Using Automatic Identification System Technology to Improve Maritime Border Security

– Executive Summary –

Our coastal waters are the United States’ most open and vulnerable borders. This vast maritime domain harbors critical threats from terrorism, criminal activities, and natural disasters. The maritime border security mission is complex and challenging; the maritime domain is an expansive pathway to the world without fences that connects to more than 95,000 miles of U.S. shoreline. [1]  This presents unique challenges and enforcing the law is difficult, especially when nefarious individuals intend to ignore it. Illegal drugs, money, weapons, and migrants flow both directions across our maritime borders as vessels can quickly complete these transits without detection. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report indicates, “Law enforcement agencies face the challenge of distinguishing between legitimate small vessel operators and the relatively few individuals estimated to be engaged in illicit activities.” [2]  This thesis looks at the extent Automatic Identification System (AIS) technology could improve border security and reduce the small vessel threat.

An overview of Class A, Class B, and Class E AIS technology provides a baseline of current capabilities and use. The development of less expensive Class B AIS transceivers has increased the use of AIS beyond the Class A carriage requirements established by the International Maritime Organization. Recently deployed commercial satellite systems now provide almost worldwide coverage for tracking vessel AIS signals. Many countries have expanded AIS carriage requirements to improve maritime safety and security and small self-contained AIS identifiers now provide worldwide tracking of vessels of any size.

In this thesis, three policy options for AIS equipment carriage requirements are developed and analyzed: status quo, Class A/B requirement policy option, and Class E requirement policy option. Maritime border security effectiveness and cost benefit impacts of each policy option is developed. Policy options are compared and analyzed and implementation issues and concerns are reviewed. As a cellular phone based system, Class E AIS was not considered an effective option for improving maritime security in the border region and excluded from further consideration.

Conclusions are that Department of Homeland Security (DHS) should implement a regulation for all vessels, regardless of size, to install and broadcast Class A or Class B AIS when conducting international voyages. The proposed regulation would expand the existing Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS) to a mandatory program in which mariners are required to pre-register and file float plans prior to conducting an international voyage. Analysis indicates implementation costs for both the government and public are low and the program has the potential to make maritime border security operations more efficient and effective. If the government attempted to detect, identify, interdict, and board each vessel crossing our maritime border as is done now with aircraft and vessels, it would expend between $5,000 and $10,000 per maritime boarding event. AIS allows law enforcement agencies to monitor the border without having to detect, identify, and interdict on the water. Agencies can decide the need, time, and location of conducting a boarding to ensure compliance with federal law providing a more streamlined border crossing for the mariner. A comparison to private aviation requirements for border crossings supports the implementation of an AIS requirement.

To facilitate the drafting of appropriate AIS rules and regulations as well as an effective implementation strategy, DHS should engage the various stakeholders via a second National Small Vessel Security Summit. This summit should review the changes in technology and threat and advise DHS on a specific AIS policy design that balances competing issues and concerns yet fulfills maritime security needs. As an incentive to participate with the program the federal government should consider offering a financial rebate to those that purchase an AIS and register with the Small Vessel Reporting System. This proposed action provides direct support to three of the five basic homeland security missions: prevent terrorism and enhance security, secure and manage our borders, and enforce and administer our immigration laws.

[1] Written Testimony of CBP Office of Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Randolph Alles for a House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security Hearing Titled What Does a Secure Maritime Border Look Like? 113th Cong. (2013) (testimony of Randolf Alles, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Office of Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner), accessed October 7, 2014

[2] Stephen Caldwell, Maritime Security DHS Could Benefit from Tracking Progress in Implementing the Small Vessel Security Strategy (GAO 14-32) (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2013), 1.

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