Home Articles C-SIGMA: Counter-piracy operations start in space

C-SIGMA: Counter-piracy operations start in space

<< For an effective Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), there is a need to build international collaboration >>

Oil may be the world’s lifeblood, but oceanic commerce is its backbone, if not the entire skeleton. Piracy is a cancer on that skeleton which must be dealt with. The maritime entities of the world – military, civil and private alike – are looking at their situation in the new reality of spreading piracy and are coming to understand their vulnerabilities, especially the potential consequences of increased piracy. Added to the threat of piracy or sea-borne attack is a growing realisation that misuse and mistreatment of oceans is causing significant environmental damage, which, coupled with the theft of oil and fish, is leading to the loss of substantial economic resources. Little wonder then that a wide variety of organisations either have, or are developing systems and Concepts of Operations (ConOps) dealing with regional, if not global, maritime awareness.

Piracy and maritime resource theft have become endemic and must be countered with all resources which the law abiding people of the maritime world can muster. Those resources should include unclassified space systems in order to have an effective and efficient global maritime awareness system, but many are unaware of what opportunities, especially if used in conjunction with each other, the new space systems provide. Indeed, in the last few years, there has been a revolution in unclassified spacebased Earth Observation Systems and, led by Space-based Automatic Identification System (S-AIS), their utility over the world’s waterways has increased dramatically. As the potential contributions of spacebased earth observation systems to all facets of global maritime awareness is becoming known, interest of the world’s naval and law enforcement forces as well as of environmental preservationists, ship operators, brokers and others in the maritime industry have grown apace.

Much of this increased utility can be attributed to S-AIS, but it is not alone. There has also been significant increase in the capabilities of unclassified imaging (optical and radar) satellites.

However, S-AIS has a unique story. Just as GPS was originally designed to assist in improving the accuracy of our submarine launched ballistic missiles but has now become ubiquitous, S-AIS was conceived as an anti-terrorism tool, and as the system evolved, so has the thinking as to its potential in a wide range of uses. For sure, S-AIS is one of the tools needed for global maritime awareness, but it is also the enabler for the rest of the set. S-AIS dramatically enhances the utility of the imaging systems over water by a variety of means including identifying traffic patterns of legitimate vessels, identifying most, if not all, of the legitimate traffic in an area, and providing indications of anyone trying to spoof the system. Thus S-AIS can be used to tell the imaging systems, optical and radar, where to focus their attention, making them much more efficient.

It is widely recognised in the space industry that no one country has the stature, breadth and depth to protect the oceans’ environment, oceanic commerce, and the finite resources of the seas, especially its fish and oil, with its own space systems. It will take international collaboration and cooperation on a nearly unparalleled scale to assure the safe, secure and equitable use of the world’s oceans. This effort, while simple in concept, has such a range of entities and interests involved that it may need to be managed by an agency like United Nations. The core need, as well as the greatest opportunities for international collaboration, is to focus on the technology required to detect, identify and track vessels well offshore. While that technology exists today, scattered among a range of nations, there is very little coordination in its use except in several demonstrations run in the past five years by such diverse groups as the Defense Intelligence Agency, The United States Coast Guard and, the biggest, by the European Commission (the governmental body of the European Union) to examine the feasibility of global maritime awareness from space. All experiments and demonstrations have been highly successful in showing the utility of space systems, used together, in a maritime situation awareness role.

One of the primary steps the nations of the world could take would be to create a global space partnership (GSP) initially focused on the maritime domain. Such a concept has been under informal discussion for sometime by many people, especially in counties with large, exposed shorelines such as Canada, Norway, Japan and Italy, or a history of environmental damage caused by intentional or unintentional dumping of oil, such as Ireland. The proposed maritime focused portion of the GSP has come to be known as ‘Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness (C-SIGMA).’

The critical vulnerabilities of our maritime assets and the potential huge economic impact their loss could generate has necessitated the pressing need for better awareness of the global maritime domain. Most practitioners and researchers who have looked at the state of the art of unclassified space systems have come to believe that they will play a crucial role in any effective maritime awareness system. Space systems cannot do it all. Thus collaboration and coordination with terrestrial systems as well as the mining and analysis of data contained in hundreds, if not thousands, of data bases, and linking it to the location and track histories developed by the spacebased systems is also needed. Likewise, it is recognised that data dissemination and coordination is needed down to the responding tactical units.

The political will of forging that collaboration is a real challenge. Still, a tangible and attainable goal, with both technical and policy aspects to work towards, aids in focussing the political and policy discussions. Building C-SIGMA is one such attainable goal. The two critical segments of that universal maritime awareness are shared surveillance assets and a universal common operational picture (COP). Many are already working the COP issue with such programmes as Cooperative Nations Information Exchange System (CNIES), Virtual Regional Maritime Tracking Center- Automated (VRMTC-A), Regional Maritime Awareness Capability (RMAC) and the Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS). And many others are looking at the front end of the chain – the sensor end. One needs to look at both, in balance.

Why and how to use the required surveillance assets?
Many different groups have studied what collection systems (platforms and sensors) are needed to support Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) and what technology is available or will be available in the near future. Thus, whatever specific concept of operations is finally agreed to by all concerned, the basic technology to carry it out is reasonably well understood by the required subject matter experts, if not the current operational planners. Possibly the number of collection systems, where and how data will be fused and analysed, or what the decision making sequence will be, may change slightly, but the basic technological choices remain pretty much the same. C-SIGMA is a paradigm shift in that. In the realm of international collaboration, the output from such surveillance systems could be put to very different uses by each of the international participants. Piracy is gaining in priority as it expands and becomes endemic. Environmental protection is also high on many people’s lists.

MDA requirements span areas from coastal and harbor surveillance and warning to persistent and pervasive surveillance of the broad ocean area. The bottomline is that we will need ‘systems of systems’ in each zone. There is no doubt that much can be gained by building a collaborative information environment, with a user-definable interface to arrive at a robust user-defined operational picture, tunable by each user to his particular needs. The hurdles to be overcome in this area are now much more policy derived rather than technological. But the fact largely ignored by many is that if we are to provide persistent and pervasive surveillance of all the areas needed to establish the MDA, we need to make better use of the space systems we now have. Doubtless, we need the means to process, fuse, analyse, display and disseminate all available data in order to make accurate decisions and interdict any suspicious vessel before it enters any of our ports or that of our allies or partners. However, we also need more information at the front end of the Detect-Analyse-Decide-Act chain if we are to be successful in most scenarios. Unclassified space systems can provide much of that.

The most promising class of systems for pervasive ocean surveillance is that provided by satellites operated by a broad range of commercial interests, both the US and foreign. As indicated earlier, no one system or even type of systems can do it all. This is true even when considering the most sophisticated space systems. Indeed, there are at least four basic types of space-based systems that need to be used in conjunction with each other. Two of the four employ sensors are:

  • Synthetic aperture radar satellites/ SARSats (Day/night, clear/cloudy collection -Canada, Italy, Germany, Japan, India)
  • Electro Optical/ EO imaging satellites (Day/clear, but very high resolution – US, Germany, France and others) The other two are based on communications systems:
  • Individual transponders linked to communications satellites like Iridium, OrbComm, etc.)
  • AIS – a system originally designed for collision avoidance and safety of navigation but more and more coming to be used as a primary ship tracking system. This is especially true of S-AIS.

What is the concept of operations? How would one use these space systems is the question? It really is quite simple in concept, but probably difficult in execution until it has been exercised several times. The concept is to use S-AIS and such self-reporting systems as Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) and IMARSAT polling to locate the good guys. These systems set the baseline for subsequent analysis.

Then EO and SAR, especially SAR, would be used to detect all activity in the area of interest, such as the location of a ship where it was last attacked, etc. The two data sets would be compared using dynamic analysis tools which can both help refine the search area as well as give indications of who might be a bad guy in the images gathered in that area. Getting ‘eyes on target’ in a tactically significant time frame is critical here, as the longer the delay, the larger the search area. The location of uplink terminals for tasking, and downlink terminals to receive the data collected, and the connectivity of both to the decision makers, and the connectivity of the decision makers to the action takers is also critical here.

Proactively imaging areas of potential interest to establish operational norms, to expand the baseline of operational information beyond what S-AIS and LRIT gives, to compare with what is happening immediately after an attack is reported, is also necessary.

As terrestrial interdiction systems (ships/ aircraft) are being vectored towards contacts of interest, space assets need to continue to be tasked to study the area, especially employing hi-res EO systems and SARs in their hi-res modes, in an effort to more clearly define the real target, with the updates being passed to the interdicting tactical units.

Each of these systems clearly plays a unique role, but the problem is compounded when one realises that no one country has a sufficient number of satellites to make an efficient ocean surveillance system. International collaboration must take place for the proposed maritime surveillance system to work most effectively.