Human Intelligence: The Missing Piece to Comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness

By Jay Benson

The Challenge of Maritime Domain Awareness

To effectively govern the maritime space, states need an accurate picture of what is happening and where in order to establish normal “patterns of life” at sea. With this picture, states can identify suspicious activity and task assets to respond. This ability to collect, analyze, share, and respond to information in the maritime realm is often called maritime domain awareness (MDA).

This is a challenging task for any state, much less those with relatively limited resources and assets in the maritime realm. Combined territorial waters and exclusive economic zones are huge spaces to monitor and, for many states , this “maritime domain” is much larger than their total land area. What’s more, this maritime domain is an incredibly active space. Tens of thousands of shipping vessels, millions of fishing boats, and other vessels, registered and otherwise, traverse the seas on a daily basis for an incredibly diverse set of licit and illicit purposes. It can be an overwhelming scope of activity for many states around the world to monitor

States have largely sought to establish MDA through the use of high-tech, high-cost solutions like technical information collection platforms (e.g., coastal radar systems, and tracking shipping through AIS) and deploying costly air and sea patrols These are important elements of robust MDA, but few states possess the resources to implement all of these tools.

Given this strain on resources it may be useful for maritime security policy makers to make more effective use of another, less utilized, form of information collection in the maritime space – human intelligence.

Human Intelligence in the Maritime Space: A Force Multiplier

Human intelligence, which refers to the collection and analysis of information from a variety of human sources, is widely acknowledged as a vital component of all-source intelligence collection and national security. However, it is largely underutilized in the maritime space.

Human intelligence in maritime security could replicate the successes of community relations initiatives in counterinsurgent and policing operations onshore. Developing strong relationships between civilian populations and security forces can help improve the legitimacy of their operations in the eyes of civilians and begin to build a basis for information-sharing that enhances the effectiveness of law enforcement operations. This is no less true in the maritime space.

The oceans, and coastal waters in particular, are not empty spaces. Shipping vessels, industrial and artisanal fishing fleets, ferries, offshore hydrocarbon installations, and ports are all active across a wide geographic area and around the clock. Individuals working in offshore and coastal spaces develop an intimate knowledge of the normal pattern of life at sea in their areas of operation. They have the potential to be the eyes and ears necessary to develop stronger MDA for resource-constrained states around the world. They can see the signs of potential IUU fishing, human trafficking, piracy, and other forms of maritime crime that might evade sparse patrols and technical information collection platforms designed to monitor larger vessels. These civilians in the maritime space have a vested interest in its security. By building stronger relationships with members of this community, maritime enforcement authorities can improve maritime security while using scarce resources more efficiently.

The Path Forward: Building Relationships and Reporting Channels

States can realize the potential of expanded human intelligence for MDA by increasing positive interactions with relevant maritime and coastal communities and developing quick and effective reporting mechanisms.

If the only reason a coast guard vessel ever approaches civilians is to fine them for fishing practices or confiscate irregularly exchanged goods, they are unlikely to develop into a source of information. The relationship must be more than punitive. Friendly welfare checks on vessels engaged in fishing and small-scale trade would increase positive interactions and build trust.

States can also build positive relationships with more inclusive policy-making. Consultations with coastal communities on fishing, environmental, and maritime infrastructure policies can help ensure the resulting regulations respect the needs of the communities they impact and reflect input from relevant stakeholders. This community involvement helps build the legitimacy of the rules of the road in the maritime space, which navies and maritime law enforcement entities must then administer. As a result, maritime communities will be much more likely to be willing to provide valuable information to enforcement entities regarding potential illicit activity at sea.

In addition, states can develop convenient and efficient mechanisms for reporting information to maritime enforcement agencies. Civilians active in the maritime space cannot effectively contribute to the situational awareness of maritime enforcement entities if they do not know how to report information on suspicious activity. Clear, easy, and secure reporting platforms will be critical.

One example of this can be seen in recent efforts undertaken by Malaysia. In 2017, the Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency launched the K3M app which was intended to facilitate instantaneous reporting of maritime incidents with the goal of shortening response times. When an incident occurs, the app can provide the user’s exact location and creates a direct link between civilians in the maritime space and coastal communities with a Malaysian maritime security operations center. The app can also be used to communicate news and safety warnings to the maritime community. It has an estimated 4,000 users and plans are in place to increase the coverage of this reporting platform through the use of satellite signals.

Another unique example is the “Caught Red-Handed” project. A joint civil society-UNODC initiative, the project seeks to help states in the Western Indian Ocean collect and analyze human intelligence related to fisheries crime. The project focuses on how to collect human intelligence on fisheries violations systematically, communicate this intelligence to the appropriate maritime enforcement entities in a given jurisdiction, and ensure the intelligence can be utilized as evidence for prosecution. While this project focuses explicitly on fisheries crime, such training could be useful for improving the efficient and responsible use of human intelligence to combat the wide variety of crimes navies and maritime law enforcement entities face, including illicit trades, maritime migration and human trafficking, piracy and armed robbery, and environmental crimes.

Creative efforts of this kind have the potential to be a cost-effective means of ensuring that maritime enforcement agencies are responsive to the needs of the maritime community, strengthening the relationship between law enforcement and civilians in the maritime space, and enlisting the maritime community to actively contribute to maritime domain awareness.


The scope of security challenges that exist in the maritime domain requires the use of all possible options to collect information and intelligence to inform the efforts of maritime enforcement agencies. To this point, much of the attention and resources channeled toward enhancing MDA have gone to expensive technical collection platforms. These platforms provide valuable intelligence, but they are only a part of all-source maritime intelligence and a comprehensive approach to MDA development.

Tapping into the extensive presence of civilians in the maritime space for information collection can help complete the picture. Such information collection from the maritime community may be a particularly important and cost-effective way of building MDA for the many states around the globe without the resources to acquire and operate expensive technical collection platforms. For these states in particular, building strong relationships with maritime and coastal communities and providing them with clear reporting channels can be a force multiplier which allows them to more effectively respond to incidents and prioritize preemptive measures. 

Jay Benson is the Project Manager for the Indo-Pacific at Stable Seas, a non-profit research organization which provides empirical research on maritime security issues. Jay is responsible for driving Stable Seas research and engagement work in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Featured Image: A patrol boat provided to the Philippines by Japan. (Japan Coast Guard photo)

One thought on “Human Intelligence: The Missing Piece to Comprehensive Maritime Domain Awareness”

  1. This article caught my immediate interest, as I was assigned to a US Army Intelligence unit in Vietnam conducting HUMINT operations. In the totem pole of “INTs” HUMINT is at or near the bottom, which is important, especially when HUMINT was virtually the only intelligence initially available at the beginning of the Easter Offensive of 1972.
    Very good article.

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