By Magnuson, Stew
National Defense , Vol. 91, No. 633
TAMPA, Fla. -- While the Department of Homeland Security begins efforts to strengthen the nation's land borders, less publicized work continues on building a so-called virtual wall along U.S. coasts.
As the defense communities and lawmakers debate what policies need to be implemented to protect ports, coastal waters and the seas approaching the United States, technological solutions are out there.
"If somebody could write me a check today, we could build it," Guy Thomas, Coast Guard maritime domain awareness program science and technology advisor said, referring to a system that would allow legitimate commerce through, while keeping bad guys out.
Once the Gordian Knot of interoperable communications and seamless information sharing is untied, the technological part of the problem is relatively easy, Thomas said at the Coast Guard's annual innovation conference and exhibition.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said the need to protect the nation's coasts should be a top priority. "Given the inherent vulnerabilities in the maritime transportation system and along our coastlines, I think what we need in this country is a maritime security regime that truly reflects the needs of a coastal nation state," he told reporters.
When and if Congress decides to write that check, there are a host of mature technologies ready to deploy.
"What you really want to do is identify a threat as far offshore as you can and defeat it the furthest distance from the port as you can," Allen said. And that begins with a layered defense. Because of the ocean's vastness, and the complications of sorting out legitimate seagoing traffic from lawbreakers or terrorist threats, no one solution will solve the problem, experts said.
Vendors and military researchers at the conference presented solutions ranging from the use of remote sensing satellites to peer thousands of miles out to sea, to cutting edge sensors designed to detect underwater saboteurs inside ports.
One system that has the green light and will begin operations in August is the vessel tracking project at the Coast Guard maritime intelligence fusion center-Atlantic in Dam Neck, Va.
The project will fuse multi-level intelligence data to help the Coast Guard and Navy track high interest vessels, according to Coast Guard Cmdr. John Wood, liaison to the Office of Naval Research.
The goal is to take information--everything from commercially available data to intelligence gathered by spy satellites--and provide a clear picture on one screen of what vessels are approaching U.S. shores.
Previously, intelligence personnel took several hours to gather all the data on a high-interest vessel, which required checking several databases and switching back and forth between computer screens, said Beth Gorko, signal solutions project manager at General Dynamics Networks Systems, a contractor for the project.
"It's really giving [analysts] much better information to work with," she said.
Easy to access data is generated by the automatic identification system (AIS), which transmits a vessel's identity, bearing and location. Other data fused into the system includes coastal radar and Navy acoustic signals. These are combined with "electronic surveillance measures," a catchall term for the intelligence communities' array of top secret sensors that can reach farther offshore.
Two experimental prototype buoys developed by the Naval Research Laboratory that employ hydrophones will also be deployed in the Atlantic near the Hampton Roads, Va., region, Wood said.
The vessel tracking project, however, is not connected to the maritime domain awareness community of interest--a joint effort by the DHS, the Coast Guard and the Navy to track vessels approaching U.S. waters. These agencies will begin a pilot project this fall to gather and send out information from AIS in a seamless manner. …