Situational Awareness

The key to security on the high seas

Due to increases in maritime commercial trade and related terrorist activity, challenges to maritime security have produced a demand for better and smarter technology to support our forces and protect our offshore assets. The U.S. maritime system alone includes more than 3,000 cargo and passenger terminals, shipping through 1,000 harbor channels and more than 12,000 miles of coastline. Providing comprehensive security throughout these waters is no small undertaking.

Homeland Security-inspired legislative requirements regarding cargo screening, port personnel background checks and arrival-to-port alerts have somewhat eased port security breaches. But these do not address on-the-water challenges. Navy, Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection patrols are responsible for U.S.-bound cargo examination and require the latest and most advanced communications technology available to identify and neutralize potential threats before they arrive at a port.

Since Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, there has been an increased risk of al Qaeda terrorists commandeering vessels, infiltrating vessel crews and attempting to bring chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or explosive material into the United States. This threat, in addition to rampant piracy and ship-based drug runners, provides compelling proof that the critical distinction between pre-arrival cargo inspection and post-arrival inspection cannot be overemphasized.

The potential devastating effects of a weapon of mass destruction detonated at its target arrival port, for example, are far greater than a device that is neutralized out at sea. These reasons alone illustrate the need for enhanced situational awareness solutions to help combat today’s real threats that roam our seas.

The Support Process

Situational awareness management systems (SAMS) can be leveraged to support multiple maritime security initiatives, including critical infrastructure protection, emergency preparedness and response to maritime surveillance. The systems are designed to provide situational awareness and sensor management capability throughout a geographically large area—whether on land or at sea.

A well-designed system provides an open architecture and sensor-agnostic capabilities interoperable with current or legacy maritime technology. SAMS typically comprise radar, cameras, hostile fire indicators and unattended ground sensors to provide multi-sensor data fusion supported by real-time sensor health and test information. All of these capabilities are integrated through an overarching Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) framework that covers the entire SAMS.

Shipboard Communications Systems

Boarding a vessel for cargo inspection has become an integral component of patrollers’ daily routine. In addition to the physical challenges to these personnel during an at-sea inspection, they are faced with ever-increasing communications challenges.

Ships selected for inspection frequently must be kept several nautical miles away from the boarding ship. Communications between the mother ship and the boarding crew can be interrupted or lost altogether, for example, when personnel descend into the hold of the boarded vessel. Additionally, after gathering samples of any suspicious material, on-board personnel must wait on the targeted vessel while that material is processed on the mother ship via satellite communications through the FBI system. This holding pattern can take hours—an extremely risky situation for the boarding party, especially if communications are unreliable and the vessel crew is potentially hostile.

In an effort to enhance communications and safety in these scenarios, which are becoming increasingly critical to preserving national security, armed forces are seeking to adopt more network-centric technologies. Secure wireless mesh networking solutions have been shown to provide the reliable, ubiquitous access to communications technology that may be the answer to today’s maritime communications challenges.

Although it is recognized that access to secure shipboard communications is imperative, several factors create challenges to getting this technology where it is needed most in the maritime environment. For one, acquisition is hampered due to costs and federal and military budget pressures, which remain constricted despite the clear urgency of need.

Secondly, implementation can be difficult because today’s newer technologies often will not seamlessly integrate with the military’s older and disparate legacy networks.

Thirdly, any new technology that is introduced to the federal or military environment must satisfy strict cybersecurity, DOD, and Navy certification and accreditation. Lastly, products must meet stringent shipboard environment requirements, including EMI, shock and vibration standards.

Fortunately, solutions exist that can address these challenges, as insurmountable as they seem. For example, the Navy has implemented a secure wireless mesh networking solution that leverages the world’s first FIPS validation access point, providing secure wireless mesh network, gateway and bridge/ repeated capabilities for wireless applications. The system meets the Navy’s cost constraints through COTS solutions and satifies environmental demands with rugged naval packaging.

This solution provides a secure wireless extension of shipboard-wired LAN services and their associated capabilities, essentially transforming at-sea communications and filling a critical gap that touches numerous aspects of maritime operations. The solution has already demonstrated several significant benefits. It is designed for rapid setup, which is vital for the quick pace required in many maritime response operations. Additionally, its portability, achieved by dropping “bread crumbs” along the way, allows the boarding crew to maintain contact while descending into the depths of a vessel, greatly increasing overall mission safety and force protection.

The system’s high bandwidth supports real-time voice, video and data, allowing boarding personnel to safely transmit biometric data via secure wireless to their host ship, streamlining the search process and accelerating mission time.

The Navy’s secure, end-to-end wireless LAN solution also overcomes another pressing challenge to implementing new technology: integration with existing legacy networks. The Navy’s new solution is fully interoperable with the existing Integrated Shipboard Network System aboard several Navy vessels. This ability to integrate with existing legacy equipment saves implementation time while maintaining the DOD’s encryption and security requirements, preventing unwanted eavesdroppers from intercepting transmitted information.

Coastal Border Surveillance Systems

The United Arab Emirates’ integrated Coastal Boarder Surveillance system is an example of a large-scale SAMS implementation. This massive system comprises maritime radar, thermal and daylight camera systems, Automatic Identification System transponders, simultaneous identification transponders and electronic passports. The system includes six sectors of operations, each with its own command center that can query a central database within the National Control Center for truly comprehensive SA coverage, with real-time, simultaneous tracking of more than 5,000 vessels.

The system is based upon an openarchitecture design, which allows for customizations and upgrading to more enhanced sensor suites. It provides a full Vessel Traffic Management and Information System, which supports border security by identifying potential irregularities of vessels operating within territorial waters and facilitating interdiction by relevant Coast Guard and border guard assets.

Using radar enhancement processing technology, the system is capable of reliably tracking fast vessels with radar across cross-sectional areas of 1 meter at ranges of 12 nautical miles. The system is augmented by the provision of more than 3,000 SID transponders, allowing for positive identification of vessels below the 300-gross-registered-ton cut-off or AIS-equipped vessels.

The system was designed to meet additional customer requirements, which included search and rescue capability, with features such as search patterns factoring in environmental drift. Pollution control is possible through aerial surveillance imagery and the oil spill modeling capabilities of metocean data sets that are integrated onboard patrol vessels. Fishery control, including the creation of no-fishing zones, can be implemented through e-passport transponders and radar.

Command and Control Systems

Halifax Port Authority has implemented a command and control system; although it is not as immense as the UAE’s CBS, it collects enough sensor information from diverse inputs to provide HPA with an unprecedented level of domain awareness in and around the Port of Halifax. The inputs include video surveillance, maritime domain awareness acquired through radar, AIS and video analytics, a Dangerous Goods Management System and Atlas OPS Incident/Emergency Response. Each input is integrated in a Web portal, providing a seamless operating experience for the user.

The user can also choose to share any of the input information with an outside agency via secure Internet connection. As an additional benefit, the SA portal offers HPA revenue-generation opportunities to reduce the system’s total cost of ownership.

Besides serving as a data repository, the HPA’s system also reflects a modular architecture that allows for scalability, so future operational requirements can be easily added to the system.

Search and Rescue Systems

Robust situational awareness capability in support of homeland security can have other peripheral benefits in the marine environment, as do the technologies leveraged in these efforts. Sensor systems to protect offshore assets can include radar early-warning systems, which can be used for sophisticated search and rescue capability. Project Jigsaw, implemented in 2006, provides situational awareness coverage of the northern and southern North Sea, which is Europe’s largest offshore oil and gas operation. The system was originally designed to provide radar early-warning capability to offshore infrastructure to prevent potentially disastrous collisions at sea.

However, the system, once installed, was augmented with additional capability and is an example of how technology can dramatically enhance search-andrescue efforts, which traditionally consisted of standby vessel support.

Jigsaw uses a combination of marine and aviation elements to provide the best possible safety cover over the widest range of weather conditions. Its platform-based radar, man-overboard alarms and wristwatch personal locator beacons are used in conjunction with search-and-rescue helicopters and regional support vessels to significantly improve rescue times, quality and prospects of survival.

Jigsaw shares many of the same features and functionality of the other situational awareness solutions discussed, including a centralized command and control architecture, shared data capability, a combined operational picture, logistics planning tools and other integral features. The solution provides a display of all rescue and recovery assets across multiple fields, designed to continually show that SAR performance standards are being met.

The Jigsaw measurement capability is critical to the continued success and ongoing implementations of situational awareness solutions for maritime security and, ultimately, homeland security. Proof of performance to date has demonstrated the undeniable value these affordable, legacy-friendly and highly secure wireless network solutions offer our federal and military forces.

From a big-picture perspective, the essential need for reliable communications to support maritime security goes beyond vessel-boarding scenarios. As our maritime forces are tasked with wider areas of coverage and increasingly brazen antagonists, enhanced situational awareness has become a clear necessity for effective maritime security.

Using the latest, most advanced communications technology, our maritime forces can identify and neutralize potential threats before they arrive at their destination port. Whether in water or on land, for military or the private sector, the benefits of SAMS are clear, and the future for these solutions is extremely promising.


This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Security Today.


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