The war in Iraq so thoroughly dominates public discussion of national defense that many Americans (even some members of Congress) are unaware of other big changes the Bush Administration has made to the nation’s security posture since 9-11. That is partly by design — the administration isn’t eager to tell terrorists how it is bolstering intelligence-gathering and unconventional-warfare capabilities. But even when the information is readily available from public sources, it’s striking how some defense stories get overlooked by the general media.
A case in point is maritime security policy. The Bush Administration has embarked on a vast initiative to increase surveillance of the world’s oceans under the rubric of “Maritime Domain Awareness,” and is working hard to enlist foreign governments and private shippers in its efforts to create a global maritime intelligence network. If the effort succeeds, it will enable defenders to monitor vessels, cargoes and crews in much the same way they already track civil aviation traffic — not just in the seas adjoining U.S. territory, but pretty much everywhere on the face of the earth where maritime terrorist activity is a possibility.
Policymakers realized even before the 9-11 attacks that Al Qaeda and other unconventional threats had a maritime dimension. President Bush stated in January of 2002 that the nation needed to bolster its capacity to track “vessels, cargo, and people well beyond our traditional maritime boundaries.” In 2004, he signed presidential directives establishing a Maritime Security Policy Coordinating Committee to develop a “National Strategy for Maritime Security.” That strategy is now in place, as are supporting plans for increasing awareness of sea borne threats, integrating maritime intelligence, assuring transportation security, and conducting outreach to foreign partners.
The centerpiece of efforts to fashion a better maritime security posture is the “National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness” completed in October of 2005. That plan established a goal of greater transparency in sea borne traffic flows, and called for increased ability to collect, fuse, analyze, disseminate and archive information about oceangoing ships, cargoes, crews and passengers. It stated that “the primary method for information sharing, situational awareness and collaborative planning will be the national maritime common operating picture,” which it defined as a “near-real time, dynamically tailorable, network-centric virtual information grid shared by all U.S. federal, state and local agencies with maritime interests and responsibilities.”
Creating a “common operating picture” of the world’s oceans is a tall order. First, there isn’t enough money to conduct detailed surveillance of all two-thirds of the globe’s surface covered by water, so planners are going to have to decide which areas are most important. Second, the cast of characters likely to be participating from across the government is quite diverse, and some agency will have to be put in charge to avoid bureaucratic chaos. Finally, the range of technologies needed to collect and exploit information is quite imposing, from super-secret satellites that already track oceangoing vessels to unmanned aerial vehicles such as Global Hawk to devices that can aid collection of human intelligence in littoral countries. Pulling all these pieces together into a unified effort will be a huge undertaking — but not as big as picking up the pieces after a terrorist slips through the existing maritime surveillance network with a nuclear weapon.
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