-Century Seapower , U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, 2007; SECNAV Instruction 3052.1, “Maritime Domain Awareness in the Department of the Navy,” 30 January 2009; “Global Maritime and Air Intelligence Integration,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Community Directive 902, 14 January 2009; “Maritime Domain Awareness in the Department of Defense,” DOD Directive 2005.02E, 27 August 2008; Concept of Operations for Fleet Maritime Domain Awareness , U.S. Fleet Forces Command, 13 March 2007; Global Maritime Intelligence Integration Plan , October 2005.
9. National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness for the National Strategy for Maritime Security , October 2005, 1.
10. DOD Needs a Strategic, Risk-Based Approach , 10.
11. Carl Schloemann, CDR Christopher Gray, Walter Berbrick, and Gary McKenna, Game Report: Maritime Domain Awareness Operational Game , 18–23 July 2010 (Naval War College, 2010), 5, 8.
12. “About Africa Partnership Station,” Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Africa, http://www.naveur-navaf.navy.mil/about%20us.html  .