Satellites Seen As Critical to Maritime Security (UPDATED)

By Dan Parsons

Illegal activities at sea often go unnoticed because international authorities cannot keep a watchful eye over the oceans that cover two-thirds of Earth’s surface.

The answer is to increase space-based surveillance, Guy Thomas, co-founder of Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness, said June 16 at a forum hosted by the Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C.

U.S. and allied defense agencies are promoting maritime domain awareness from space.
Because the oceans are so vast, it is difficult to police every case of illegal fishing, polluting or drug trafficking on the water, said John Mittleman, an engineer for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

There are approximately 5 million registered vessels in the U.S. alone, only about 100,000 of which are regularly tracked, he said. The remaining undetected vessels commit most crime at sea, he said. Satellite-mounted sensors can help remedy the shortcoming, he added.

“The vastness of the sea won’t change,” Mittleman continued. “Space can help make the sea less vast.”

The effects of global warming continue to melt ice caps and expand undetectable areas of the oceans, especially in the Arctic region. As the Arctic experiences shorter icy seasons, detection capabilities have become a top priority for the Royal Canadian Air Force in its mission to promote maritime security.

RCAF Maj. Charity Weeden, assistant attaché of air and space operations, said the service has responded to environmental changes and the increasingly ice-free Arctic waters with a constellation of space-based radar sensors called the Radarsat Constellation Mission, or RCM, that will launch in 2018.

“RCM is a Government of Canada system — not just defense — as there are many applications that support the missions of various departments and agencies,” Weeden said.

RCM will compliment the RADARSAT-2 constellation, which has been in orbit since 2007. That system has already “helped to enhance marine surveillance, environmental monitoring, and tracking of illegal activity,” Weeden said.

Long-range identification and tracking systems and vessel monitoring systems have become an integral component of space automatic identification system (S-AIS), strengthening maritime detection and surveillance. Jon Huggins, director of the Oceans Beyond Piracy project, has concerns about miscommunication and data overload, despite the enhancements. Huggins proposed improving existing radar systems to detect those vessels measuring less than 20 meters that typically evade detection and do not self-report their locations.

The 100,000 vessels that the U.S. can track voluntarily broadcast their positions. This leaves space-based detection systems deaf to the other 98 percent of vessels that opt out of broadcasting, according to Mittleman. Existing radar satellites can pick up some of the slack, but are still blind to many small vessels, he said. To help increase vessel “transparency,” the naval engineer encouraged policy makers to enforce regulations that would require ships to broadcast and communicate more frequently.

“This is all about trust. Once you enter international waters, you are not required to report to anyone,” Huggins said. More often than not, it’s the little ships that cause the biggest problems because they go unnoticed, he added.

Thomas explained that new radar satellites and other S-AIS upgrades have helped to track smaller, more discreet vessels.

The increased use of S-AIS has reduced the number of reported cases of illegal bilge pumping by 50 percent in the Mediterranean alone, according to Thomas. The capabilities of this radar satellite make the detection system viable and “tells you where the good guys are,” he said.

Though space satellites and radar detection have played — and will continue to play — an important role in promoting security on the high seas, agency cooperation and communication are where the solution lies, Mittleman said.

“We absolutely need interagency government cooperation,” he said. “Without that, we are guaranteed the wrong answer.”

Correction: This article originally stated that Canada will monitor melting Arctic ice with a constellation of satellites called RADARSAT-2. The new system is called the Radarsat Constellation Mission, which will compliment the RADARSAT-2 that is already in orbit.

Topics: Energy, Climate Change, Space

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