Focus on the Fundamentals: The Siren Song of Technology in Maritime Security

By Jamie Jones and Ian Ralby

What good is the world’s most advanced “dark targeting” platform to uncover previously untraceable vessels if the local navy, coast guard, or marine police cannot stop the crime?

Instead of being wooed by “game-changing” technologies, maritime security professionals should focus on ensuring their organizations can perform critical functions first. Similarly, professionals who partner with chronically under-resourced organizations should focus on assisting with basic functions instead of dangling “silver bullets” that promise to solve all their woes.

The Problem

The maritime security sector is under a constant barrage of hype about “game-changing” technology, particularly when it comes to maritime domain awareness (MDA). Maritime domain awareness is the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, the economy, or the marine environment. Several technological platforms are purported to “revolutionize” MDA with the promise of significantly improving countries’ abilities to govern their waters. Prominent examples include synthetic aperture radar (SAR), radio frequency identification (RFID), electro-optical (EO) satellite imagery, and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that use data from the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to evaluate vessels’ historical actions and predict future behavior. One company purports to be able to “quickly develop machine learning models to solve problems taking place in the vastness of the world’s oceans.” Similarly, new satellite-based technology supplied by the Quad (the United States, Australia, India, and Japan) is expected to help smaller island nations govern their waters.

Being able to watch bad actors on the water is not the same as being able to do anything to stop them. By itself, MDA has little deterrent effect: the waters will still be ungoverned if a country has no way to legally or operationally act upon what it sees. While new MDA technology can be exciting, the siren song of “shiny new toys” risks confusing maritime voyeurism with more assertive and effective action. For many countries, simply watching bad actors harm without the ability to stop them is frustrating. The constant stream of new—but sometimes proprietary or otherwise incompatible—technology can even create a disincentive to act and enable policy procrastination. Some policymakers want the equivalent of closed caption television on the water before they are willing to take action against problems like human trafficking, illegal fishing, and smuggling of drugs and weapons.

Before jumping to advanced technology, it is vital to be able to rigorously and systematically analyze MDA data from any source; have a repeatable, documentable mechanism for sharing that analysis with operators who can act on it promptly; have the capacity to plan and execute interdiction operations in a manner that also collects and preserves evidence; have a well-defined process for handing a maritime case over to the land-based authorities; and, ultimately pursue a legal finish that includes a penalty commensurate with the offense.

Man in the Loop

MDA technology cannot supplant humans; most Maritime Operations Centers (MOCs) run by militaries and law enforcement agencies employ several MDA analysts round-the-clock. These experts are needed to interpret what they see and then communicate their analysis to authorities who can act on this information and knowledge. In countries that lack funding or technical infrastructure for flashy MDA platforms, humans are even more important to the maritime security equation.

A well-trained analyst can, and must, perform functions that technology cannot. For example, to understand what might be happening in the water, the analyst must understand what should be happening. Understanding this context requires knowledge of local customs and culture, knowledge of a particular area’s fishing patterns, shipping routes, the effects of weather, seasonal dynamics, and knowledge of what is “normal” for that area. Indeed, relying only on technology may give the country a false sense of security, seeing some of what is happening in its waters without an in-depth understanding of the context.

Analysts must also be trained in maritime enforcement jurisdiction so they can understand what activities the country can pursue in each of the maritime zones their country has claimed.

Perfect Awareness is Useless without Action

The latest MDA technology often comes with a hefty price tag. Synthetic Aperture Radar capability, for example, is expensive and even analysts who are skilled at using other MDA sources cannot simply look at the blurry images of what amounts to satellite-based radar and make sense of it. That said, a suitably trained analyst looking at such radar captures in combination with other technology to correlate it to AIS data can help gain a clearer understanding of what is happening at sea. But this means that the expensive SAR data has to be paired with other expensive technology and a well-trained analyst for it to be of value. Even if these systems are provided cost-free, and analysts can translate the data into a useful understanding of actionable anomalies, interdictions still cannot occur without vessels on the water.

With initiatives such as the Australian and Japanese Patrol Boat programs, numerous developing nations now have access to vessels well-suited for patrolling their waters. These vessels, however, require well-trained crews, along with funding for fuel and maintenance to make them useful. In some countries, the government’s entire maritime force is required just to operate the vessel, which understandably discourages the frequency of its use. Access to parts, maintenance, fuel, and provisions conspire to keep these vessels pier side. Consistent funding and training for crews and boarding officers to interdict suspect vessels are necessary.

Though not as alluring as slick MDA technology, funding for the basic needs required to patrol waters should be prioritized over new technologies. Without basic operational capacity and capability, no amount of MDA will make a country’s waters safer, more secure, more stable, or more prosperous.

The other component to action besides “boots on deck” is the legal finish or the successful adjudication of a maritime offense. Indeed, a meaningful penalization through an adjudicative process is often the only effective deterrent to criminal activity in a country’s waters.

Behind a properly trained and funded boarding team are investigators trained in maritime cases. The investigators are critical to putting together a prosecutable case. Furthermore, prosecutors must be well-versed and well-trained in maritime law to successfully prosecute maritime crimes. And finally, the law itself must be fit for purpose, addressing the full spectrum of maritime offenses that are being pursued by criminal actors in the country’s waters.

The legal finish requires human resources. Human resources planning is difficult: it takes time to plan how many operations the country may need to conduct each year, and how many people need to be in place and trained to enable said operations. It requires recruiting the right people, funding their training, and then also a plan for retaining them once they are trained. Indeed, human resources are a significant, but necessary investment. Planning and funding for human resources may not sound as glamorous as showcasing the latest drone or artificial intelligence platform. But without human resources, the technology leaves the State’s deterrent capabilities impotent.


Flashy new technologies can be fun to play with, and some are truly useful. Still, they are only part of the equation for providing maritime security, and not necessarily the most important. To be useful, these tools must be paired with institutional capacity to analyze data, share information, plan and execute operations, collect evidence, handover to land authorities, conduct investigations, prosecute, adjudicate, penalize, and, when necessary, both legislate and regulate to account for changes in the security environment. Indeed, it is healthy and helpful to be skeptical of how much any technology will “solve” problems that require human expertise and human responses to be wielded effectively. It behooves those with meager budgets, and those trying to help partners with meager budgets, to focus funding and attention on building the skills and institutions needed to use the MDA technology that is already available, as well as whatever the future may hold. Every State should strive for maximum efficiency, effectiveness, and impact regarding maritime security concerns it can already see before pursuing a heightened visibility that may leave it watching bad actors without the wherewithal to stop them. 

Jamie Jones is a legal institutional capacity-building attorney with the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) focusing on maritime security in the Pacific Island Nations. She earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture from Kansas State University, a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and her law degree from Washburn University’s School of Law. 

Dr. Ian Ralby is a recognized expert in maritime and resource security. He has worked in more than 95 countries around the world, often assisting them with developing their maritime domain awareness capacity. He holds a JD from William & Mary and a PhD from the University of Cambridge. 

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

Featured Image: The ship Xin Lian Yun Gang seen in the Port of Rotterdam. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

One thought on “Focus on the Fundamentals: The Siren Song of Technology in Maritime Security”

  1. Fully supported. Having worked in Somalia, and now Tunisia, “shiny things” are often more desirable and ‘look good’. The funding aspect to maintain a Capability@Readiness is another concern and need to be balanced with doing proper maintenance as well.

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