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Securing British waters

The need for integrated maritime intelligence

Dr Dave Sloggett looks at what must be done to create an effective maritime security environment in the UK’s territorial waters

As a subject, maritime security waxes and wanes like the moon. It is to be expected, for an island nation. From the historical threats posed by the Dutch, French and Spanish navies to the threats of imminent invasion at the start of World War II, the issue of securing our maritime border was never-ending. And yet, today, it is so undervalued.

Only once in modern times, it can be argued, did maritime security really get political traction. In the 1970s, the vision of a North Sea oil rig being attacked by Irish Republican terrorists, hostages taken and the rig eventually blown up did keep a number of political leaders awake at night. Operation Tapestry, using long-range maritime patrol and reaction forces based on the United Kingdom’s Special Forces, created an effective umbrella over the North Sea production facilities.

Launched on 1 January 1977, the mission involved patrols mounted by Nimrod aircraft over an area of 700,000 km2. At no point did any rig come under threat. It is one of the classic examples of quiet, unsung security measures creating enough of a deterrent to ensure that no one got close to attacking a key element of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (CNI).

Inadequate public and political attention

Since then it seems that it takes extraordinary events for the subject to raise its head on the political radar. Only when the Russians sail their aircraft carrier through the English Channel en route to conduct operations off the coast of Syria or a Russian submarine is believed to be lurking off Faslane hoping to pick up and track a departing Trident nuclear submarine does it reach the headlines of the mainstream media.

The headlines only served to create a narrative when the passing of the Nimrod was lamented and the decision by the Conservative government to scrap the new variant bemoaned by all those who appreciated the significant role played by the aircraft in helping create maritime domain awareness, as well as its significant contribution to search and rescue (SAR) and fisheries protection operations. The notion that a single C-130 Hercules on standby at RAF Brize Norton could provide the same SAR capability as the Nimrod was always a fallacious argument.

The other task conducted by the Nimrod was to sweep the channels out of Faslane ahead of the departure of a Polaris or Trident nuclear submarine. Since the demise of the Nimrod in 2010 the UK has had to rely on French and American maritime patrol aircraft to sweep these areas. The protection of the most fundamental element of our national security was in effect outsourced to our NATO partners.

Daily threats

An example illustrates the scale of the problem. On 9 December 2014, one month after reports of a Russian submarine operating in Sweden’s territorial waters had appeared in the media, the paucity of the UK’s maritime patrol capability was highlighted when two American, one French and one Canadian aircraft were deployed to search for a Russian submarine believed to be operating in the area around Faslane.

No specific information was ever found to indicate a Russian submarine had been present on that occasion, but evidence has since emerged of Russian submarine commanders becoming even more adventurous in their operations in the Irish Sea. Given the current state of relations with Russia and its emerging military capability, this has created an obvious need to reverse the decision to scrap the Nimrod. The procurement of nine American Boeing P-8 aircraft to be based at RAF Lossiemouth from 2019 onwards will finally close that gap in our maritime security capability.

Yet, on a daily basis, threats to the security of the UK are active in our coastal waters. Recent arrivals of migrants on small boats across the English Channel may not yet match the numbers of desperate people who try to cross the Mediterranean, but they do suggest that organised crime is becoming interested in exploiting this route.

A secure maritime border?

Achieving a totally secure border is impossible. The length of the UK coastline, with its numerous inlets, estuaries and harbours, makes that a complicated undertaking. But we can do better.

The creation of a National Maritime Information Centre (NMIC) in 2010 was a start. Its aim was to create an environment where a greater degree of intelligence-sharing occurred about activities in and around the coastline. The timing of its launch, shortly after the attack on Mumbai from the sea, made it an important step.

But that was all it was, a step. Simply creating an intelligence-sharing capability does not create a secure maritime environment. That requires the application of more resources. And that requires political will – which at present is sadly absent. Cutbacks in the surface fleet of the Royal Navy simply exacerbate the problem. A few additional patrol boats, ordered to plug the gap between production of the Daring class destroyers and production of the new Type-26 City class frigate helps but does not provide a solution.

Situational awareness and real-time intelligence

Key to any form of secure maritime environment is situational awareness. While the NMIC can share intelligence collected from many sources, it does not create a real time picture of what is going on. That requires a different approach, one that deploys multiple sensor platforms to collect data and combine them to form a coherent maritime picture.

At the moment that kind of capability only exists in any detail in the Dover Straits and through the English Channel. But even that requires vessel operators to switch on their automatic identification systems (AIS). One example of the issues that arise with this kind of voluntary approach was the transit of the English Channel in late July 2009 by the MV Arctic Sea, under the control of pirates who had seized the vessel in the Baltic a few days earlier. The AIS system had been disabled, and the vessel was eventually recovered by a Russian warship off the Cape Verde Islands a few days later. The incident remains shrouded in mystery, but the simple fact that a hijacked vessel could move through the English Channel past the nuclear power station at Dungeness and several key harbours was obviously a worry.

Such manipulation of AIS signals is becoming of increasing concern. Recent reporting by the Sunday Times highlighted how many vessels in transit from the eastern end of the Mediterranean go missing for several days. Some are obviously involved in smuggling weapons to the various factions fighting in Libya. But the fact that a number of vessels appeared off the coast of Scotland did raise some eyebrows.

In the past, the myriad of inlets and small harbours along the west coast of Scotland has been a delivery point for narcotics shipped in from South America. Vessels would either rendezvous with a local trawler or deposit drugs overboard on a buoy to be picked up later. Fisheries patrol vessels and aircraft patrolling the area would often spot suspicious vessels and arrests would be made.

The patrol patterns were often driven by intelligence information received as the vessel was en route, helping cue the surface and air resources to likely search areas. Images of the crew quickly dumping their illegal cargo over the side once they thought they had been discovered were often a feature of such patrols. All very frustrating for those involved. Interspersed with those failures, however, where some spectacular successes. One that stands out was the seizure of cannabis worth £26 million at Port Patrick in 1999, when four people were arrested. That too was an intelligence-led operation, in a year when the Scottish Crime Squad made record seizures of heroin. The arrests and the effective deployment of assets to intercept the vessels made the smugglers move their operations southwards – the peaceful Isle of Wight becoming a new centre of drugs activity.

The risk management plan

What these various accounts reveal is the vital importance of the risk management plan (RMP). Where intelligence information is not forthcoming – and it is not unreasonable to suggest that this is the norm – the criminals can exploit gaps in the maritime security architecture. Closing those gaps requires more resources and also a greater deployment of new technologies, including the use of unmanned aircraft.

In this regard lessons can be learnt from the success stories that have emerged from the Gulf of Guinea, where efforts to counter piracy close inshore have seen the deployment of a mix of new fast patrol vessels with shore-based radar systems and unmanned aircraft to provide a near real-time read-out of activities occurring in the territorial waters of Sierra Leone, Togo, Benin, Ghana and Nigeria. This stream of information has enabled the authorities to deny the territorial waters of those countries to the criminals. Operating further out to sea, they are no longer able to target anchorages, which reduces the chances of success in hijacking vessels. Similar results have been seen off the coast of Bangladesh and in the piracy-plagued waters off Indonesia and in the Malacca Strait. As the real-time picture of the maritime environment improves, so does its security.

This simple rule is one that the UK government could well adopt. The enduring legacy of Operation Tapestry, although it is hard to prove, is that prevention is always better than cure. Operation Tapestry put in place an infrastructure that developed the RMP ahead of the threat. By doing that it stopped the IRA even thinking about making an attack. A similar approach is required today, one that invests in new technologies to create an RMP that provides those charged with protecting our coastlines with real-time situational awareness.

As the terrorist threat and the issue of economic migrants inevitably increase, the time is ripe for the government to get ahead of the problem. Building more coastal protection vessels and updating the Customs cutter fleet are welcome moves, but that is only a start. The procurement of a fleet of small unmanned aircraft whose data can be relayed in real time to shore-based reporting centres would also be a good move – but what is really required is to take the NMIC to the next level. It needs to progress from operating on ad hoc intelligence, to actively gathering information on what is happening in the UK’s coastal waters and monitoring it in real time, so that surface and airborne assets can be allocated to look at any suspicious activity.

While the potential of satellite based observations to help feed the RMP remains in its infancy, the potential of airborne radar observations to complement those obtained by shore-based facilities does need to be explored. The arrival into service of the P-8 aircraft will provide an impetus for examination of how that might feed data into a wider network aimed at building a real-time RMP.

Through such developments the maritime security of the UK can be markedly improved. Even if this is piecemeal and driven by small budgets it can help to create the building blocks of a wider architecture.

It is a step that in the current political climate is unlikely to happen. But that does not mean it is unnecessary. Getting ahead of the threat can stop it happening. Events in Mumbai in 2008 provided what might well be a foretaste of something similar in the United Kingdom in the not too distant future. Preventing that from occurring should be a national imperative. Political leaders, irrespective of your political hue, take note. It may be you who has to explain why people died in an entirely preventable incident.

Dr Dave Sloggett is an authority on maritime security and in 2015 was a visiting research fellow in the Mathematical Institute at the University of Oxford. He has researched and written extensively on piracy and counter-piracy, and has operational experience working with HM Customs and Excise on counter-narcotics operations. His book The Anarchic Sea: Maritime Security in the 21st Century was published in 2013.