MDA: Why is it Important?

Dec 15, 2009

In a way, the “Brampton 18” is also an indicator of the change we have seen since 9/11. In one corner, we have seen civil liberties be reaffirmed with the demise of the vague and damaging security certificate; in the other corner we see the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the Anti-Terrorism Act in triumph with the pleas of guilty to terrorism charges that three of the 18 have made.

The Canadian government has recognized the vulnerable position the western world finds itself in, and legislation, policy, and funding have progressed to close gaps and reduce vulnerabilities revealed since 9/11.

Unfortunately, the threat has not disappeared. The fact that the “Brampton 18” existed at all is cause for reflection. Thankfully, our law enforcement teams prevented these plans from being realized. We see, in the most recent of Dr. Martin Rudner’s papers, “Protecting Canada’s Critical National Infrastructure from Terrorism,” that in February 2007, the Al-Qaeda publication Voice of Jihad not only proclaimed that Osama bin Laden’s directives “are clear and explicit to target the oil interest,” but that Al-Qaeda assessed Canada as a leading source of ­supply to the American dependency. Al-Qaeda’s targeted oil interests include oil fields, pipelines, oil loading platforms in maritime ports, and the ships carrying petroleum.

The Voice of Jihad’s Al­-Qaeda manifesto is quoted again in 2008 stating “strike at petroleum interests in all areas which supply the United States… like Canada.”

Although Canada had previously been identified by Al-Qaeda on its list of targeted countries – this is the first time that Canadian oil and natural gas facilities were explicitly referred to and targeted for attack.

While being primarily land-based, oil and natural gas facilities, pipelines, infrastructure, and vessels are also major parts of Canada’s maritime domain. Therefore, one must conclude, for this and other reasons, that the national security effort must continuously strive to improve its capability in maritime security and respond to evolving marine ­security threats.

In another benchmark event half-way around the world, Ms. Caroline Alexander of Bloomberg Inc. writes, in March 2009, that 10 heavily armed terrorists from the group Deccan Mujahideen (affiliated to Al-Qaeda) slipped, completely undetected, into central Mumbai harbour in a fishing boat, and wreaked havoc on the alerted but unsuspecting financial hub port city.

Two defining facts stand out on the security front: 1) the change from suicide bombing to a commando-style attack; and 2) the approach, and apparent exit, via the water – this was a maritime security event.

Moreover, it appears that the Indian authorities were alerted by the U.S. about possible maritime attacks prior to the event. However, after a week of high-alert, security forces were relaxed – a big mistake, as that is when the terrorists struck.

Multi-jurisdictional confusion was apparent when the act was finally perpetrated. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) was incomplete both in surveillance and in maintaining the urgency of actionable intelligence.

Before 11 September, it seemed a simple matter to separate military from civilian security concerns. It will never be so again.

Considering some key events – both natural and man-made – of the first nine years of this century (Rita, Katrina, Madrid, 9/11, London, Bali, Tsunami, SARS, H1N1), it must be noted that a consequence of all-hazard experiences has been the need to cooperate more effectively among various branches of government as they react to ‘threats without a flag.’

Included in this trend toward greater cooperation, is the notion that maritime surveillance, intelligence, and their new technologies must dovetail into a system of intergovernmental collaboration so that information on maritime threats can be ­useful for national aims. This notion lies at the heart of any discussion concerning ­governance, law, and policy in this sphere.

Policy, Framework or Plan?
The National Security Policy, introduced in April 2004 as a framework for a national security strategy – not a national security strategy in itself – highlights a six-point marine security plan. Of note, this plan gives broad strategic strokes of responsibility to government partners: Transport Canada; Public Safety Canada; and National Defence. The main problem with this document is that it was published by the Privy Council Office (PCO) as a national policy and, though endorsed by Cabinet, it was not legislated and therefore remains only useful as a guideline – not as a directive to force compliance or justify resource planning and future funding considerations.

In a cabinet document of 2002, drafted by the Interdepartmental Marine Security Working Group (IMSWG), the Canadian Marine Security Plan was written based on a concept of four concentric circles that expand outwards from Canada.

Each circle has specific security activities associated with it – responsiveness, safeguarding, collaboration, and domain awareness. In this matrix of the concentric circles with four security activities, one sees that security requirements are increasingly information-based the farther one is from Canada, while closer to Canada the requirements are more physical and reactionary.

The overarching goal of the plan is to use information as efficiently as possible in order to be able to react to a threat before it arrives in Canadian territorial waters.

We want to prevent these events. The strategic focus was purposely aimed at the two coasts first, then expanded to the great lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and finally is honing in on the Arctic.

Transport Canada and the interdepartmental security community undertook to further enhance marine security through identifying security priorities and outlining an action plan for the following 5 to 7 years. This strategic document establishes the ­formal recognition of the requirement for a national maritime domain awareness strategy, and includes references to R&D projects to assist in the selection of realistic, informed technological options to enhance MDA. It also includes short-term options for enhancing surveillance in the arctic, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway, and on the two coasts.

MDA & Common Operating Picture (COP) Defined
Maritime Domain Awareness has been described as the effective understanding of everything on, under, related to, adjacent to, or bordering a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, ­vessels, or other conveyances.

The world’s oceans have historically provided protein and transportation, and served as a source of security and vulnerability. Maritime activities have steadily moved from land out to the littoral seas – a fact exemplified by the advent of oil platform clusters on continental shelves around the world. In more recent times, we have developed a growing appreciation of the significant role the oceans play in sustaining our ecological system. Given the increasing importance of these activities, it is not surprising that there has been a steady effort to extend the jurisdiction of bordering states and to establish international regimes.

National interests include safety, security and stewardship. Relating regimes and interests across cultural and political boundaries is difficult.

Characterized by intersecting mandates and actors, the Maritime Domain is inherently complex. Jurisdictional regimes, established via international and national declaratory law, exist – and overlap. The “open oceans” lying beyond exclusive zones have been likened to failed states lacking governance authority and capacity.

These vast swaths of ocean are seen to require a “whole of government” approach to ensure order on the seaward frontiers of the world.

The stakeholders of MDA include civil society, all three levels of government, and of course, private industry. Domain Awareness is used to support diverse and dispersed options-analysis and operational decisions. Many are based on a range of factors that outstrip formulaic rules. Internal organizational demands and relationships of authority also influence and shape decisions. The dynamics of the environment and the lack of behavioural predictability require that practitioners of MDA utilize a combination of continuous and pervasive attention as well as agility.

MDA is sub-set of shared situational awareness (SA) which promotes identification of common interests and facilitates vision cohesion, policy alignment and implementation coordination. As Endsley and Garland point out in their book, Situational Awareness Analysis and Measurement, SA is a continuous process and, primarily, a cognitive activity which encompasses:

  • Perception: developing a fundamental understanding of what is going on;
  • Comprehension: integrating and determining its relevance to personal or ­organizational goals; and
  • Projection: anticipating future events.

While SA is a cognitive activity, the sharing of information and collaboration are business processes. Related activities include data collection, collation, interpretation and distribution. Subject matter experts evaluate and integrate information inputs progressively building and drawing from a recognized “common operating ­picture” or COP.

The COP provides a departure point for SA and MDA. An appreciation of what is transpiring in the maritime environment itself is a necessary but not sufficient ­condition for enabling decision advantage/ superiority. Both Policy and Operational communities rely on information that is relevant, accurate and timely; the requirement for sharing and collaboration appears self evident, but is often complex.

Typically, policy issues are messy problems, usually nested; shared awareness is required to ensure that the import of cascading effects (i.e. second and third implications) is fully understood. Operationally, connectivity “empowers”  – but also comes at a cost. Increased interdependency has both broadened our perception of security and increased the speed at which emergencies can escalate in scope and severity. A common operating picture – graphic or virtual – is key to coordinating the planning and response to incidents. It is important to distinguish between the intelligence and information communities as these two distinct groups tend to proceed at different operational tempos.

This century has seen many improvements in the area of Maritime Domain Awareness. Canada has worked hard at the regional levels on the four activities of maritime security, and we have made good progress in legislation and policy towards national security goals at the federal level.

It may not be possible to go much further without a Canadian National Security Strategy to guide follow-on strategies in transportation and maritime security and maritime domain awareness.

The research and analysis that is focused in these areas will no doubt increase the capability of Canada to achieve the long sought after “effective understanding” of all things maritime.  

Doug Hales, a former naval officer and DRDC analyst, is currently a Senior Consultant with CAE Professional Services. He can be reached at

Peter Avis, recently retiring as a Naval Captain after a 33-year career in the Canadian Forces, is now a Senior Consultant at Lansdowne Technologies Inc. in Ottawa. He is the author of the book “Comparing National Security Approaches to Maritime Security in the Post-9/11 Era.” (

Editor’s Note: Our next issue will explore important areas of legislation and policy that will be needed in a new era of Maritime Domain Awareness for Canada.
© FrontLine Security 2009