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Nov 29 2016

Security at Sea


NATO is facing some of the greatest security challenges in a generation, with a more assertive Russia, growing instability in the Middle East and North Africa, and a permanent terrorist threat from ISIL and other groups with multiple collateral effects.

Many aspects of these challenges involve activities at sea, and have once again placed maritime security high on NATO's agenda. This domain falls under the responsibility of the Headquarters Allied Maritime Command (HQ MARCOM), which is supported by the NCI Agency's CSU (CIS Support Unit) Northwood.

Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone CBE, Commander MARCOM, believes that the main threats we face today in the maritime domain are three-fold, and that the Alliance cannot face them without investing in better communications technology.

He counts among these threats, Russia's aggressive posturing in the Mediterranean, Baltic and Black Seas, the deepening migration crisis, and terrorism perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)/Da'esh which has caused increased insecurity in the Mediterranean.

"The threats are starting to affect the Sea, and it's probably the last great domain where there is complete freedom of movement, where good guy and bad guy can both operate and therefore we must think about it," VADM Johnstone explained.

"And of course the Sea is not just the waters, it's what happens underneath, what happens above it and what happens in space – so we must think about how we are going to operate in that domain and that's my responsibility."

With such a large responsibility, it is essential for the Commander MARCOM, and through him the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), to be in contact with scores of ships from Allied Member Nations at any given time.

The NCI Agency is working with MARCOM to provide this critical capability.

Connecting National navies

VADM Johnstone explained NATO Nations have a large number of ships at sea at any one time, with sometimes as many as 160 Allied ships, across the whole of the NATO area of responsibility.

Some of these ships are assigned to MARCOM, while others remain under national operational control.

"Now they're at different stages of readiness, some of them are doing very basic training and all the rest of that, but that's a hell of a fleet.

Again it ranges from little tugs up to aircraft carriers, but just imagine, if we can give them using NCI Agency's technology, the same picture, if we have an ability to talk to them…

If I have an ability to talk to the fleet commanders at their desk, not in a corridor, [or on a] phone down the road, if we can share this information and picture as a conversation then I don't need a standing naval group of 10 ships or whatever."

VADM Johnstone noted the interconnectivity technology provided by the NCI Agency will eventually give him the flexibility to reach out to Member Nations and point to the same tactical picture. This will allow MARCOM to build on its maritime situational awareness in areas where Allied ships are already operating.

"They will be doing national tasking but they will also be doing NATO tasking. And that interoperability process gives us a double plus rather than the single plus that we have at the moment. So there is a real virtual benefit out of connecting people better and talking to people better.

We're not there yet… But we have a real route march to get there, and NCI Agency are fundamental in allowing me to do that because I need the picture and I need the communication systems."

Without this type of technology, the coordination and management of NATO maritime tasking remains much more difficult.


Building the bigger picture

Allied and Partner Nations share information, but there are limits to what they share based on legal restrictions and other complicating factors, explained VADM Johnstone.

Nations, businesses and other stakeholders interested in security may not be able to share all their information, but they may be able to share some of it, and this can add up to a better overall picture of daily activities at sea.

"So what I'm trying to do is build, with [the Agency's] help, data systems that allow them to share 5% of their national picture or 10% of their national picture. So little data, big difference.

By giving us that 5%-10% times 5 or times 6, we have 100% if not 200% better situational awareness than we would ever have normally.

And then that allows us to task other navies, the French the Spanish, the Italians, the Brits, the Americans, to go and plug the holes which we don't have the facility at the moment.

So rather than giving warning times or stuff like that, what NCI Agency does is allows us to change culture and change behavior."

Cooperating for safer Seas

Operation Sea Guardian, which was created at this year's Warsaw Summit, is an example of NATO's renewed focus on the maritime domain, with Allied Nations providing ships to conduct a number of maritime security operational tasks in the Mediterranean.

It succeeded Operation Active Endeavour which saw NATO ships patrolling the Mediterranean and monitoring shipping to help deter, defend, disrupt and protect against terrorist activity in the region.

Sea Guardian kicked off in November 2016 with three NATO ships and two submarines – the Italian frigate ITS Aviere, the Bulgarian frigate BGS Verni, the Turkish frigate TCG Gemlik, the Greek submarine HS Papanikolis and the Spanish submarine ESPS Mistral – conducting the first patrols in the central Mediterranean.

The Operation covers a broader range of tasks, and is currently providing support to maritime situational awareness and to counter-terrorism at sea, as well as contributing to maritime security capacity-building.

"I see Sea Guardian as almost Sea Guardian 1.0. We now need to build in Nations' confidence, get in more capability and technology – that's where NCI Agency comes in – so we can prove the value of what we are doing.

We need to show that there is a demand signal for a Sea Guardian 2.0 which will give more freedoms, more strengths, more everything, and allow us to operate in the Mediterranean."

VADM Johnstone believes that Sea Guardian could set a new standard for collaboration in the maritime domain which could then be applied to MARCOM's whole Area of Responsibility.

This would have the advantage of seeing the navies of Allied and Partner Nations "all talking the same language" and ready to assist when a situation arises.

This sort of interoperability would reinforce partnerships with the European Union, such as the recent cooperation between the EU's border management agency Frontex and NATO in the Aegean Sea.

"An example of where MARCOM and the NCI Agency worked together very well and moved with speed was when we were asked by the North Atlantic Council to go into the Aegean. Within 18 hours we deployed task groups into the Aegean, we moved them from other parts of the world to cover and we took some precautionary steps but the thing that limited us was our ability to talk to FRONTEX and the ability to talk to NGOs and whatever.

And NCI Agency was very quick in supporting us with laptops that allowed us to talk to FRONTEX on their least restricted communication circuits and talk to the EU.

Now that worked really quickly, and because of the work that NCI Agency did and the work that my guys did here at MARCOM, we could have linked up with FRONTEX's most secure sites within days if not weeks."


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