Perhaps the biggest announcement from President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia has gotten the least attention. The Quad, a group made up of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, has just announced a maritime domain awareness partnership that will provide a new stream of data from commercial satellites to countries around the world. ‘Indo-Pacific. This is a substantial addition to the Quad’s agenda and one of its most promising initiatives to date. Above all, it responds to the desire of most regional partners for the Quad to provide public goods and meet the needs of small states in the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. If properly executed, this effort could be a flagship project to demonstrate the value of Quad to countries in the region.
Today, regional states monitor maritime activity primarily through technologies inherited from the last century: coastal radars, air and surface patrols, and broadcasts from Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponders whose main purpose is the tracking of vessels to avoid collisions, not the detection of illicit behavior. Some States also require licensed fishing vessels to be equipped with Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) transponders. Both systems relay identification, position, course and speed data by sending signals from ship transceivers to nearby ships and receiving stations, on land and in space.
But AIS is only legally mandatory on vessels over 300 tonnes operating in international waters. And adoption of VMS is uneven. Most vessels, including fishing vessels, across the world’s oceans are not required to operate either system. And even those who do can easily disable or spoof the systems if they want to engage in illicit activity. This leaves regional law enforcement and navies dependent on coastal radar, which quickly drops farther from shore, or aircraft and ships, which are expensive and highly inefficient means of policing the vast waters of the Indian and Pacific oceans. . Maritime domain awareness in the region therefore remains patchy, and the application resembles a game of molestation in which outnumbered and overworked patrol vessels attempt to catch illicit operators.
Fortunately, space systems are beginning to present 21st century solutions to these problems. In addition to space-based AIS and VMS receivers, many commercial satellites carry electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar sensors to image the planet’s surface. The price of satellite data is collapsing as companies move from reliance on large, expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit to constellations of small, inexpensive satellites in low Earth orbit. Despite the rapidly declining costs of space-based remote sensing, collection at the scale necessary for continuous monitoring of large exclusive economic zones is still too costly for most developing Indo-Pacific states.
As in so many areas, the problem of maritime domain awareness is now as much about data processing capacity as it is about data collection. There is too much remote sensing data available from government and commercial providers for manual analysis. Automation and machine learning are needed to quickly flag suspicious behavior from various data sources, perform more detailed remote sensing collection to identify illicit actors, and relay this information to relevant agencies for tracking and interdiction. potential. This is especially challenging for countries that lack the systems to effectively process and distribute the resulting data.
The biggest obstacle to the effective use of remote sensing data for maritime domain awareness remains scale. The Indian and Pacific Oceans are vast – too large to effectively patrol by air or sea, too expensive to consistently photograph by satellite. The problem for imaging satellites is the inverse relationship between resolution and aperture. Sensors, whether in the electro-optical or radar bands, that provide enough detail about a vessel to be useful for identification also collect over a relatively small area at a time. In other words, the cameras need to be focused on a small area to get the highest resolution images. This makes persistent monitoring of empty oceans by imaging satellites prohibitively expensive.
The best solution is what the industry calls “tilt and trace” – use a sensor that can cover a wide geographic area with lower fidelity for initial collection, then follow up with a higher-resolution sensor to check for suspicious activity. Satellites that track radio frequency data are a promising option for this first pass and, for some purposes, collect enough data on their own. This is because almost every ship on the ocean sends out radio signals. Even illicit actors capable of disabling or spoofing AIS are likely to use very high frequency radios, X-band radars and other systems. And with the right sensors, a satellite can collect and geolocate these signals over a relatively wide area.
One of the major commercial operators on this front is US-based HawkEye360, whose Quad members plan to purchase and share data with partners in the region. This will be used to determine illicit actor behavior patterns, charge other satellites, and enable more effective patrol and interdiction operations. The Quad will also help to quickly process and distribute this data through existing channels. These include the US Navy’s SeaVision platform, which is used by almost all partners in the region, as well as India’s Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Center, the Singapore Information Fusion Center, the Australian-sponsored Pacific Fusion Center in Vanuatu and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency Regional Fisheries Monitoring Center in Solomon Islands. This effort responds to a real need in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific Islands.
For several years, the countries of Southeast Asia in particular have been asking the Quad to provide them with public goods. The Quad vaccine initiative was well received but was implemented too slowly. The same goes for the Quad’s commitment to regional infrastructure. And efforts to focus on supply chain security have bypassed much of the rest of the region. Questions have therefore been raised about the Quad’s ability to bring value to Indo-Pacific neighbors.
Dhruva Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan recently noted that “the Quad must develop a stronger security program if it is to sustain itself – and sustain the region – in the years to come.” Indeed, the Quad is best placed to provide security, which is the area in which the United States, Japan, Australia and India have the most in common. But focusing on security also tends to make much of the region nervous, especially when it means pushing back against China. But the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness Partnership smartly addresses several regional concerns. Illegal fishing deprives the people of the Indo-Pacific of a vital source of food and income. Contraband threatens law enforcement efforts throughout the region. And the illicit activities of the Chinese maritime militia in the South China Sea are undermining regional security.
This maritime domain awareness initiative therefore combines the provision of public goods with the Quad’s natural strengths: security cooperation and capacity building. The United States, Japan, Australia and India are four of the main maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific. It is only natural that they help the region develop greater maritime domain awareness capabilities. That this highlights China’s illicit activities in the waters of many states in the region is certainly an advantage from a strategic point of view, but it is also an economic boon for smaller players in the Indo- Peaceful.
Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. He also teaches at Princeton University and co-hosts the Net valuation Podcast.
Gregory Poling directs the Southeast Asia Program and the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he is also a Senior Fellow.
Image: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Ian Cotter