What is Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)?
Maritime Domain Awareness is all about generating actionable
intelligence, the cornerstone of successful counterterrorist and
maritime law enforcement operations.
The challenges facing Naval and Coast Guard forces have changed
dramatically over the past decade and make the future security
environment increasingly complicated and uncertain. This new
environment, highlighted by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, shows
that terrorists will exploit access to our open society, economy,
and commercial systems to bring about damaging and potentially
catastrophic effects on our homeland.
With a more globally connected economy and our nation’s
continued reliance on the global maritime environment for trade
and commerce, ensuring a safe and secure maritime environment is
critical to national security and economic well-being.
An emerging set of diverse, increasingly networked adversaries
pose security challenges every bit as threatening as if confronted
by a peer adversary. In addition to a few hostile or potentially
hostile states — some armed with nuclear weapons — the United
States is threatened by terrorists, a proliferation of illegal
weapons, organized crime affiliates, drug traffickers and cyber
Whereas the enemies of yesterday were predictable, homogeneous,
rigid, hierarchical, and resistant to change; today’s enemies are
dynamic, unpredictable, diverse, fluid, networked and constantly
evolving. They benefit from the many technologies and materials
that are readily available for sale on the world’s illicit markets
to disrupt systems and fabricate weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
These enemies do not operate on conventional battlefields, but
thrive in weak states and gray areas where terrorists ride the
back of transnational crime.
To counter the multitude of threats presented by these
conditions, we must deny our adversaries the use and exploitation
of the maritime environment, including its transportation systems.
The first step toward enhancing Maritime Security is achieving
increased awareness of activities in the maritime domain.
To achieve increased awareness, the Coast Guard, in partnership
with the Navy and other agencies, is developing an initiative
called Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). The Navy has achieved MDA
for years at the tactical level to dominate areas surrounding
Carrier and Expeditionary Strike Groups, but in the context of the
global war on terrorism (GWOT), MDA takes on a strategic
MDA is the collection, fusion and dissemination of enormous
quantities of data — intelligence and information — drawn from
U.S. joint forces, U.S. government agencies, international
coalition partners and forces, and commercial entities.
Eventually, the depth of information collected from these various
sources will be weaved together to enrich a comprehensive common
operating picture (COP) that is envisioned to be fully distributed
among users with access to data that is appropriately classified.
The purpose of MDA is to generate actionable intelligence.
Without actionable intelligence, counterterrorist or maritime law
enforcement operations are seldom fruitful. With it, the range of
options available to Navy and Coast Guard forces expands
significantly to permit much more effective investigation and
interdiction of potentially threatening vessels, either overseas
or as they approach the United States.
Additionally, MDA acts as a key enabler for other critical
security measures, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative,
Container Security Initiative, United Nations sanctions
enforcement, counter-narcotic operations, and anti-piracy patrols.
Response options available range from intensified surveillance and
tracking, to Expanded Maritime Intercept Operations (E-MIO), to
the application of lethal and non-lethal force, if necessary.
The ultimate goal of MDA, in the context of Homeland
Security/Homeland Defense, is to identify threats as early — and
distant from American shores as possible. This will buy time to
determine an appropriate course of action.
The Navy and Coast Guard have defined MDA to be the effective
understanding of anything associated with the global maritime
environment that could im-pact the security, safety, economy or
environment of the United States.
The Navy, with its significant maritime intelligence,
collection, fusion and dissemination capabilities, plays a leading
role within the Defense Department for developing MDA and
orchestrating the process by which information is shared with
coalition partners, and other agencies and departments of the U.S.
Sharing information is absolutely essential if this growing
network is to effectively detect, identify and track the most
dangerous threats, including terrorists, WMD, narcotics, piracy,
mass migrations, and arms traffickers. Awareness generated through
information sharing will enhance understanding of the global
maritime environment, including adjacent ungoverned areas in which
terrorists operate, thereby providing opportunities to deal with
threats as far away from America’s borders as possible.
MDA consists of two key components: information and
intelligence. These components will combine in the COP to create a
substantive, layered presentation of the global maritime
environment. Numerous governmental and military organizations
already possess a COP of some sort; however, no one source
captures all of the maritime information needed or currently
The challenge will be to effectively integrate and fuse the
various inputs to achieve the synergies offered by a comprehensive
situational awareness picture, while being responsive to the
information needs of participating agencies. Through the COP,
specialists will eventually be able to monitor vessels, people,
cargo and designated missions, areas of interest within the global
maritime environment, access all relevant databases, and collect,
analyze and disseminate relevant information. Efforts are underway
to determine the capabilities existing COPs have to accomplish
these tasks and to assess the complexity of integration.
For the foreseeable future, technological and fiscal
constraints will not support global tracking of every vessel, nor
would doing so be useful in of itself. Based on fused data,
intelligence and information, the most threatening vessels will
receive priority cueing in order to focus our assets in the right
areas. As better, less expensive solutions are developed, we can
improve our ability to achieve maritime transparency.
Technological advances may offer solutions to a number of the
most dif-ficult challenges encountered in the MDA development
effort. Areas where technology can directly contribute to
enhancing MDA are in the improved detection and tracking of
vessels and crafts in the global maritime environment; the ability
to monitor the movement of people and cargo in the maritime
environment; the development of a comprehensive COP; and enabling
appropriate access to the myriad databases and information sources
which can make valuable contributions in detection and prevention.
To enhance the ability to detect and track vessels and craft on
the high seas, existing capabilities and new technologies are
being examined to determine the most effective way to proceed. For
example, large commercial vessels now carry a collision avoidance
and harbor traffic control device called Automatic Identification
System (AIS), which is analogous to Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)
transponders fitted aboard commercial airliners.
Expanded maritime traffic networks could use this system to
identify participating vessels overseas or approaching our shores.
Also, sensing systems such as long-range, over the horizon radars;
high-altitude, long-dwell unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV);
lighter-than-air craft; oceanic surveillance buoys; and acoustic
systems show great promise for enhancing our ability to detect
vessels and craft in the open ocean environment.
Integral to enhancing MDA are screening technologies used for
verification of shipments and people prior to their departure from
foreign ports. Many of these technologies are being implemented by
agencies such as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol performing
Technologies under development include "smart boxes," which
will have built-in sensors that can detect prohibited items,
threatening substances, potential WMD materials and unauthorized
As an enabler, technology will be instrumental in the
development of the envisioned comprehensive Maritime Domain
Awareness COP by permitting the fusion of various information and
intelligence sources. The information exchange between government
agencies and with private industry, in particular, sharing common
databases, is the real power behind a global Maritime Domain
Developing, and in some cases restricting, the layers of
information available in the COP pose daunting challenges.
Initiatives in this area have been in motion for some time, for
example, the development of the Law Enforcement Information
Exchange (LiNX) program by the Naval Criminal Investigative
Service, the FBI, and a number of state and local law enforcement
agencies. Further advanced command and control tools and
decision-making systems such as data-mining and anomaly detection
software will serve as the backbone for a realistic and tailorable
Capabilities discussed here are expected to feed end users at
locations ranging from Coast Guard Sector Command Centers to Navy
Fleet Headquarters to federal teams of Navy, Coast Guard and other
law enforcement personnel.
Great strides can be made toward improving Maritime Domain
Awareness through efforts to enable and enhance information
sharing among governmental agencies and by incentivizing private
industry participation. While the effort to enhance MDA is
certainly built upon the many relationships needed to establish
the free flow of relevant information and intelligence, developing
technologies will provide the framework needed to achieve maximum
situational awareness of all activities in the maritime domain
that may adversely impact the national interests of the United
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