It is in this context that Identity Activities are an important advantage in the maritime domain. The CNO’s design notes the influence of pervasive connectivity to information – this allows our asymmetric adversaries to coordinate despite loose, diffuse networks. But we can turn such connectivity to our own asymmetric advantage as well, thanks largely to biometrics, data analysis, and global networks. The result: If we find you, we will know who you are.
Understanding identity is a decision-support tool. Since decisions must be made across the Range of Military Operations, from Phase 0 to Phase 3 and beyond, identity is applicable anywhere. In security cooperation missions, for example, identity tools may help the host nation maintain rule of law by identifying criminals. Those same tools may help with identifying insurgents or unmarked troops during hostilities. And during reconstruction and stability operations, Identity Activities can help to establish proper governance and a safe and secure environment with minimal fraud or crime.
According to Joint Doctrine Note 2-16, Identity Activities are “a collection of functions and actions that appropriately recognize and differentiate one entity from another to support decision making.” They may accurately deconflict, link, or consolidate identities; detect shared characteristics of a group; characterize identities to assess levels of threat or trust; or develop or manage identity information.
Identity is derived from a variety of sources: biometric, biographic, documentation, and others. Much of the work is done unseen by the Intelligence Community. At the tactical level, what Sailors and Marines see most directly is an individual’s physical characteristics and, often, documents. Biometrics can help to determine if documents are genuine or fraudulent. When converted to digital files via electronic enrollment, biometrics can also be compared with U.S. watchlists and databases. This will show if the individual has been previously encountered by the armed forces or law enforcement of the U.S. or certain partners. The context of those past encounters will help determine the next course of action.
In the maritime environment, three main areas of employment present themselves – migrant interdiction, maritime security, and possibly countering state-sponsored “hybrid war” at sea.
Migrant interdiction is unfortunately a growth industry, with instability on the Mediterranean’s southern coast, both sides of the Gulf of Aden, and parts of the Caribbean, just to name a few. Tracking the identities of such migrants serves two main purposes: following the flow of displaced persons, and screening displaced populations for known and suspected terrorists and criminals. With some regularity, the U.S. Coast Guard, operating in the Caribbean, biometrically identifies individuals at sea with outstanding warrants in the United States. The Coast Guard can refer them to the proper authorities before these suspects reach U.S. shores on their own. The potential for European navies and coast guards to do the same in the Med – but with potentially far more threatening subjects in the post-ISIS diaspora – is clear.
Maritime security is a longstanding mission that will continue as long as the sea is a pathway for illicit activity. Combined Maritime Forces in the Middle East and the U.S. Coast Guard in the Western Hemisphere both frequently seize large quantities of drugs and – especially near Yemen in recent years – weapons. Ascertaining the identities of the individuals aboard helps crack open the shadowy networks operating and funding their operations. At the same time, it also helps differentiate between guilty ringleaders and plausibly innocent crewmembers that have no knowledge of their cargo. But if the same supposedly ignorant mariner keeps appearing on unsavory vessels again and again, knowledge of his past activities would permit a reevaluation of that benign assessment.
Looking ahead, applying identity to maritime hybrid actors puts it in the service of the great power competition described by the CNO without actually coming to blows at sea. While terrorists and criminals try to remain anonymous as a means of self-protection, hybrid actors use anonymity to provide their state sponsor with deniability. While open source information on ship registration and vessel movements can often poke holes in states’ denials, knowing individual identity – of ship captains, for instance – adds another arrow to our intelligence quiver. The DoD’s 2017 report to Congress on Chinese military power specifically called out the role of the China’s Maritime Militia (CMM), which is vigorously expanding its operations in the South China Sea. Ostensibly fishing boats, these blue-hulled vessels have habits of finding their way to contested locations. They are the linchpin of a Chinese hybrid strategy of asserting dominance in Southeast Asian waters. Identity Activities can help us know the provenance of these militia vessels, and perhaps offer a tool in the U.S. strategy to counter their influence.
Libya presents another opportunity for Identity Activities to prove useful in the maritime sphere. Libya has two governments, only one of which is internationally recognized – but both are attempting to assert control over Libyan waters (neither very professionally). Just like in the South China Sea, using all-source intelligence to track both vessels and the personnel operating them will help operators sort through which vessels belong to which rival, or are simply third-party pirates taking advantage of disorder.
The Navy and Intelligence Community are already very good at tracking suspicious vessels and monitoring traffic. Gathering information on individuals, biometrics in particular, is a less certain proposition. Warships’ commanding officers are reluctant to have their boarding parties spend time conducting interviews and biometric enrollments aboard overcrowded refugee boats which already have water up to the gunwales before their Sailors even step aboard. The vessel’s master, and perhaps a few others may be enrolled, but likely not an entire boatload of dozens of people. The strategic reward – an expanded database and analytical opportunities – is not typically perceived as worth the tactical risks.
The technology exists to change this. There is no single best solution, but it is easy to imagine an aircraft – as small as a hand-launched quadcopter or as large as a P-8 – passing over an open-topped boat with a high-resolution camera that takes images of its occupants’ faces. A nearby ship, acting as data node, could then interface with the global data architecture that already exists for U.S. biometrics and look for face matches. Before even putting its boat in the water, the ship’s boarding party would know if any persons of interest were sighted aboard the vessel. The boarding party would still be necessary to review identity documents or perform other biometric enrollments, such as fingerprint, but some of the initial trepidation before visiting a vessel of unknowns would be dispelled.
The future of maritime operations is not an “either/or” scenario – peer competition or constabulary maritime security – but a “both/and” situation requiring investment and training at both ends. Identity Activities offer a means of enhancing our effectiveness at the low end and perhaps reducing tensions as we approach the high end. Although the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and partners can fully implement it today, it will be made more effective through the fusion of multiple sensing and data transmission technologies. The end result will be greater confidence in the identities of those we encounter at sea, more assured decision making, and enhanced security on the global commons.
Pete Spahn is an Intelligence Analyst at the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency, an Army field operating agency, and a retired Chief Cryptologist with experience in collections and analysis around the globe.
Matt McLaughlin, an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, provides strategic communications support to the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency and is a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve.
Their opinions are their own and do not represent the Departments of the Army, Navy, or Defense.
Featured Image: Between Cuba and the Florida Keys (Sept. 19, 1994)– Coast Guardsman, BM2 John Greenwell, from LEDET 8I (Law Enforcement Detachment) transport cuban migrants to a navy ship during Operation Able Vigil. Operation Able Vigil got underway in mid-August when the number of Cuban rafters rescued in the Florida straits skyrocketed above the month of June record of 1,173 to 2,607 in a single week of August. (USCG photo by PA1 Don Wagner)
Earlier this year, Admiral John Richardson, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, released his Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, articulating a vision for how the Navy intends to both deter conflict and conduct “decisive combat operations to defeat any enemy.” Some of the factors it identifies as making the maritime system “more heavily used, more stressed, and more contested than ever before” include expanded trade, the impact of climate change opening sea lanes in the Arctic, increased undersea exploitation of the seabed, and illicit trafficking.
As U.S. Navy operations afloat take place within a more contested maritime system, the need for better “Battlespace Awareness,” one of the three “Fundamental Capabilities” identified in the Navy Strategy for Achieving Information Dominance, is clear. Battlespace Awareness requires a deep and substantive understanding of the maritime system as a whole, including tasks such as the “persistent surveillance of the maritime and information battlespace,” “an understanding of when, where, and how our adversaries operate,” and comprehension of the civil maritime environment.
The U.S. Navy operates across a spectrum ranging from simple presence operations, maritime security, strike warfare ashore in support of land forces, to potential high-end conflict at sea and even strategic nuclear strike from ballistic missile submarines. These operations do not occur in a vacuum, but in a highly complex and dynamic international environment that continues to require real expertise, particularly in its uniquely maritime aspects.
To execute these operations the U.S. Navy needs an intelligence arm employing experts that understand the details of the maritime system and how it can impact naval operations at sea. Three ways to move towards achieving real expertise in the maritime environment include:
Fielding better analytic tools and using advanced analytics to assist in collection, exploitation, and all-source fusion
Deploying intelligence analysts and tools to lower echelon units closer to the fight
Training intelligence personnel in vital skills such as foreign languages
Task 1: Improve Use of Advanced Analytics and Sophisticated Tools
The Design portrays a world in which rapid technological change and broadened access to computing power have narrowed the distance between the U.S. Navy and potential competitors. Wealthy states no longer have a built-in military advantage simply by having access to immense sums of money to invest in military platforms and weapons, including communications and information technology.
The Design notes that this advantage has been eroded as new technologies are “being adopted by society just as fast – people are using these new tools as quickly as they are introduced, and in new and novel ways.” Virtually anyone now has the ability to access and analyze information in ways that were previously only the preserve of the most advanced intelligence agencies. Indeed, today’s “information system is more pervasive, enabling an even greater multitude of connections between people and at a much lower cost of entry – literally an individual with a computer is a powerful actor in the system.”
This story of rapid technological change does not necessarily have to be one where the leader in a particular field inevitably loses ground to more nimble pursuers. The explosion of “Big Data” gives the U.S. Navy opportunities in which to better understand the maritime system, provide persistent surveillance of the maritime environment, and achieve what the Information Dominance Strategy describes as “penetrating knowledge of the capabilities and intent of our adversaries.”
In addition to an explosion of social media across the planet that provides readily exploitable data for analysis, the maritime environment has its own unique indicators and observables. One example of the ways publicly or commercially available data can be used to develop operationally relevant understanding of maritime phenomena was a 2013 study byC4DS that detailed how Russia has used commercial maritime entities to supply the Syrian government with weapons.
Nation-states and their agencies no longer control the raw materials of intelligence by monopolizing capital-intensive signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT) collection platforms or dissemination systems. Anyone can now access huge amounts of potentially informative data. The barrier to entry for analytic tools has drastically declined as well. An organization that can develop analytic tools to exploit the explosion of data could rival the impact that British and U.S. experts in Operations Analysis achieved during the Second World War by improving Anti-Submarine Warfare(ASW) efforts in the Battle of the Atlantic.
The navy that can successfully exploit the data environment and make it relevant to operations afloat will be better positioned to formulate responses to challenges fielded by potential adversaries often characterized by the now discouraged term “Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD).” With the barrier to entry for advanced analytics and use of statistical techniques so low, it would be criminal to not apply cutting edge methods to the various analytic problems faced by intelligence professionals.
Task 2: Employ Intelligence Tools at the Tactical Edge
For a variety of historical and technical reasons, all-source intelligence fusion for the U.S. Navy has generally taken place at the “force” or “operational” levels; typically by an afloat Carrier Strike Group (CSG), Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), or numbered Fleet staff, rather than with the forward-most tactical units. Since at least the Second World War, the U.S. Navy has emphasized the importance of deploying intelligence staff with operational commanders to ensure that intelligence meets that commander’s requirements, rather than relying on higher echelon or national-level intelligence activities to be responsive to operational or tactical requirements.
Since the Cold War, technological limitations such as the large amounts of bandwidth required for satellite transmission of raw imagery had limited the dissemination of “national” intelligence to large force-level platforms and their counterparts ashore. The need to exploit organic intelligence collected by an embarked carrier air wing, coupled with the technological requirements for bandwidth and analytic computing power, made the carrier the obvious location to fuse nationally-collected and tactical intelligence into a form usable by the Carrier Strike Group and the focal point for deployed operational intelligence afloat.
With computing power no longer an obstacle, however, only manpower and the ability to wirelessly disseminate information prevents small surface combatants, submarines, aircraft, and expeditionary units from using all-source analysis tailored to their tactical commander’s needs. The Intelligence Carry-on Program (ICOP) provides one solution by equipping Independent Duty Intelligence Specialists onboard surface combatants like Aegis cruisers and destroyers (CG/DDGs) with intelligence tools approaching the capability of those available to their colleagues on the big decks.
The next step for Naval Intelligence in taking advantage of these new technologies is to determine whether it is best to train non-intelligence personnel already aboard tactical units to better perform intelligence tasks, or deploy more intelligence analysts to the tactical edge of the fleet. Additionally, Naval Intelligence must advocate for systems to ensure that vital information and intelligence can actually get to the fleet via communications paths that enable the transmission of nationally-derived products in the most austere of communications environments.
There is an additional benefit to pushing intelligence analysis down-echelon. The potential for an enemy to deny satellite communications means that the ability of a tactical-level commander to make informed decisions becomes even more important. The Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority argues that “one clear implication of the current environment is the need for the Navy to prepare for decentralized operations, guided by the commander’s intent.”
Five of the six steps of the “Kill Chain” or “Dynamic Targeting” process of Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA) involve intelligence. These include tasks such as detecting and characterizing emerging targets (Find), identifying potential targets in time and space (Fix), observing and monitoring the target (Track), the decision to engage the target (Target), and assessment of the action against the target (Assess). Decentralized operations require the ability to apply more or all steps of the Kill Chain at the tactical edge meaning forward units need an organic intelligence capability.
Enabling tactical units to perform intelligence tasks essential to the Kill Chain at the tactical edge through trained manpower and better intelligence tools could greatly enhance the ability of afloat forces to operate in a what are sometimes described as Disrupted, Disconnected, Intermittent, and Limited bandwidth environments (D-DIL). Potential adversaries have developed a wide variety of capabilities in the information domain that would deny the U.S. military free access to wireless communications and information technology in order to “challenge and threaten the ability of U.S. and allied forces both to get to the fight and to fight effectively once there.” In a possible future war at sea where deployed combatants cannot rely on the ability to securely receive finished national- or theater-level intelligence, the ability to empower tactical-level intelligence analysts is a war-winning capability.
Task 3: Develop Widespread Language and Cultural Understandings
One of the Design’s four lines of effort is to “Achieve High Velocity Learning at Every Level” by applying “the best concepts, techniques, and technologies to accelerate learning as individuals, teams, and organization.” It also calls for a Navy that can “understand the lessons of history so as not to relearn them.” The irony here is that Naval Intelligence continues to ignore one of its most successful education efforts in history: the interwar program that detailed dozens of officers to study Japanese language and culture in Japan (with others studying Chinese and Russian in China and Eastern Europe) during the inter-war years.
Emphasizing the importance of language training and regional expertise would seem obvious goals for Naval Intelligence in light of the Information Dominance Strategy’s call for “penetrating knowledge” and deep understanding of potential adversaries. The direct result of sending men like Joe Rochefort and Eddie Layton to Japan to immerse themselves in that society was victory in the Central Pacific at Midway in June 1942.
While there are language training programs available to the U.S. Navy officer corps as a whole (such as the Olmsted Scholar program), they are not designed to provide relevant language or expertise of particular countries or regions for intelligence purposes. If Olmsted is the way which Navy Intelligence plans to bring deep language and regional expertise into the officer corps, it has done a poor job in terms of ensuring Intelligence Officers are competitive candidates as the annual NAVADMIN messages indicate that only eight have been accepted into the program since 2008.
There has been much debate in recent years, particularly heated in the various, militaryblogs, over the relative importance of engineering degrees versus liberal arts for U.S. Navy officers. What has been left out of that debate is the obvious benefit associated with non-technical education in foreign languages. A deep understanding of foreign languages and cultures is not just relevant to Naval Intelligence in a strictly SIGINT role. Having intelligence professionals fluent in the language of potential adversaries (and allies) allows deep understanding of foreign military doctrine and the cultural framework in which a foreign military operates.
Foreign language expertise for a naval officer is not a new concept. In the late nineteenth century prospective Royal Navy officers had to prove they could read and write Frenchin order to achieve appointment as a cadet, and officers were encouraged to learn foreign languages. Interestingly, the U.S. Naval Academy does not require midshipmen majoring in in Engineering, Mathematics, or Science to take foreign language courses.
Naval Intelligence is vitally relevant to the U.S. Navy’s afloat operations, but can be significantly improved by taking advantage of the current technological revolutions in data and data exploitation. While the Design uses new terminology and does not address intelligence’s role specifically, the core missions and tasks of Naval Intelligence remain the same as they were in 1882 when Lieutenant Theodorus Mason started work at the newly established Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI). Maritime experts can provide the decisive edge in combat operations through more advanced and sophisticated tools, by pushing intelligence expertise to the tactical edge to advise front-line commanders and mitigate new high-end threats, and by applying more detailed knowledge of the languages and cultures of potential adversaries in the most challenging environments.
Lieutenant Commander Mark Munson is a naval intelligence officer assigned to United States Africa Command. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official viewpoints or policies of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Featured Image: 140717-N-TG831-028 WATERS TO THE WEST OF THE KOREAN PENINSULA (July 17, 2014) Operations Specialist 1st Class Brian Spear, from Senoia, Georgia, assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd (DDG 100), stands watch in the combat information center. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Declan Barnes/Released)
From Newport to New Delhi, a tremendous effort is currently underway to document and analyze China’s pursuit of maritime power. Led by experts in think tanks and academia, this enterprise has produced a rich body of scholarship in a very short period of time. However, even at its very best, this research is incomplete—for it rests on a gross ignorance of Chinese activities at sea.
This ignorance cannot be faulted. The movements of Chinese naval, coast guard, and militia forces are generally kept secret, and the vast emptiness of the ocean means that much of what takes place there goes unseen. Observers can only be expected to seek answers from the data that is available.
The U.S. Navy exists to know the answers to these secrets, to track human behavior on, above, and below the sea. While military and civilian leaders will always remain its first patron, there is much that USN intelligence can and should do to provide the raw materials needed for open source researchers to more fully grasp the nature of China’s nautical ambitions. Doing so would not only improve the quality of scholarship and elevate the public debate, it would also go a long way to help frustrate China’s current—and, to date, unanswered—strategy of quiet expansion. Most importantly, sharing information about the movements and activities of Chinese forces could be done without compromising the secrecy of the sources and methods used to collect it.
The Constellations are Visible…
The basic story of China’s maritime aggrandizement is printed in black and white, no need to read tea leaves. There exists a public life in China, even if highly circumscribed. Chinese journalists are paid to write articles that satisfy the urges of an inquisitive and patriotic public. Chinese scholars spend careers trying to understand the intentions and capabilities of their own country—like academics elsewhere, they banter back and forth in defense of “truth,” and bruised egos. Government agencies release reports that catalog their achievements, outline key objectives, and mobilize their personnel for the new tasks at hand. The Chinese military, communicating through service publications, seeks to inculcate a collective consciousness of what it does and why it does it. All of these sources are open to the foreign observer.
The available information provides important clues about the nature and extent of Chinese activities at sea. This is true for all three of the sea services: the coast guard, the maritime militia, and the PLA Navy.
The movements of the Chinese coast guard are particularly amenable to open source analysis. China does not operate a single maritime law enforcement agency analogous to the United States Coast Guard. It instead funds several different civilian agencies, each with a different mission. Prior to the creation of the China Coast Guard in 2013, the agencies most active along China’s maritime frontier were China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). Both agencies released surprising amounts of information through official newspapers, annual reports and yearbooks, and other channels.
These sources include significant quantitative data. For instance, it is possible to track the expansion of CMS presence in disputed waters that started in 2006. In that year, CMS began to regularize its sovereignty—or “rights protection”—patrols, first in the East China Sea, then in the Yellow Sea and South China Sea. Each year, the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) published data on these operations. In 2008, CMS conducted a total of 113 sovereignty patrols. These missions, which covered more than 212,000 nm, established CMS presence in all of the waters over which China claims jurisdiction. Four years later, in 2012, the service conducted 172 sovereignty patrols (>170,000 nm) just in the South China Sea alone.
Qualitative data also abounds. Before 2014, both CMS and FLE regularly invited Chinese journalists aboard ships operating in disputed areas. These civilian scribes chronicled China’s campaign to reclaim “lost” land and sea. While primarily designed to inspire and titillate Chinese audiences, their work provides excellent source materials for the foreign observer. For instance the eight-part Chinese television documentary that aired in late 2013 showed extensive footage of CMS and FLE ships operating in the South China Sea, including during hostile encounters with Indonesian and Vietnamese mariners.
Chinese sources also provide raw materials for understanding the activities of the second major instrument of Chinese sea power—the maritime militia. This force is comprised of civilians trained to serve military and other state functions. In peacetime, a segment of the militia, mostly fishermen, constitutes an important tool in Chinese maritime strategy. It sails to disputed waters to demonstrate Chinese sovereignty and justify the presence of the Chinese coast guard and navy. The militia also harasses foreign vessels, and helps protect China’s own.
China’s maritime militia is particularly active in the South China Sea. The Chinese press eagerly covers their activities in disputed waters, often revealing ship pennant numbers and the names of key militiamen. Websites owned by provincial, municipal, and county governments also highlight their local contributions to the “people’s war” at sea. Using such sources, Conor Kennedy and Andrew Erickson have tracked the militia’s activities at places such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and deciphered its role in pivotal events such as the 2009 assault on the USNS Impeccable.
The PLA Navy also releases information about where, when, and how it is operating. Air, surface, and undersea deployments are called “combat readiness patrols” (zhanbei xunluo). Service publications regularly report on these patrols—including, perhaps surprisingly, those conducted by China’s “silent service.” For instance, one October 2014 article in People’s Navy recounts a story of Song Shouju, a submarine skipper from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet (SSF), whose diesel electric boat was prosecuted by a foreign maritime patrol aircraft and a surveillance vessel during one combat readiness patrol. According to Song, his boat was subjected to 80 hours of active sonar, placing him on the horns of a dilemma. If he surfaced, it would mean a mission failure and “put Chinese diplomacy in an awkward position” (suggesting the submarine was not operating where it should have been). But if he remained below, the boat would risk the consequences of depleting its battery. In the end, the captain decided to stay submerged until the threat had passed, which it ultimately did.1
The PLA Navy is particularly forthcoming about patrols taking place beyond the “first island chain.” These are regularly reported in the Chinese press, both in English and Chinese. In May 2016, for example, six vessels from the SSF—including three destroyers, two frigates, and an auxiliary—completed a 23-day training mission that took them through the South China, the Indian Ocean, and the western Pacific by means of the Sunda Strait, Lombok Strait, Makassar Strait, and the Bashi Channel. At least one Chinese journalist was onboard to cover the 8,000 nm voyage. Again, the available data is not limited to the movements of surface combatants. For instance, a January 2014 People’s Navy article revealed that since 2009, 10 submarines and 17 aircraft from the ESF had traversed the first island chain to conduct “far seas” operations.2 Sources like these have enabled foreign researchers such as Christopher Sharman to trace the connection between Chinese actions and its declared naval strategy.
To follow Chinese activities at sea, one need not rely on Chinese sources alone. Foreign governments also sometimes release data. Often this information is associated with a particular incident. For instance, in mid-2014, the Vietnamese press published numerous articles in English covering China’s provocative deployment of an advanced new drilling rig (HYSY-981) in disputed waters south of the Paracel Islands. More recently, Indonesia released useful information about its response to illegal Chinese fishing and coast guard activities taking place near Natuna Island.
For its part, Japan systematically issues data on Chinese presence in the waters adjacent to the Senkaku Islands. Graphical depictions of these data vividly show Chinese expansion over time, from the inaugural intrusion of two CMS vessels in December 2008 to the regular patrols that started in September 2012 and continue today. Indeed, the quality and consistency of this data has enabled foreign analysts to use quantitative methods to test theories about shifts in Chinese diplomacy.
…But Darkness Still Prevails
The information described above, while useful, nevertheless presents many problems. This is true even in the case of data on Chinese coast guard operations, which are easily the richest available to the open source researcher. A “rights protection” patrol can mean anything from a two-day sweep of the Gulf of Tonkin to a several-month mission to the southern reaches of the Spratly Archipelago. Thus, while the available data unmistakably capture the broad trends of Chinese expansion, they lack the fidelity needed for closer examination of deployment patterns. With the creation of the China Coast Guard, all this is now moot. The Chinese government no longer publishes such data, and Chinese journalists are now seldom allowed aboard ships sailing to disputed waters.
The problem is much worse in the case of the maritime militia. No Chinese agency or department systematically tracks and releases information on militia activities. Because only a portion of fishermen are members of the militia, fishing industry data is a poor proxy. Thus, there is no way to scientifically track the activities of irregular forces operating along China’s maritime frontier. We generally only learn about particular incidents, remaining largely ignorant of the context in which they take place.
Consistent data on PLA Navy activities in disputed and sensitive waters is simply not available. We do know that in recent years the service “normalized” (changtaihua) its presence in the Spratly Archipelago, but Chinese sources provide no definition of what that term means. Thus, while it is clear that the PLA Navy has augmented its surface ship patrols to these waters, we have no means to gauge the scale of that augmentation.3 In the East China Sea, Chinese sources do speak candidly about hostile encounters with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force. However, the open source researcher has few options for gauging the extent of PLA Navy presence east of the equidistant line.
There is a more fundamental problem that must be reckoned with: in most cases, the foreign observer often lacks the means to validate deployment data found in Chinese sources. Ultimately, one must take the word of the Chinese government, which naturally considers political factors—both internal and external—when issuing such content. Information released by other governments can be valuable, but foreign statesmen have their own motives. Sometimes they seek to downplay differences. For example, it is likely that for many years China and at least some Southeast Asian states had a tacit agreement not to publicize incidents at sea.
In sum, the available open source data can account for only a tiny fraction of what Chinese maritime forces are doing at sea. Moreover, the validity of information that is available must be seen as suspect. This is where naval intelligence can help.
Sharing the Spotlight
Naturally, U.S. naval intelligence professionals, particularly those in the Pacific, pay close attention to the comings and goings of Chinese maritime forces. To this end, they employ a wide variety of sources, from highly sensitive national technical means to visual sightings made by U.S. and allied forces at sea. They also optimize other resources of the U.S. intelligence community to support their mission requirements.4 Suffice it to say, the naval intelligence community is well aware of the disposition of China’s naval, coast guard, and militia forces.
The foundation of this effort is the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation (PFIF), established in September 2013 by then United States Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral Cecil Haney. The PFIF “provides direction for the organization and collaboration of the Pacific Fleet’s intelligence and cryptologic resources to support the maritime Operational Intelligence (OPINTEL) mission” of “tracking adversary ships, submarines and aircraft at sea.” It represents a level of focus and systematization not seen since the Cold War.
The PFIF is a true collaborative enterprise, involving “coordination from Sailors across multiple organizations at various echelons, afloat and ashore, working in unison 24 hours a day, seven days a week providing the most precise maritime OPINTEL to our afloat forces.”5 Efforts are “federated” across nodes in Japan, Hawaii, San Diego, and Washington D.C.6 Relevant data collected by regional allies are also included. The result is the adversary Common Operational Picture (RED COP). Through RED COP, the PFIF provides Fleet Commanders and deployed forces precise geo-coordinate level intelligence regarding the location of maritime platforms across the Pacific Fleet area of responsibility. It also contains a detailed pedigree of the sources used to identify the location of an adversary unit.
How might the USN translate RED COP into information that is valuable to the public yet does not risk sources and methods? The answer lies in the format of the transmitted product. While American forces require the detailed information contained in the RED COP, the U.S. public does not. Therefore, the USN could issue a standardized series of PowerPoint graphics that contain generic depictions of PRC maritime force disposition across the Indo-Pacific region, if not the rest of the world. Since the technology used today by PFIF watch-standers can automatically produce this type of graphic, this would involve no new burden for naval intelligence professionals.
Some may argue that placing an adversary unit in a location where there is no “plausible deniability” could expose a source or method of intelligence collection. Four factors eliminate this risk. First, the generic placement of an adversary platform on a PowerPoint graphic would, by definition, not contain the level of fidelity required to determine the source of the contact. Second, as mentioned above, nearly all locations of maritime forces at sea are derived from multiple sources. This fact further complicates the task of determining any one particular source. Third, generic graphics would be published monthly, or biweekly at the most. This would dramatically reduce the potential risk to sources and methods. Fourth, and most importantly, there may be times when the Fleet Director of Intelligence (or higher authority) may deem the location of a particular ship, submarine or aircraft to be too sensitive. In such instances, they can simply remove the platform(s) from the briefing graphics. This would provide a final, fail-safe check against revealing any sensitive intelligence collection sources or methods. Together, these four factors would eliminate the possibility of compromising sources and methods, even with sophisticated algorithms of “pattern analysis.”
Such an initiative would not be entirely without precedent. The Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) already produces the “World Wide Threat to Shipping” and “Piracy Analysis Warning Weekly” reports, which provide graphic and textual laydowns of the global maritime domain as derived from unclassified sources. The recommendations outlined in this essay would represent an expansion of current efforts under the auspices of ONI, using the PFIF’s all-source data as the primary source.
The Rewards of Mass Enlightenment
Releasing such data would immediately benefit efforts to understand Chinese maritime strategy. It would open up whole new swaths of scholarship. Chinese actions could be directly correlated to Chinese words. Incidents could be placed in their correct context. Theories about China’s pursuit and use of sea power could be proposed and tested with new levels of rigor.
Better open source analysis would also benefit the intelligence community itself. The strengths of academic scholarship—such as understanding strategic and organizational culture—could be applied to the same questions that preoccupy USN analysts, perhaps yielding fresh insights. Efforts to contextualize the activities of China’s maritime militia, for example, would be especially welcome, given its peculiar social, cultural, and political roots.
While scholarship is valuable in and of itself, the ultimate purpose of such an initiative would be to improve the ability of our democracy to respond to the China challenge. Elected officials, who ultimately decide policy, take cues from public discourse. Thus, if wise policies are to be crafted, the broader American public must be fully aware of the threat that China’s pursuit of maritime power poses to American interests. This is especially important given that any proper response would require the whole nation to bear costs and accept risks. Unlike Russia, China’s actions are carefully calibrated not to arouse a somnolent American public. This places a very high premium on information about the actions that China is taking.
To be sure, information is not an antibiotic. Ingesting it in the right quantities at the right frequencies may not cure the disease. Indeed, there is already enough data in the public domain for Americans to see the key trends. Yet there remain some very smart people who cannot, or will not, recognize the perils we face. Even so, the correct antidote to intellectual biases is ever more information; as data accumulates, the naysayers must either alter their theories or risk self-marginalization.
Sharing facts about Chinese activities at sea is not just good for democracy, it is also smart diplomacy. At this point, merely shining the spotlight on Chinese maritime expansion is unlikely to persuade China to radically alter its strategy. The China of Xi Jinping is less moved by international criticism than the China of Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin. However, releasing detailed data on Chinese activities at sea would likely have an impact on foreign publics, who will use it to draw more realistic conclusions about the implications of China’s rise. Moreover, making such information widely available would help counter spurious Chinese narratives of American actions as the root cause of instability in the Western Pacific. Both outcomes are in our national interest.
To adopt the approach advocated in this essay would require a political decision. On matters of national policy, naval intelligence professionals must yield to civilian leaders.7 In the end, then, this essay is for the politicians. And so is its last word: share with the scholars.
James E. Fanell is a retired U.S. Navy Captain whose last assignment was the Director of Intelligence and Information Operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet and is currently a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
1. 张元农, 周卓群, 李克一 [Zhang Yuannong, Zhou Zhuoqun, and Li Keyi] 潜航深海磨利刃 [“Sailing Submerged in the Deep Ocean to Sharpen Our Blade”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy], 8 October 2014, p. 3.
2. 顾曹华 [Gu Caohua] 动中抓建，铸造深蓝铁拳 [“Seize on Construction While in Action, Mold a Blue Water Iron Fist”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] 8 January 2014, p. 3.
3. 李唐 [Li Tang] 海军常态化巡逻覆盖万里海疆 [“Normalized Naval Patrols Cover the Maritime Frontier”] 人民海军 [People’s Navy] 23 June 2014, p. 1
4. James E. Fanell, Remarks at USNI/AFCEA conference panel: “Chinese Navy: Operational Challenge or Potential Partner?”, San Diego, CA, 31 January 2013.
5. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.
6. Ibid. James E. Fanell, “The Birth of the Pacific Fleet Intelligence Federation”, Naval Intelligence Professionals Quarterly, October 2013.
CDA Institute guest contributor Kurt Jensen, retired as Deputy Director of Foreign Intelligence, explores the question of accountability in intelligence activities.
“We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” said US President Franklin Roosevelt many years ago. This is no longer true. In the grip of an undefined terrorist threat, we should be very fearful about diminishing our freedoms through unlimited ‘security measures.’
Vague and statistically insignificant fears of terrorism have made us surrender privacy and other rights. But are we any safer? The recent ‘terrorist’ threats and incidents in Canada are unlikely to have been impeded by the enhanced intrusion in our lives to which we are all now subject. To ‘protect’ us, intrusive powers have been given to security agencies with little or no objective accountability. In this, Canadians are largely alone among developed nations. Canadian security and intelligence accountability has withered over the past decade, and is inadequate.
Intelligence staffs are honourable and scrupulous about adhering to the laws. But scrutiny of actions is a necessary tool of democracy. Great power and great secrecy make accountability reasonable and imperative in protecting the rights of citizens. The means employed are less important than how robust and uncompromising the instruments are. As it stands, Canada’s intelligence accountability régime is deficient.
Administrative oversight by bureaucrats and ministers is good – and necessary. But it is not a solution. Remember the old adage of ‘Who will watch the watchers.’ In Canada the answer is no one. The response to public concerns can no longer be ‘Trust us, we’re the good guys.’
We are at a democratic cross-roads. We cannot rationalize intrusive acts which are against the basic principles of what this country stands for by accepting that the actions taken are legal and sanctioned by Parliament. Nor should we assume that intelligence accountability, which is not at arms-length, is a solution to concerns about transgressions. Many of the intelligence intrusions into our democratic entitlements are likely here to stay but nothing precludes that citizens be protected by a robust accountability infrastructure.
The new Canadian government has announced that it will review the egregious Bill C-51 and has proposed the creation of a parliamentary oversight body under MP David McGuinty. This is a good first step but it is not enough.
Parliamentary accountability of intelligence is vital, and now seems inevitable. Canada may follow the British model which has, itself, evolved over time. The British model began as a Committee of Parliamentarians reporting to the Prime Minister. This changed in 2013 when it evolved into the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC), with members appointed by Parliament after considerations of nominations from the Prime Minister. A parliamentary accountability architecture would not conflict with the existing mandates of either the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) or the Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) Commissioner.
A parliamentary committee should include an active mandate to oversee all authority warranted to infringe the rights of individuals or involve potentially aggressive collection strategies beyond our borders. We cannot afford unwarranted transgressions of the rights of potentially innocent individuals. But we need more than tinkering at the edges to protect rights and freedoms.
Canada does not have adequate accountability of its intelligence activities. The Office of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) Inspector General, a modest but important part of the oversight architecture, was disbanded by the previous government to save a budgetary pittance. Only two organizations, CSIS and CSEC, are subject to any form of arms-length accountability. While these are Canada’s two major intelligence organizations, quite a few other smaller departments and agencies have niche responsibilities (Global Affairs Canada, National Defence, Canadian Border Security Agency, Transport, Finance, etc.). These are not subject to any arms-length accountability. A more robust accountability architecture would contribute to public trust.
Equally important is the need for accountability structures to have resources adequate to address realistic challenges. Neither SIRC (for CSIS) nor the small staff of the CSEC Inspector General are adequately resourced. Arms-length accountability must be credible if public confidence is to exist.
A Super-SIRC has been discussed to oversee the entire intelligence community. This is not the answer. The intelligence units employ different tradecraft, different operational spheres (domestic and foreign), and face a host of other challenges. However, a Super-SIRC administrative structure or secretariat might work if it contained separate entities tasked with looking at different intelligence units since the necessary skills to carry out oversight functions would not easily shift from Transport Intelligence to FINTRAC (Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada), for example. A Super-SIRC secretariat could oversee common functions such as the protocols involved when review agencies had to connect, share, or consult with each other when appropriate – in a sense, to ‘follow the investigate thread’ when it flows from one agency to another, as has happened between CSIS and CSEC. A second area of commonality would be for a Super-SIRC secretariat to oversee what data is provided to Canada’s intelligence partners.
An intelligence ombudsman, possibly a sitting or retired federal judge, is required to act as a court of last resort for those perceiving themselves to be penalized by the negative, illegal, or incorrect application of intelligence to their situations. People falling between the ‘intelligence cracks’ have no recourse to justice now. The media regularly reports on violations and injustices, but the media is no solution to insufficient intelligence oversight architecture.
Protecting sources and methods is imperative in the intelligence world but has become an excuse for unnecessary secrecy. Many historical intelligence files can and should be released to Library and Archives Canada for objective and arms-length evaluation by the public (i.e., mostly academics and the media). Most historical material now being held under restricted access would not compromise security. Indeed, many intelligence files are already available in Library and Archives Canada – including World War IIENIGMA material released decades ago. Releasing historical files is a confidence building measure.
Bad things happen to people who surrender freedoms without accountability. This can’t be sanctioned in a Canadian democracy. Accountability is not to be feared by those engaged in intelligence matters. Its architecture must be balanced, objective and at arms-length, and must provide an equilibrium between the rights and entitlements of citizens and the needs of national security. We’re not there now.
Dr. Kurt F. Jensen spent his career in the Canadian diplomatic service. He retired as Deputy Director of Foreign Intelligence. He is now an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University teaching courses relating to intelligence matters. (Image courtesy of Jeremy Board/Flickr.)