Threats and Challenges for Maritime Borders

Coastline borders present huge security challenges for the border community. With dramatically varied terrain from mountains and cliffs to beaches and swamps. Tens of thousands of kilometres of extended coastline with multiple lonely bays, inlets, estuaries and Islands that can all be exploited by terrorists, illegal migrants, drug and arms smugglers, human traffickers and organised crime.

Tony Kingham, Editor of Border Security Report, looks into the threats, challenges and solutions to maritime borders

The challenges the authorities face in controlling maritime borders has been clearly illustrated by the difficulties UK authorities have had in stopping illegal migrants landing on its shores, despite the local conditions favouring them. After all, the channel is one of the busiest seaways in the world, where weather conditions are often extremely hostile and suitable landing beaches mean longer sea journeys for migrants in unsuitable vessels.

Despite this, the number of migrants reaching the UK in 2020 was estimated to have been around 8000, quadruple that of 2019 and so far in 2021 an estimated 3500 are believed to have made the crossing. This illustrates just how difficult it is to properly police maritime borders, even for one of the richest and highly developed countries in the world, where the prevailing conditions are very much in their favour.

Now contrast this with another European example, Greece.

Greece has 13,780 km of coastline with over 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, of which only 227 islands are inhabited.

This means there are tens of thousands of inlets, bays and channels which people traffickers, drug smugglers or terrorists can utilise to hide in, or use as cover to make a covert approach on the mainland. As mentioned previously, simply making a European landfall may be enough for some of the people traffickers and migrants.

In the US, in addition to the more commonly used methods of smuggling drugs into that country, such as fast speedboats and light aircraft from all points south. There has been an increase in the numbers of submersibles and semi-submersibles being used. Despite the fact that these submersibles are often built in primitive South American jungle workshops, they have been shown to be highly effective and capable. Indeed, in 2019 Spanish authorities captured a 22-metre submarine after its three crewmen transported US$121-million worth of cocaine 7,700 kilometres across the Atlantic Ocean from Colombia, then scuttled it and ran. Making submersibles not just a regional problem, but a global border threat.

Another favoured technique of drug smugglers, is to cache drugs at sea, in a river or harbour, fixed to buoys or simply sunk to the bottom at known GPS co-ordinates, to be picked up later by local craft or divers. That means it is necessary to have some sort of underwater detection and tracking system, as well as effective mapping of the harbour, river, estuary or sea-bed. That’s so you know what’s down there, and consequently, what shouldn’t be.

And then of course, there are drones.

Often, the first face to face contact that the crews of commercial vessels or pleasure craft have with local authorities, is when they have already dropped anchor in harbour or have docked on the quayside. For drug smugglers, this is the time of highest risk and where possible, is to be avoided.

Which is why they will look for quite beaches, coves, inlets or river estuaries to offload their illicit cargo’s. But even here they remain vulnerable, as the authorities will also recognise likely points of ingress and deploy their resources accordingly.

So, better to anchor just off shore, perhaps in the lee of some remote cliffs, out of sight of coastal radars and optical surveillance, and simply fly your drugs by drone to an awaiting accomplice on the cliff top.

On 1 November 2020, Singapore company, F-drones completed what they claim to be, the world’s first commercial ship-to-shore drone delivery at night. Delivering a critical 3 Kilo spare part to the bulk carrier Berge Sarstein, anchored 5km from shore, in a flight that took just seven minutes. Now, this author has no evidence to substantiate it, but I would confidently assert that this was not the first ‘commercial’ drone delivery at night. Far from it. Organised criminal gangs and especially drug traffickers, are well known to be early adopters of new technology, after all, we have seen numerous examples of drones being used to smuggle drugs into prisons. And of course, for drug traffickers, cost is not a barrier.

Just a quick google search for heavy lift drones, and on the first page you can buy a very capable JT20L-606 drone, with a 20 Kilo payload and a 15 minute flight duration for only 12,600 Euro’s. Drones are here to stay and capabilities will only get better. So, drone detection and mitigation must now form part of any maritime border security system.

But it is notoriously difficult for conventional radars to pick up these small, fast moving arial vehicles, especially in the maritime environment where the reflective nature of moving water makes it particularly difficult.

Of course, the difficult coastal conditions are not just a drone detection problem. Weather, such as sea fogs, mists, and storms; the comings and goings of legitimate commercial shipping, ferries, pleasure craft, fishing boats, jet skis and scuba divers; mean the littoral is a fast moving, ever-changing and cluttered environment, making littoral border security a truly a multi-dimensional challenge encompassing air, land, sea and sub-sea environments.

That means that effective border security along the littoral must by necessity be multi-layered and include multiple technologies.

The technologies to be considered include radar, sonar, electro-optics, FLIR, lidar, diver detection systems, UAS’s and aerostats, and the key to that multi-layered approach is knowing what technologies to choose, in what mix and how to integrate them into one effective system.

Key systems providers include some of the biggest names in the world of defence, as well as many new tech companies that have entered this burgeoning space.

Hensoldt are Europe’s largest sensor systems house, offering a wide range of state of the art systems. These range from radar such as the SPEXER family of products and SharpEye coastal radars, to mobile and stationary EO/IR surveillance systems such as the Nighowl range, for object tracking and identification. Hensoldt also offer their own proprietary C2 system.

Blighter Surveillance Systems makes a solid-state micro doppler radar system that is deployed in 35 countries around the world including, along the sensitive Korea’s 39th parallel border. Blighter’s C400 radars for coastal security have a modular, non-rotating, entirely solid-state design.

Echodyne a company out of the US, makes highly compact solid-state beam-steering radar sensors. Echodyne combines patented Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA™) technology and Acuity™ intelligent radar software to achieve maximum radar performance at low cost.

Anduril’s core offering is its Lattice, AI software that collects data from mesh-connected sensor assets (such as Anduril’s Sentry towers and Ghost sUAS) and classifies them using machine learning. These tracks are fused into a single autonomous operating picture, alerting agents in real-time and providing intelligence for rapid and accurate response.

Robin Radar Systems specialises tracking and classification of drones by combining purpose-built radars with unique software algorithms.

STYRIS software from Airbus is designed to collect, process, consolidate, distribute and display data from a wide range of maritime sensors. The software consolidates data gathered from sensors like radars, automatic identification system (AIS), radio direction finders (RDF), cameras, weather stations and sonars.

All these companies and more will be attending the World Border Security Congress in Athens on 8th – 10th June, which is the premier international border security event and is a great chance to learn about these systems in person.

Finally, it must be said that UAS’s or drone’s are not only a potential threat, but going forward will be the game changing asset.

In October 2020, Airbus partnering with IAI of Israel, won the contract from the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) to provide and operate a medium altitude long endurance Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (maritime Heron). The service will be delivered in Greece, and/or Italy and/or Malta. The loitering capability of these top end systems offers incredible flexibility and operational reach.
But systems like maritime Heron are at the top end of the spectrum.

Smaller commercial drones, whether piloted, autonomous or tethered are becoming increasingly capable and less and less expensive, offering real force multipliers for over stretched border services.
If, as the great Duke of Wellington once said: “The whole art of war consists of guessing at what is on the other side of the hill”.

Then the “The whole art of border surveillance consists of knowing what is on the other side of the hill or bay or clifftop.”

Integrated with other systems, drones offer that capability!