Advancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the Fleet and the Nation

By Rear Adm. Jonathan W. White
Director, Office of the DoD Executive Agent for MDA

Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is defined as “the effective understanding of anything associated with the global Maritime Domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States. The Maritime Domain is “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, vessels, and other conveyances.”

The maritime domain has a significant impact on our lives:

  • 95% of the world’s telecommunications travel via undersea cables.
  • 90% of the world’s commerce moves by sea.
  • 84% of the estimated resources in the Arctic are located offshore.
  • 50% of the world’s oil transits seven major chokepoints.
  • 44% of the world’s population lives within 93 mi/150 km of a coast.
  • Shipping is the most fuel efficient and carbon friendly form of commercial transport.
A rigid-hull inflatable boat assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) carries Marines from the Uganda People's Defense Force during ship boarding operations training as part of a maritime domain awareness exercise that focuses on addressing piracy through information sharing and coordinated operations among international navies.

A rigid-hull inflatable boat assigned to the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) carries Marines from the Uganda People’s Defense Force during ship boarding operations training as part of a maritime domain awareness exercise that focuses on addressing piracy through information sharing and coordinated operations among international navies.

For the Navy, whether responding to a natural disaster, protecting the free flow of legitimate commerce, participating in counter-drug operations, counter-piracy operations, search-and-rescue missions, or training with partners, having a clear picture and access to timely, relevant information is essential.

Operational, intelligence, and law enforcement communities have long had responsibilities for different aspects of the Maritime Domain. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Federal government recognized the importance of aligning Federal government maritime security programs and initiatives to share information and promote a shared, effective understanding of the maritime environment. In September 2005 the White House released the National Strategy for Maritime Security (NSMS) to promote global economic stability and protect legitimate activities while preventing hostile or illegal acts. The White House further refined the concept of MDA with the release of the National Maritime Domain Awareness Plan December 30, 2013. 

The Secretary of the Navy is the Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness (EAMDA) and oversees MDA-related matters across the Department of Defense (DoD).

DoD EAMDA staff works with a number of organizations within the department and across the government to complete MDA-related initiatives that have implications for operators across the Navy, DoD and Interagency.

Effective MDA:

  • enables the early identification of potential threats and enhances appropriate responses;
  • requires integrating all-source intelligence, law enforcement information, and open-source data from the public and private sectors;
  • is heavily dependent on information sharing and requires unprecedented cooperation between public and private sectors, both nationally and internationally.
An SH-60B from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 49, Detachment 5, hovers above a small vessel suspected of smuggling narcotics in international waters of the Pacific Ocean.

An SH-60B from Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron Light (HSL) 49, Detachment 5, hovers above a small vessel suspected of smuggling narcotics in international waters of the Pacific Ocean.

The efforts of DoD EAMDA have resulted in significant achievements:

  • Contributed to the seizure of multi-metric ton quantities of cocaine, heroin, and weapons and improved the Navy’s ability to track foreign naval combatants and maritime vessels of interest.
  • In conjunction with the Office of Naval Intelligence and Naval Research Lab, transitioned a non-emitting or “dark target” identification technology known as Dark Fusion through the Joint Capabilities Technology Demonstration (JCTD) process. Since the introduction of Sealink Advanced Analysis (S2A) in 2004, the Dark Fusion JCTD, along with other efforts, have more than doubled the number of vessels that can be detected and identified, advancing Fleet & National maritime Battlespace Awareness capability.
  • Completed the development of the interagency National MDA Architecture Plan, which will provide for a Maritime Information Sharing Environment to enhance the sharing of maritime information at the unclassified level.

In conclusion, enhanced MDA continues to be vital in providing warfare commanders and their staffs with the data, information and analysis necessary to successfully perform their missions.

  • Automatic Identification System (AIS) – AIS is a maritime navigation safety communications system adopted by the International Maritime Organization that provides dynamic, static and voyage information, including a vessel’s identity, type, position, heading, course, and speed to appropriately equipped shore stations, other ships, and aircraft. International and U.S. domestic law requires that AIS be carried on certain prescribed vessels. AIS data is available to anyone carrying an AIS transponder and is within range to receive the AIS signal.
  • Maritime Safety and Security Information System (MSSIS) – MSSIS is a multilateral non-classified data-sharing system designed to improve the MDA of the United States and its allies and partners through the sharing of AIS data through an internet based system. The MSSIS initiative has obtained international acceptance as a standard for the exchange of maritime data and has become the maritime data sharing system of choice by more than 75 nations.
  • Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) Sealink Advanced Analysis (S2A) – S2A provides global maritime situation awareness by supplying multi-Intelligence (multi-INT) data and fusion services to  automatically generate and maintain worldwide vessel tracks. S2A provides maritime vessel tracking awareness and information that is valuable to intelligence analysts, joint war fighters, senior decision makers, and interagency offices within the SCI community.

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Advancing Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for the Fleet and the Nation