The biggest announcement from President Joe Biden’s trip to Asia may be the one that got the least attention. The Quad, a grouping consisting of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States, has just announced a maritime domain awareness partnership that will provide a new stream of data from commercial satellites to countries across the Indo-Pacific. This is a substantial addition to the Quad’s agenda and one of its most promising initiatives to date. Critically, it satisfies the desire of most regional partners for the Quad to provide public goods and address the needs of smaller states in and the Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. If properly executed, this effort could be a flagship project for demonstrating the Quad’s value to regional countries.
Today, regional states monitor maritime activity mainly through legacy technologies from the last century: coastal radars, aerial and surface patrols, and broadcasts from automatic identification system (AIS) transponders whose primary purpose is vessel tracking for collision avoidance, not detecting illicit behavior. Some states also require licensed fishing ships to be equipped with vessel monitoring system (VMS) transponders. Both systems relay identifying data, position, course, and speed by sending signals from transceivers on ships to nearby vessels and receiving stations, both on shore and in space.
But AIS is only legally mandated on vessels over 300 tons operating in international waters. And VMS adoption is uneven. Most ships, including fishing boats, across the world’s oceans are under no obligation to operate either system. And even those that do can easily turn off or spoof the systems if they want to engage in illicit activity. That leaves regional law enforcement and navies reliant on coastal radar, which drops off rapidly farther from shore, or planes and ships, which are expensive and highly inefficient ways to monitor the vast waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Maritime domain awareness in the region therefore remains patchy and enforcement resembles a game of whack-a-mole in which badly outnumbered and overworked patrol vessels attempt to catch illicit operators.
Thankfully, space-based systems are beginning to present 21st-century solutions to these problems. In addition to space-based AIS and VMS receivers, many commercial satellites carry electro-optical as well as synthetic aperture radar sensors to image the planet’s surface. The price of satellite data is plummeting as companies move from relying primarily on large and expensive satellites in geosynchronous orbit to constellations of small and cheap satellites in low-earth orbit. Despite the rapidly diminishing costs of space-based remote sensing, collection at the scale necessary for persistent monitoring of vast exclusive economic zones is still too expensive for most developing states in the Indo-Pacific.
As in so many fields, the problem of maritime domain awareness is now as much about data processing capacity as data collection. There is too much remote sensing data available through both government and commercial providers for manual analysis. Automation and machine learning are necessary to rapidly flag suspicious behavior from diverse data sources, task more detailed remote sensing collection to identify illicit actors and get that information to relevant agencies for tracking and potential interdiction. This is particularly challenging for countries that lack the systems necessary to efficiently process and distribute the resulting data.
The greatest hurdle to effective use of remote sensing data for maritime domain awareness remains scale. The Indian and Pacific Oceans are vast — too large to effectively patrol by air or sea, too expensive to image consistently by satellite. The problem for imaging satellites is the inverse relationship between resolution and aperture. Sensors, whether in the electro-optical or radar bands, that provide enough detail about a vessel to be useful in identification also collect over a relatively small area at a time. In other words, cameras must be focused on a small area to get the highest resolution images. That makes persistent monitoring of empty oceans by imaging satellites prohibitively expensive.
The best solution is what the industry refers to as “tipping and cueing” — using a sensor that can cover a large geographic area with lower fidelity for an initial collection, and then following up with a higher-resolution sensor to check on any suspicious activity. Satellites that track radio frequency data are a promising option for that first pass, and for some purposes collect sufficient data all by themselves. That is because almost every ship on the ocean sends out radio signals. Even illicit actors that may turn off or spoof AIS are still likely to be using very high frequency radios, X-band radars, and other systems. And with the right sensors, a satellite can collect and geolocate those signals over a relatively wide area.
One leading commercial operator on that front is U.S.-based HawkEye360, whose data the Quad members plan to purchase and share with partners across the region. This will be used to determine illicit actors’ patterns of behavior, task other satellites, and allow for more effective patrol and interdiction operations. The Quad will also help process and rapidly distribute this data through existing channels. These includes the U.S. Navy’s SeaVision platform, which is used by nearly every partner in the region, as well as India’s Indian Ocean Region Information Fusion Centre, Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre, the Australia-sponsored Pacific Fusion Centre in Vanuatu, and the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency’s Regional Fisheries Surveillance Center in the Solomon Islands. This effort addresses a real need across Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean region, and the Pacific Islands.
For several years, countries in Southeast Asia in particular have been asking the Quad to deliver public goods for them. The Quad vaccine initiative was welcomed but has been too slowly implemented. The same is true of the Quad’s commitment to regional infrastructure. And efforts to focus on supply chain security have bypassed much of the rest of the region. Questions have therefore been raised about the Quad’s ability to deliver value for neighbors in the Indo-Pacific.
Dhruva Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan have recently noted that “the Quad must develop a more robust security agenda if it seeks to sustain itself — and the region — in the coming years.” Indeed, the Quad is best positioned to deliver on security, which is the area in which the United States, Japan, Australia, and India have most in common. But focusing on security also tends to make much of the region nervous, especially when it means pushing back against China. But the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness smartly addresses several regional concerns. Illegal fishing takes away a vital source of food and income from people across the Indo-Pacific. Smuggling threatens law enforcement efforts across the region. And illicit activities by China’s maritime militia in the South China Sea undermine regional security.
This maritime domain awareness initiative therefore combines public goods provision with the Quad’s natural strengths: security cooperation and capacity building. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India are four of the Indo-Pacific’s leading maritime powers. It is only natural that they would help the region develop greater maritime domain awareness capabilities. That this will highlight China’s illicit activities in the waters of many regional states is certainly a benefit from a strategic standpoint, but it is also an economic boon for the Indo-Pacific’s smallest players the most.
Zack Cooper is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. He also teaches at Princeton University and co-hosts the Net Assessment podcast.
Gregory Poling directs the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he is also a senior fellow.