Maritime Domain Awareness – An Essential Component of a Comprehensive Border Security Strategy

For centuries, boundary lines have been used to identify a particular geographic area, city, state, province, or country. These borders not only represent jurisdiction over the area and all things in it, but they symbolize a transition from one set of laws, regulations, traditions, culture, norms, and even time zones to another. Sometimes these transitions are starkly different, and other times they are unnoticeable.

When we think of borders, we most often think of land with internationally codified boundaries that are easily discernible on a map. These are often identified or protected by some form of physical barrier, security force, or signage. However, in the maritime domain, there are no physical barriers or indications of a change in jurisdiction except perhaps a line on a nautical chart.  In addition, while controlled entry at a legitimate Port of Entry (POE) is managed by government representatives, such as customs and border guards or police, the openness of the sea allows for numerous points of unobserved and uncontrolled entry.  Seaports allow vessels carrying goods and people to pass through geographic boundaries and directly access a nation’s sovereign territory.  Unlike a vehicle that is stopped at a land border for inspection and can be denied entry, a ship enters sovereign territory before final immigration, and customs checks take place.  While access can be denied at the POE by immigration and customs officials, the ship, as well as passengers and cargo, have physically entered the territory of the country and thus become the responsibility of the receiving nation.
The use of the maritime domain evolved slowly over a long period of time. As such, the culture and traditions associated with the maritime environment have deep roots and are very institutionalized.  The broad availability of materials and knowledge for building vessels as well as ease of access to rivers, lakes, and oceans also resulted in the movement of people and cargo by sea becoming routine and unremarkable.  For thousands of years, a ship’s captain was god-like in the sense that he or she was the sole authority with no external oversight or control.  Only recently, with technological advances such as the invention of GPS, satellite-based Internet, and space-based communication, has monitoring ships and routine communication at sea been possible.
The accessibility of the sea and its adjacent coastline also paved the way for the maritime domain to be far less controlled and predictable than its land counterpart.  For many years, commercial shipping activity took place whenever and wherever the captain could locate a safe place to make landfall.  This eventually evolved to the modern-day concept of commercial intermodal ports with dredged and marked channels.  As maritime commerce evolved, ships also became larger and more powerful and could move more cargo over longer distances.  These changes were also seen in military vessels that were able to project power at sea far from their homeland.  These advancements led to important developments in determining sovereignty, such as establishing lines of demarcation on the seas, including territorial waters, the contiguous zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone, and International waters to represent a sovereign state’s jurisdiction and rights to living marine resources, crude oil, and sustainable energy. However, the concept of freedom of navigation is still alive and well in the maritime domain and has the potential to impact any nation’s maritime sovereignty at any given time.  Therefore, it is absolutely vital for every maritime nation to adopt a Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) system that allows the responsible government to observe what is happening at any given moment in the maritime environment and respond with an appropriate level of control to ensure the safety and security of its citizens as well as protect its economic interests and national sovereignty.
While no two ports are the same, the value and importance of the Marine Transportation System must be shared among nation-state leaders and therefore requires a common vision and mindset of having an effective MDA strategy. The Marine Transportation System (MTS) is a highly complex “organism” consisting of waterways, highways, railways, bridges, people, vessels, trucks, cargoes, and trains. The ports can be thought of as the heart, but the MTS extends well beyond the ports to landlocked regions around the world. It is the lifeblood that keeps trade, commerce, oil, fuel, fisheries, and the supply chain and economy flowing. If one part of the MTS is damaged or weakened, it has cascading and potentially crippling effects on the entire system-locally, regionally, and globally.
A strong MDA strategy requires a systematic and layered approach using a variety of “hard techniques,’’ such as tools, resources, and tactics to ensure safety and security for planned and unplanned events, and daily operations. For example, commercial vessel arrivals and departures require advance notice of arrival, cargo screening, and notification of their last port of call. Commercial vessels may also require a port state control inspection, review of the crew manifest, an escort, as well as a moving or fixed safety or security zone while in port and upon arrival/departure. This process requires risk-based decision-making tools, databases, radars, and security boats and crews trained in advanced security tactics and procedures. It requires trained inspectors, communication and surveillance equipment, intelligence analysis, cybersecurity, a properly marked channel, and a safe mooring. It requires rules and regulations to govern decisions and resolve discrepancies to ensure the safety and security of the vessel, crew, cargo, terminal, longshoremen, waterway, and all agencies in the harbor. This process happens around the clock and around the world every day.  However, because every port is uniquely different, there must be a constant effort to adopt and improve “hard techniques” to enhance MDA strategy and adapt to the unique aspects of every port and geographic region.
The systematic and layered approach of a strong MDA strategy must also include “soft techniques” which are less visible, less tangible, often overlooked, undervalued, and highly complex, but are at least equal in importance and potentially more so than the “hard techniques.” There are long-standing principles exclusive to the maritime environment that have withstood the test of time throughout history. For example, a naval captain is inescapably responsible for all aspects of their unit, and with that responsibility comes absolute authority and accountability. While legal responsibilities are outlined in laws and regulations, moral responsibilities in this inherently dangerous environment are critical for survival and resilience both at sea and ashore. Moral responsibilities among seafarers may differ from time to time, or region by region, but some are timeless, universal, and valued by all. For example, if there is a vessel in distress at sea, most mariners believe they have a moral responsibility to render assistance regardless of nationality or registry of the vessel in distress.
Another shared principle among seafarers is that the captain makes every attempt to save the crew and vessel before themselves -- a selfless servant to their crew. These same widely accepted leadership principles of responsibility, authority, and accountability at sea, must extend throughout the maritime domain, including among interagency stakeholders. The strength of maritime partnerships in large part determines the strength and resilience of the maritime domain. These partnerships include all levels of government, private companies, public businesses, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, media, and both appointed and elected officials. Creating an MDA culture of coordination of information and operations among all maritime stakeholders requires considerable time and effort; however, collaboration is what creates lasting and effective relationships, ensures transparency, and ultimately builds trust. Principle-centered leadership, a common MDA vision, effective relationships, interagency, and international cooperation, and moral responsibility are critical components of building and maintaining an effective and resilient MDA posture.
Maritime Domain Awareness does not happen overnight and is perhaps never fully achieved due to the ever-changing dynamics of technology, leaders, adversaries, and the environment, yet it is a just and worthy cause.  MDA begins with government leaders making it a priority and establishing the legislation and policies necessary for implementation.  Transformational leadership is necessary to cause people who are responsible for oversight and regulation to think about their roles differently.  They must look beyond themselves and their personal interests to promote cooperation among agencies charged with providing maritime security for the country and its citizens.  This transformational leadership must be a marked departure from the transactional leadership that often takes place in the port and maritime environment where personal interests and enrichment supersede and undermine the primary role of government officials.  Leaders who adopt principles that promote a strong MDA posture both within and beyond their local or regional responsibilities are essential to the prosperity of the entire MTS. Trust is the glue that holds an organization together in good times and bad.
The maritime domain is a “system of systems” that functions together to be effective, and MDA must become a mindset for everyone involved.  In practice, this means the people responsible for leadership and management must understand and cultivate a sense of ownership and a moral obligation for their respective piece of the system.  Information flow and coordinated decision-making between the systems will help synchronize efforts, prevent competition for resources, and reduce interagency competition.
Cooperation and communication ensure relevant and timely information is available to each responsible decision-maker in each system.  This happens routinely in business situations where, for example, it is critical to have the right people such as longshoremen, crane operators, truck drivers, logistics personnel, and others available to ensure goods are loaded or unloaded to minimize the time a ship is in port and delays in the supply chain.  MDA takes this type of coordination to a higher level and aims to deconflict and resolve problems before they happen to avoid large scale disruptions in the maritime environment and all that it impacts.  MDA must be viewed as an essential component of a national strategy to protect vital economic and environmental interests as well as the lives and property of citizens.
Commander J.J. Jones, U.S. Coast Guard, Retired, Border Security Advisor at CRDF Global
Captain Charlene Downey, U.S. Coast Guard, Retired, Owner of SeeWorthy Coaching & Consulting LLC