Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre is becoming a regional hub
Senior Lt. Col. Raymond Ong Head of the Information Fusion Centre, Republic of Singapore Navy
The Republic of Singapore Navy’s (RSN) Information Fusion Centre (IFC) is a regional maritime security (MARSEC) information-sharing hub. It aims to enhance collective understanding of the maritime domain to ensure the safety of shipping in the region and beyond. Since the IFC’s inception in April 2009, it has been at the forefront of cueing responses from regional and extra-regional navies, coast guards and other maritime agencies to deal with MARSEC threats and incidents.
To date, the IFC has seen 107 international liaison officers from 23 countries deployed to Singapore, and currently has 16 such officers serving alongside 12 RSN personnel. It also has links to 71 operations centers from 37 countries and is one of the four technical leading navies (in addition to Brazil, India and Italy) of the Trans-Regional Maritime Network. The network brings together the IFC’s OASIS system, Italy’s Virtual Regional Maritime Traffic Centre, Brazil’s Maritime Traffic Information System and India’s Maritime Surveillance Information System to enhance global maritime information-sharing and cooperation.
The IFC recently facilitated strong collaboration among regional stakeholders to arrest the spate of piracy incidents in the straits of Malacca and Singapore, and the approaches to the Singapore Strait. Incidents of piracy and sea robbery spiked in 2014 and the first half of 2015. Through the hard work and strong collaboration of regional stakeholders facilitated by the IFC, incidents of this nature have steadily decreased, with no successful incidents of piracy or sea robbery since October 22, 2015.
Indeed, the effort to improve the state of MARSEC in the region hinges on a few key thrusts:
Collaboration between regional and extra-regional navies, law enforcement and other relevant maritime agencies.
Capacity and confidence building toward MARSEC information sharing.
Action by the shipping community to adopt best practices and defensive measures.
Collaboration Between Maritime Agencies
Maritime security challenges such as piracy and sea robbery are complex. They span the traditional jurisdictional and enforcement boundaries and functions of different states as well as government agencies. However, this has not stopped navies and maritime law enforcement agencies from working together to reduce incidents of piracy and sea robbery.
As a key MARSEC information-sharing hub, the IFC serves multiple roles through its process of information fusion, sense-making, and precise, accurate and timely information dissemination. It also hosts various multilateral information-sharing portals and platforms, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Information Sharing Portal, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium’s Regional Maritime Information Exchange, and the Malacca Straits Patrol Information System, and is linked up to key networks such as the Trans-Regional Maritime Network and other partners to provide a comprehensive maritime picture.
More recently, the IFC has also developed and will host a submarine safety information portal, which will give partners a platform to proliferate and obtain information pertaining to submarine safety in the South China Sea. Leveraging such frameworks to facilitate regional cooperation, the IFC has been a key provider of actionable information to regional navies and enforcement agencies. An example of this effectiveness can be observed from the response to the incident involving the Tug Boat Permata 1.
On September 1, 2015, the RSN spotted Tug Boat Permata 1 being boarded by three perpetrators in a sampan, who started stealing scrap metal. This incident occurred off the Horsburgh Lighthouse at the eastern approach to the Singapore Strait. The RSN immediately deployed a patrol vessel to the location, causing the perpetrators to flee southward. This information was shared with the IFC’s liaison officers, who sent it to the Indonesian Navy’s Western Fleet Sea Security Group, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysian Navy. With the information provided by the IFC, the Indonesian Navy was able to locate the sampan, recover the scrap metal and arrest the perpetrators within the same day.
This incident sent a strong deterrent signal to criminal syndicates and opportunistic individuals alike. It highlighted the effective collaboration and will of navies and law enforcement agencies to work together through the IFC to respond effectively to such incidents. Such a collaborative approach is critical in enabling maritime agencies to not just combat piracy effectively, but also deal with future threats.
The IFC has an important partner in the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia Information Sharing Centre, an intergovernmental agency that tracks piracy and sea robbery statistics and promotes capacity-building efforts and cooperative arrangements.
The IFC’s mandate, however, is not confined to piracy and sea robbery, but the entire gamut of threats in the maritime domain. These include weapons proliferation, maritime terrorism, contraband and drug smuggling, illegal human migration, and illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as maritime incidents arising from human, equipment and natural factors.
An example of this is the incident involving FV Viking, which was on Interpol’s Purple Notice for IUU fishing offenses globally. The IFC verified information that FV Viking would be transiting the lower reaches of the South China Sea and informed the Indonesian Navy that FV Viking was anchored in Indonesian waters off the island of Bintan. This led to the successful apprehension of the vessel and its 11-member crew.
The IFC also supported the search-and-locate operations for the missing Flight MH370, helping to consolidate a maritime situation picture and reaching out to its network of shipping companies via its voluntary community reporting system to report any debris sightings that could help narrow down the search area. A number of merchant ships acknowledged the message sent by the IFC.
Capacity and Confidence Building Toward MARSEC Information Sharing
As a MARSEC information-sharing hub, the IFC promotes capacity and confidence-building measures to shape the positive habits of MARSEC information sharing in the region. It conducts the annual Regional Maritime Security Practitioner program, which it co-organizes with the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and recently completed its sixth program in June 2016.
The program was attended by 75 middle-management officers from the militaries and government enforcement agencies of 26 countries, and continues to serve as a valuable MARSEC knowledge enabler and networking opportunity for MARSEC practitioners regionally and extra-regionally.
To promote and strengthen cooperation in MARSEC information-sharing, the IFC also organizes information sharing exercises such as the Maritime Security Information Sharing Exercise (MARISX) on a biannual basis. Of note, in conjunction with the 10th Malacca Straits Patrol (MSP) anniversary events, the fourth MSP exercise was organized and conducted by the IFC at its refurbished watch-floor in April 2016, putting participants from the four MSP member states through the paces of MARSEC information sharing and exchange, against a scenario of maritime crime and terrorism.
Similarly for MARISX, participants from the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and other extra-regional countries are put through the rigor of a fast-paced MARSEC information-sharing exercise at the Changi Command and Control Centre in Singapore. Beyond capacity and confidence building through these exercises, the IFC also helps to shape the necessary collaborative habits needed in dealing with the complexities of today’s MARSEC threats.
Shipping Community Actions
The third thrust of IFC’s MARSEC enhancement efforts involves galvanizing action by the shipping community. Ships at sea are the last line of defense against maritime crime. Defensive measures and prompt reporting of incidents have contributed greatly to the reduction in frequency of piracy and sea robbery incidents in the region.
The IFC continues to encourage the shipping community to adopt defensive measures against potential perpetrators, especially with the advent and availability of technology. Self-protection measures can vary from physical hardening of ships to hampering boarding efforts. Deterrence measures include high-pressure water jets and lifelike dummy lookouts. The installation of video cameras for evidence collection enables successful prosecution, and positional trackers help deter vessel hijacking.
These measures and best practices are discussed at the quarterly Shared Awareness Meetings (SAMs) where navies, coast guards, other maritime agencies and members of the shipping community are brought together by the IFC to meet, discuss and share contemporary MARSEC issues and challenges. More important, a SAM is a platform that allows for industry best practices to be shared and proliferated, contributing to the strengthening of the shipping community through its anti-piracy capacity-building efforts across the region.
Emerging Threats to the Maritime Domain
While piracy and sea robbery statistics have been declining over the past months, the scourge of this threat cannot be completely suppressed. At the same time, new threats in the maritime domain are also emerging. In this regard, the growing influence of radical Islamic terrorism is a clear and present danger to all maritime stakeholders in the region. In its propaganda magazine Dabiq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has identified the confined and busy waterways of the Malacca and Singapore straits as vulnerable for attack. It is not a matter of if, but when, an attack can occur in the region.
Compounding this challenge is that it is difficult to ascertain if an incident is merely a piracy or sea robbery attempt or a possible terrorist attack until the last minute, given that the intent of the perpetrator will not be obvious at the time of the attack. Moving ahead, the IFC will work with its partners to examine how to strengthen collaboration on this front.
The maritime domain is complex, amorphous and porous. Coupled with high volumes of shipping traffic, the growing sophistication of perpetrators — criminals and potential terrorists operating in syndicates — and easy access to shipping information via the internet, the task of ensuring MARSEC has become increasingly difficult for navies and maritime law enforcement agencies.
Today, the imperative to collaborate and share reliable, precise and timely information cannot be higher if we desire to stay ahead of the curve to deter and prevent criminal and terror elements from succeeding. Realizing safe and secure seas is a whole-of industry, whole-of-government and whole-of-region enterprise. Together, we can ensure safe seas for our merchants and navies.