Southeast Asian governments are unable to effectively detect and track ships operating in their waters, which allows illegal fishing, piracy, and other dangerous activities to flourish, according to a new report published by the U.S. Naval War College.
In the latest edition of the Naval War College Review, maritime expert Gregory Poling details a worrying lack of “maritime domain awareness” capabilities in Southeast Asia, suggesting that these governments should turn to commercially available remote sensing tools, like commercial satellite imagery, as a solution for monitoring their surrounding waters.
Poling directs the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. He writes that even though “few regions are as reliant on the marine environment for food security, economic growth, and national security as maritime Southeast Asia,” governments in the region are still “sea blind.”
This lack of maritime domain awareness — which mainly comprises detecting, identifying, and tracking vessels at sea — is particularly worrying because the marine environment of the South China Sea “is teetering on the brink of environmental catastrophe,” the report says.
According to the report, “fish stocks in the South China Sea have been depleted by between 70 and 95 percent, depending on species, and the story is much the same throughout the region.” This forces fishermen to venture further and further from their home shores in search of fish. As a result, illegal fishing fleets can increasingly be found operating in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs), driving up tensions in the already-turbulent South China Sea.
The South China Sea is home to a series of overlapping maritime and territorial disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei. Poling writes that “most violent incidents in the South China Sea emerge from fishing competition, not oil and gas or military activities,” and that this trend “will increase as the marine environment deteriorates and stocks continue to shrink.”
As such, this competition over fish resources — coupled with a rise in piracy, human trafficking, and other illicit activity at sea — poses a major threat to the security of Southeast Asian countries, especially since governments in the region lack the ability to effectively track this activity.
And even though the United States and other partners like Japan and Australia have provided security assistance to Southeast Asia in the form of training and expensive platforms like patrol ships and aircraft, the region’s maritime domain awareness gap persists, the report says.
“Luckily, the last decade has seen the rapid development of cheaper, commercially available remote-sensing technologies that hold the promise of revolutionizing MDA [maritime domain awareness] for developing coastal states,” Poling writes.
According to the report, commercially available tools like coastal radar, automatic identification system (AIS), vessel monitoring systems (VMS), electro-optical imagery, synthetic aperture radar, low-light imaging, radio-frequency detection, and data processing are all increasingly attractive options.
For instance, radio-frequency detection tools can triangulate the location of radio broadcasts from vessels at sea. Low-light imaging can detect fishing boats based on the bright lights that they use to attract fish at night. And synthetic aperture radar is useful for detecting metal vessels, Poling’s report notes.
Many of these technologies are being pioneered and made available by private companies and nonprofit organizations. “Space-based tools and analytic platforms that previously were the sole domain of governments are being replicated by nonprofits and commercial technology firms, while entirely new technologies are emerging from the private sector,” the report says.
It cites an example of a company that has developed an AIS platform and accompanying algorithms to automate the detection of attempts to spoof or disable the AIS system which transmits the position of a ship, which could help regional navies or coastguards quickly identify and react to suspicious activity.
However, the report says that governments in the region are not reacting quickly enough to these developments in the commercial remote sensing market. And even when these governments do possess certain capabilities, bureaucratic hurdles often impede efficient use of collected information.
For example, Poling told RFA that “many of the partner nation agencies were shocked when I showed them what we were able to do with commercial technology” during workshops with U.S. and Southeast Asian partner nation coastguards, navies, and civilian agencies.
“Many weren’t sure what they already had access to, or what other parts of their own bureaucracy were using,” Poling said to RFA.
And these disconnects exist on the U.S. side too. Poling told RFA that the U.S. “didn’t seem to have a complete survey of what its partners in the region were already using or their level of familiarity with different remote sensing technologies.”
For this reason, the report calls on Washington, Canberra, Tokyo, and other governments to “shift more of their efforts toward introducing partners to the booming market in remote sensing” and “advise partners on regulatory and bureaucratic best practices to use those data effectively in naval and law-enforcement operations.”
“Saving dwindling fish stocks, dismantling trafficking networks, preventing the spread of Islamic State-linked terror cells, countering Chinese aggression in the South China Sea — meeting these and many other challenges is impossible without much better ability to detect, identify, and track vessels at sea,” the report warns.