Increasingly powerful strategic competitors and a flat defense budget call to mind this pithy quote, often misattributed to Winston Churchill: “Gentlemen, we have run out of money; now we have to think.”The United States Navy’s historical annual shipbuilding budget can either maintain the fleet size at status quo or build a hollow force with more ships. Wargames suggest that either such fleet, as part of the joint force, would not prevail in a conflict with China. This troubling consensus has spurred the Navy to develop Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) and to overhaul the fleet in order to implement the new operational concept.
Budget justifications portray Medium Unmanned Surface Vehicles (MUSV) as both “attritable assets if used in a peer or near-peer conflict” and “key enablers of the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations concept.” American industry must build these and other key enablers even faster than the enemy can attrite them, but where? To overcome the limited capacity of American shipyards in pursuit of this requirement, Congress should develop a distributed shipbuilding industrial base through a variety of structured incentives.
Seeing First, Shooting First: the Quality of Quantity
Skeptics of the Navy’s shipbuilding plans may wonder how a small, attritable, unmanned, and presently unarmed vessel has become a “key enabler” in the Navy’s foremost warfighting concept. MUSVs will initially support “Battlespace Awareness through Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Electronic Warfare (EW).” Scouts have always been the eyes of the fleet, enabling the commander to see the battlespace better than the enemy, win the critical ISR fight, and then fire effectively first. In the age of hypersonic anti-ship weapons, taking that first accurate shot is more important than ever. DMO relies on having many sensor nodes that are widely distributed in order to see first and shoot first, but the enemy will attrite many of these scout-sensors as they navigate the maritime battlespace. The fleet will need an abundance of these scouts to begin with, and will need to acquire more at the rapid pace of attrition through a prolonged conflict.
This raises the industrial base problem, or as it were, the opportunity: How many vessels can be built, how quickly, and where?
Industrial Capacity, Lost and Gained
Eleven American shipyards cranked out 175 Fletcher-class destroyers during the Second World War – over 400,000 tons of just one class of combatants – even as the arsenal of democracy produced incredible quantities of auxiliaries, vehicles, aircraft, weapons, munitions, and many other warships. Most of those shipyards have long since closed; those that remain have little spare capacity. After COVID-19’s fiscal devastation plays out, the paltry seven ships authorized in FY21 may represent the underwhelming high water mark of the “terrible twenties.”
The existing shipbuilding base must be strengthened to maintain the legacy force structure and continue to produce substantial warships, from aircraft carriers down to the corvette-sized large unmanned surface vessel (LUSV). The shipbuilding expansion for smaller vessels such as the medium unmanned surface vessel (MUSV) must not compete for the already limited industrial capacity. The Congressional Research Service concurs, noting that such unmanned vessels “can be built and maintained by facilities other than the shipyards that currently build the Navy’s major combatant ships.” But if not existing shipyards, then where? This seeming challenge offers a unique opportunity to both grow the shipbuilding defense industrial base and broaden the sea power political base through distributed manufacturing.
The factors that have traditionally concentrated production within a shipyard have shifted over the past few decades: Computer aided design (CAD) allows engineering teams to span continents and work around the clock on the same project. Computer Numerical Controlled (CNC) machines create parts that fit together as precisely as they appeared on the monitor, even if the parts came from facilities thousands of miles apart. Supply chain engineering then brings these disparate parts into a faster and potentially more robust assembly process.
However, the feasibility and economy of transporting large and heavy objects has changed little. Size matters: just because a given component or subassembly can be produced down the road or across the country does not mean that it should be. Until recently, the vessels that mattered in naval warfare – or even their major subassemblies – were just too big and heavy for overland transport. Vessels that could be transported overland lacked the range and payload to count for much in combat. The convergent effects of miniaturization, automation, and fuel efficiency have changed that calculus, as exemplified by the Sea Hunter’s increasingly capable autonomy and 10,000 nautical mile range. The Sea Hunter and future MUSV classes will indeed contribute to the fleet in meaningful ways, yet at 45 to 190 feet long, they can also be transported (in whole or in part) from places that only Noah would recognize as a shipyard.
The Navy should develop and incentivize a more robust and distributed shipbuilding industrial base by expanding far beyond traditional shipyards and deliberately incorporating non-traditional suppliers. Not only would such an expansion increase competition and manufacturing capacity, but it would also allow ship production to quickly accelerate in crisis or war. Thanks to digital manufacturing, such a shift in production could happen overnight, unlike the laborious retooling and retraining process that civilian factories undertook to produce war materiel in the previous century.
Many different American manufacturing facilities with advanced industrial tools, such as large CNC routers, CNC welding machines, and 3D printers, could produce the bulk of each attritable vessel. Such facilities could even produce complete knockdown kits for metal-hulled MUSVs, or partial kits for the innards of composite-hulled vessels. The hulls of the latter, like Sea Hunter and Sea Hunter II, could be produced by any maritime, automotive, or aerospace company with the space to store a large mold and the competence to pop out the composite hull forms on demand. Facilities with appropriate workforce and machinery would assemble these widely sourced components into major subassemblies for larger MUSVs, ready for final assembly in the shipyard. These facilities would likewise assemble vessels on the smaller end of the MUSV range, up to about 70 feet and 40 tons, for direct transport to a launch site and subsequent deployment.
All of this would require a large number of small- and medium-sized manufacturers to participate in a responsive and agile defense logistics supply chain. Few would use such words to describe the defense logistics supply chain today; improving it will take foresight, investment, naval initiative, and congressional action.
Industry has long lamented how hard it is to work with the Department of Defense. Many small companies vote with their feet after a few failed attempts, forgoing the DoD’s labyrinthine processes, extensive contracting requirements, and uncertain – if sometimes substantial – cash flows. A dwindling number of prime contractors act as a lucrative boundary layer between the byzantine defense acquisition requirements and the subcontractors, who find their niche exotic technology far easier to understand than defense contracting. Building a broader shipbuilding industrial base will require creative incentives and even fiduciary seduction to break through this status quo.
Inspired by the Department of Transportation’s very modest Small Shipyard Grants program, the proposed Distributed Manufacturing for Seapower Grants program would offer partial grants, competitively bid, to small companies for the purchase of advanced manufacturing machinery. However, this industrial equipment subsidy would also come with a contractual catch to integrate the manufacturer into the defense supply chain, or even – if required – compel production on the subsidized equipment. Some portion of the equipment subsidy would be recouped through an initially reduced contractual profit margin, reflecting the government’s capital financing investment, after which a higher profit margin would apply.
As with any contract, the incentives would be critical for success. This scheme would incentivize small manufacturers to join the defense industrial base with an initial contract and the means to perform it, while also establishing the relationship and familiarity to the larger process that can produce many items beyond the parts and pieces of modest vessels such as the MUSV.
The challenges of defense logistics are less about producing a part and more about the rest of the supply chain. Punching out a widget is just the beginning.
Creating Responsive Supply Chains
The Navy can help start improving the industrial base now by drafting modest vessel designs that incorporate manufacturing speed and ease of production as key performance parameters, and then contract a few of each model as a means to mature the design. The program office would also establish supply chain management targets and constraints for production optimization, such as required vessel deployment location, shipping costs, required installation date, manufacturing base health, item cost, and net time to build.
After receiving congressional budget appropriation for producing a given vessel, the program office would send requisitions for specified parts, subassembly production, and final vessel assembly to an automated clearinghouse, where these jobs would be offered to the capable manufacturers. Those manufacturers would bid on each job. If no one bids for a given job, the program office could compel manufacturing but pay a higher profit margin for the option. The winning bid may not be the lowest nominal bid because it should be the lowest total cost to government, to include considerations of production speed and shipping costs. All of these considerations would be continually integrated into the optimization model through machine learning.
Inspired by the Military Sealift Command’s turbo activation drills, the program office would hold component production drills and then stockpile the resultant knock-down kits near shipyards within vessel self-deployment range of likely trouble spots. The systems and internal components of a composite-hulled vessel – the engines, steering gear, sensors, electronics, etc. – would be assembled into compact kits, ready for the hulls to come out of molds and join them at the assembly site. Turbo activation for final vessel assembly from these pre-assembled kits would demonstrate the ability to churn out vessels at an incredible pace, and also help further refine the production process. In wartime, this process would be exercised in earnest to meet the furious pace of naval attrition.
With a demonstrated competence in rapidly producing, assembling, and deploying these vessels, the Navy could forego the anticipatory construction of a large fleet of wasting assets, which eat up operations and maintenance funds as they slowly degrade pierside.
Policy Engineering and Distributed Political Operations
Shipbuilding has an understandable association with maritime states, which can limit its political appeal for certain landlocked constituencies. Although the proposed expansion in the defense shipbuilding industrial base has a strategic logic founded in resiliency, competition, and flexibility, the investments and skilled jobs accompanying this expansion far beyond the usual maritime districts would also broaden the congressional shipbuilding caucus. Witness how the F-35 program spread economic benefits throughout 45 of the 50 states, gathering predictably broad congressional support. The LCS program did one better, in defiance of all programmatic logic, by never even down-selecting to a single seaframe. The LCS program’s budgetary-political logic, on the other hand, was airtight: All else being equal, an industrial base that is widely distributed will receive better budgetary consideration, particularly if it has concentrations in certain key districts.
With a growing bipartisan consensus that the nation needs a larger Navy to meet growing global security challenges, the time to act is now.
Lieutenant Commander Collin Fox, U.S. Navy, is a foreign area officer who recently served as the Navy and Air Force Section Chief at the Office of Defense Cooperation, U.S. Embassy, Panama. He earned a master of systems analysis degree from the Naval Postgraduate School and a master of naval and maritime science degree from the Chilean Naval War College. He has also published with the U.S. Naval Institute and War on the Rocks.
Featured Image: September 16, 1989 – The guided missile destroyer Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) enters the Kennebec River after being launched down the ways at the Bath Iron Works shipyard. (U.S. National Archives, photo by PH2 James Saylor)
ByTrevor Phillips-Levine, Dylan Phillips-Levine, and Walker D. Mills
In August 2020, USNI News reported that the Navy had “initiated work to develop its first new carrier-based fighter in almost 20 years.” While the F-35C Lightning II will still be in production for many years, the Navy needs to have another fighter ready to replace the bulk of the F/A-18E/F/G Super Hornets and Growlers by the mid-2030s. This new program will design that aircraft. While this is an important development, it will be to the Navy’s detriment if the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program yields a manned fighter.
Designing a next-generation manned aircraft will be a critical mistake. Every year remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) replace more and more manned aviation platforms, and artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming ever increasingly capable. By the mid-2030s, when the NGAD platform is expected to begin production, it will be obsolete on arrival if it is a manned platform. In order to make sure the Navy maintains a qualitative and technical edge in aviation, it needs to invest in an unmanned-capable aircraft today. Recent advances and long-term trends in automation and computing make it clear that such an investment is not only prudent but necessary to maintain capability overmatch and avoid falling behind.
This year, AI designed by a team from Heron Systems defeated an Air Force pilot, call sign “Banger,” 5-0 in a simulated dogfight run by DARPA. Though the dogfight was simulated and had numerous constraints, it was only the latest in a long string of AI successes in competitions against human masters and experts.
It’s a joke, but the company is right. AI is getting better and better every year and human abilities will continue to be bested by AI in increasingly complex and abstract tasks. History shows that human experts have been repeatedly surprised by AI’s rapid progress and their predictions on when AI will reach human parity in specific tasks often come true years or a decade early. We can’t make the same mistake with unmanned aviation.
Most of these competitive AIs use machine learning. A subset of machine learning is deep reinforcement learning which uses biologically inspired evolutionary techniques to pit a model against itself over and over. Models that that are more successful at accomplishing the specific goal – such as winning at Go or identifying pictures of tigers, continue on. It is like a giant bracket, except that the AI can compete against itself millions or even billions of times in preparation to compete against a human. Heron Systems’ AI, which defeated the human pilot, had run over four billion simulations before the contest. The creators called it “putting a baby in the cockpit.” The AI was given almost no instructions on how to fly, so even basic practices like not crashing into the ground were things it had to learn through trial and error.
This type of ‘training’ has advantages – algorithms can come up with moves that humans have never thought of, or use maneuvers humans would not choose to utilize. In the Go matches between Lee SeDol and AlphaGo, the AI made a move on turn 37, in game two, that shocked the audience and SeDol. Fan Hui, a three-time European Go champion and spectator of the match said, “It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move.” It is possible that the move had never been played before in the history of the game. In the AlphaDogfight competition, the AI favored aggressive head-on gun attacks. This tactic is considered high-risk and prohibited in training. Most pilots wouldn’t attempt it in combat. But an AI could. AI algorithms can develop and employ maneuvers that human pilots wouldn’t think of or wouldn’t attempt. They can be especially unpredictable in combat against humans because they aren’t human.
An AI also offers significant advantages over humans in piloting an aircraft because it is not limited by biology. An AI can make decisions in fractions of a second and simultaneously receive input from any number of sensors. It never has to move its eyes or turn its head to get a better look. In high-speed combat where margins are measured in seconds or less, this speed matters. An AI also never gets tired – it is immune to the human factors of being a pilot. It is impervious to emotion, mental stress, and arguably the most critical inhibitor, the biological stresses of high-G maneuvers. Human pilots have a limit to their continuous high-G maneuver endurance. In the AlphaDogfight, both the AI and “Banger,” the human pilot, spent several minutes in continuous high-G maneuvers. While high G-maneuvers would be fine for an AI, real combat would likely induce loss of consciousness or G-LOC for human pilots.
Design and Mission Profiles
Aircraft, apart from remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs), are designed with a human pilot in mind. It is inherent to the platform that it will have to carry a human pilot and devote space and systems to all the necessary life support functions. Many of the maximum tolerances the aircraft can withstand are bottlenecked not by the aircraft itself, but to its pilot. An unmanned aircraft do not have to worry about protecting a human pilot or carrying one. It can be designed solely for the mission.
Aviation missions are also limited to the endurance of human pilots, where there is a finite number of hours a human can remain combat effective in a cockpit. Using unmanned aircraft changes that equation so that the limit is the capabilities of the aircraft and systems itself. Like surveillance drones, AI-piloted aircraft could remain on station for much longer than human piloted aircraft and (with air-to-air refueling) possibly for days.
The future operating environment will be less and less forgiving for human pilots. Decisions will be made at computational speed which outpaces a human OODA loop. Missiles will fly at hypersonic speeds and directed energy weapons will strike targets at the speed of light. Lockheed Martin has set a goal for mounting lasers on fighter jets by 2025. Autonomous aircraft piloted by AI will have distinct advantages in the future operating environment because of the quickness of its ability to react and the indefinite sustainment of that reaction speed. The Navy designed the Phalanx system to be autonomous in the 1970s and embedded doctrine statements into the Aegis combat system because it did not believe that humans could react fast enough in the missile age threat environment. The future will be even more unforgiving with a hypersonic threat environment and decisions made at the speed of AI that will often trump those made at human speeds in combat.
Unmanned aircraft are also inherently more “risk worthy” than manned aircraft. Commanders with unmanned aircraft can take greater risks and plan more aggressive missions that would have featured an unacceptably low probability of return for manned missions. This increased flexibility will be essential in rolling back and dismantling modern air defenses and anti-access, area-denial networks.
Unmanned is Already Here
The U.S. military already flies hundreds of large RPAs like the MQ-9 Predator and thousands of smaller RPAs like the RQ-11 Raven. It uses these aircraft for reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and strike. The Marine Corps has flown unmanned cargo helicopters in Afghanistanand other cargo-carrying RPAs and autonomous aircraft have proliferated in the private sector. These aircraft have been displacing human pilots in the cockpit for decades with human pilots now operating from the ground. The dramatic proliferation of unmanned aircraft over the last two decades has touched every major military and conflict zone. Even terrorists and non-state actors are leveraging unmanned aircraft for both surveillance and strike.
The Air Force too has been investing in unmanned combat aircraft. The unmanned “loyal wingman” drone is already being tested and in 2019 the service released its Artificial Intelligence Strategy arguing that “AI is a capability that will underpin our ability to compete, deter and win.” The service is also moving forward with testing their “Golden Horde,” an initiative to create a lethal swarm of autonomous drones.
The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (U.S. Air Force video)
The Marine Corps has also decided to bet heavily on an unmanned future. In the recently released Force Design 2030 Report, the Commandant of the Marine Corps calls for doubling the Corps’ unmanned squadrons. Marines are also designing unmanned ground vehicles that will be central to their new operating concept, Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) and new, large unmanned aircraft. Department of the Navy leaders have said that they would not be surprised if as much as 50 percent of Marine Corps aviation is unmanned “relatively soon.” The Marine Corps is also investing in a new “family of systems” to meet its requirement for ship-launched drones. With so much investment in other unmanned and autonomous platforms, why is the Navy not moving forward on an unmanned NGAD?
An autonomous, next-generation combat aircraft for the Navy faces several criticisms. Some concerns are valid while others are not. Critics can rightly point out that AI is not ready yet. While this is certainly true, it likely will be ready enough by the mid-2030s when the NGAD is reaching production. 15 years ago, engineers were proud of building a computer that could beat Gary Kasparov at chess. Today, AIs have mastered ever more complex real-time games and aerial dogfighting. One can only expect AI will make a similar if not greater leap in the next 15 years. We need to be future-proofing future combat aircraft. So the question should not be, “Is AI ready now?” but, “Will AI be ready in 15 years when NGAD is entering production?”
Critics of lethal autonomy should note that it is already here. Loitering munitions are only the most recent manifestation of weapons without “a human in the loop.” The U.S. military has employed autonomous weapons ever since Phalanx was deployed on ships in the 1970s, and more recently with anti-ship missiles featuring intelligent seeker heads. The Navy is also simultaneously investing in autonomous surface vessels and unmanned helicopters, proving that there is room for lethal autonomy in naval aviation.
Some have raised concerns that autonomous aircraft can be hacked and RPAs can have their command and control links broken, jammed, or hijacked. But these concerns are no more valid with unmanned aircraft than manned aircraft. Modern 5th generation aircraft are full of computers, networked systems, and use fly-by-wire controls. A hacked F-35 will be hardly different than a hacked unmanned aircraft, except there is a human trapped aboard. In the case of RPAs, they have “lost link” protocols that can return them safely to base if they lose contact with a ground station.
Unfortunately, perhaps the largest obstacle to an unmanned NGAD is imagination. Simply put, it is difficult for Navy leaders, often pilots themselves, to imagine a computer doing a job that they have spent years mastering. They often consider it as much an art as a science. But these arguments sound eerily similar to arguments made by mounted cavalry commanders in the lead up to the Second World War. As late as 1939, Army General John K. Kerr argued that tanks could not replace horses on the battlefield. He wrote: “We must not be misled to our own detriment to assume that the untried machine can displace the proved and tried horse.” Similarly, the U.S. Navy was slow to adopt and trust search radars in the Second World War. Of their experience in Guadalcanal, historian James D. Hornfischer wrote, “…The unfamiliar power of a new technology was seldom a match for a complacent human mind bent on ignoring it.” Today we cannot make the same mistakes.
The future of aviation is unmanned aircraft – whether remotely piloted, autonomously piloted, or a combination. There is simply no reason that a human needs to be in the cockpit of a modern, let alone next-generation aircraft. AI technology is progressing rapidly and consistently ahead of estimates. If the Navy waits to integrate AI into combat aircraft until it is mature, it will put naval aviation a decade or more behind.
Platforms being designed now need to be engineered to incorporate AI and future advances. Human pilots will not be able to compete with mature AI – already pilots are losing to AI in dogfights; arguably the most complex part of their skillset. The Navy needs to design the next generation of combat aircraft for unmanned flight or it risks making naval aviation irrelevant in the future aerial fight.
Trevor Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the F/A-18 “Super Hornet” in support of operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom and is currently serving as a department head in VFA-2. He can been reached on Twitter @TPLevine85.
Dylan Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the T-6B “Texan II” as an instructor and the MH-60R “Seahawk.” He is currently serving as an instructor in the T-34C-1 “Turbo-Mentor” as an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine navy. He can be reached on Twitter @JooseBoludo.
Walker D. Mills is a captain in the Marines. An infantry officer, he is currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy. He is an Associate Editor at CIMSEC and an MA student at the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. You can find him on twitter @WDMills1992.
Featured Image: The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrator, a long-range, high subsonic unmanned air vehicle completed its inaugural flight March 5, 2019 at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. (DoD)
Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.
“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.
By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez
A deployment by the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Stone (WMSL-758) to the South Atlantic, and two coast guard patrol vesselsdonated by the Korea Coast Guard (KCG) to the Ecuadorian Navy, are some of the latest initiatives by South America’s partners to help regional navies combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As large, extra-hemispheric fishing fleets continue to actively operate close to South American waters, often crossing into the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of regional states, navies require additional ships and the physical presence of partner navies to combat these crimes. In the vast waters of the South Pacific and South Atlantic, every ship counts.
The Current Status of the Extra-Regional Fleet
IUU is a constant problem across Latin American waters, both in the South Pacific and South Atlantic. At the time of this writing, the large, extra-hemispheric fishing fleet that operated in international waters close to Ecuador’s EEZ (see the author’s October 16, 2020 commentary “TIAR 21: Maritime security, the TIAR, and IUU fishing in the Western Hemisphere”) has crossed to the South Atlantic. The fleet gained international notoriety when it operated close to the Galapagos Islands, close to Ecuador, in mid-2020.
It has since then voyaged south, passing by Peru and Chile. After monitoring the fleet as it navigated close to its waters, the Chilean Navy reported that some 233 extra-hemispheric fishing vessels, mostly Chinese but also from South Korea and other nations, have crossed the Magellan Strait and Cape Horn to reach the South Atlantic.
The U.S. Coast Guard Helps South American Partners
The U.S. Coast Guard has deployed its new Legend-class cutter Stone to the South Atlantic to cooperate with the navies of Guyana, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, as well as Portugal, to help combat IUU fishing.
Stone departed from the U.S. in late December and has already passed by Guyana, where it carried out maneuvers with the coast guards of Guyana to combat IUU fishing in the area as part of Operation Southern Cross. In engaging with Brazil, the crew of the Stone “conducted engagements and training on communications and law enforcement procedures at the Mocangue Naval Complex in Rio de Janeiro. At sea, Stone worked with the patrol vessel Guaiba and the offshore patrol vessel Amazonas to patrol jointly and practice maneuvering together,” explained the U.S. Coast Guard to the author. Stone docked in Montevideo, Uruguay, in late January.
For Latin American states, it is always helpful when a (modern) vessel from one of its partners travels to the region to provide assistance with surveillance and, if necessary, interception operations of suspicious vessels that may be engaged in activities like IUU fishing, smuggling narcotics, among other maritime crimes. However, vessels like Stone cannot be in the South Atlantic perpetually, and so it is up to regional navies to cooperate with each other and improve their capacities to combat these crimes.
The Importance of Ports in the Fight Against IUU Fishing
A spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs explained to the author that the U.S. government “supports and promotes the implementation of the Agreement on Port State Measures (PSMA), a groundbreaking treaty designed to ensure catch from illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels cannot be offloaded in ports and enter the global market.” If implemented in an effective manner, “the PSMA can close gaps and weak points so that fishing vessels conducting IUU fishing activities have minimal opportunities to circumvent the rules,” the spokesperson explained. South American countries like Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, and Uruguay are already parties to the PSMA.
Uruguay is an interesting case study of efforts to combat IUU fishing. The country has very limited naval assets and a vast sea that is plagued by IUU fishing (see the author’s October 12, 2016 commentary for CIMSEC: “The UNCLCS Ruling and the Future of the Uruguayan Navy”). Therefore, in a positive development, “the government of Uruguay, consistent with the Port State Measures Agreement, will require certification from all large fishing ships to demonstrate they have not been engaged in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing by requiring Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) location data. Uruguay is also increasing the number of its fishing vessel inspectors by 33 percent,” explained the Bureau to the author. The announcement was made during the 25-27 January visit of Stone to the South American nation.
Moreover, it is worth noting that Washington has an “ongoing multiyear partnership in the Caribbean with the [Food and Agriculture Organization] to support PSMA implementation and other instruments to combat IUU fishing in the Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Trinidad and Tobago.” Extra-hemispheric fishing fleets (e.g. from China) do not operate in Caribbean waters, but the region still has to combat IUU fishing. Therefore, support from the U.S., particularly via the U.S. Coast Guard, but also from other agencies, is key to protecting Caribbean marine life.
The KCG Ecuadorian-Partnership
In mid-December, the Ecuadorian Navy presented its two new secondhand patrol boats. The vessels were operated by the Korean Coast Guard from the early 1990s until they were decommissioned in 2019 and 2020. The Haeuri-class vessels have an overall length of 54 meters, a displacement of 300 tons, and were manufactured by Hyundai Heavy Industries.
The two ships were transported from South Korea to Ecuador aboard the general cargo ship Atlantic Harmony; they departed South Korea in mid-November and arrived in mid-December. It is expected that the vessels will be commissioned into the fleet in early 2021.
Prior to their commissioning, maintenance for the new ships will be provided by the Ecuadorian state-run shipyard ASTINAVE, a shipyard spokesperson explained to the author. The shipyard’s operations, like building new vessels and maintaining the rest of the fleet, make ASTINAVE a critical pillar of the country’s defense strategy, the spokesperson explained.
The two ships are a welcome addition to the Ecuadorian fleet for patrol operations. In fact, according to reports, the ships will be utilized to patrol the Galapagos Islands in order to protect these natural reserves from IUU fishing.
In a statement, Commissioner General of the Korea Coast Guard Kim Hong Hee highlighted the importance of this transfer: “previously, the vessels 302 and 303 had successfully completed the missions of protecting the marine resources and safeguarding the maritime sovereignty surrounding the Jeju island, South Korea. They will be once again serving the cause after arriving at the Guayaquil Port of Ecuador.”
Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is a global problem that requires short- and long-term strategies, including greater cooperation between the governments of nations whose waters are constantly suffering from predatory fishing. This is the case of many Latin American nations, as navies are monitoring their EEZs to locate, shadow, and if necessary, intercept extra-hemispheric fishing vessels.
In 2020, a major international fishing fleet of over 300 vessels, many of them from China, made global headlines as they operated close to the cherished Galapagos Islands. However, while global media attention has moved on to other issues, the fleet is still close to South American waters, with some 233 vessels reportedly crossing from the South Pacific to the South Atlantic. The vast number of fishing vessels means that regional navies require more ships, not to mention more maritime patrol aircraft, to maintain a vigilant presence across vast bodies of water.
This is why the deployment of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Stone, in addition to other support provided by Washington, and the donation by the Korea Coast Guard to the Ecuadorian Navy of two decommissioned patrol vessels, are welcome developments. “I hope that the two patrol vessels will become invaluable assets for Ecuador, which is also affected by the spread of the coronavirus, contributing to protecting the Galapagos islands designated as one of the UNESCO Natural Heritage sites,” commented KCG Commissioner General Kim Hong Hee in November as Atlantic Harmony departed for Latin America.
As extra-hemispheric fishing fleets will continue to operate in a predatory manner close, if not within the EEZs of South American nations, greater cooperation and an active physical presence in these vast waters will remain mandatory.
Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong to the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.
Featured Image: Guyana Coast Guard small boats patrol alongside the USCGC Stone (WMSL 758) off Guyana’s coast on Jan. 9, 2021. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hightower)