August 23, 2005

U.S. wants oil rigs, satellites to spot threats at sea

By Caroline Drees, Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States plans to put
sensors on oil rigs and weather buoys to spot security threats
at sea and may use satellites, unmanned planes and commercial
jets to monitor ships as far as 2,000 nautical miles away.

Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich, a top Coast Guard official,
said the steps would be part of efforts to thwart any seaborne
attacks by al Qaeda or other militant groups by detecting
threats early and "moving the border as far out as possible."

"Right after 9/11, we started realizing that for us to be
successful, we have to understand more about what goes on in
the maritime world," he told Reuters in an interview on

The quest for what the Coast Guard calls greater "Maritime
Domain Awareness" is included in a new maritime security
strategy under review at the White House, which could get
approval in six to eight weeks, Nimmich said.

Coast Guard pilot projects have already put radio receivers
on privately owned oil rigs and government weather buoys which
pick up routine Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship
signals that identify vessels and their cargo.

The Coast Guard can then check the data from these signals
against available intelligence and other resources, looking for
inaccuracies, anomalies or anything suspicious, to assess
potential threats.

But the oil platforms and buoys can only pick up these
signals a few hundred miles out to sea.

"What we are testing is various ways of getting that
information from as far offshore as possible," said Nimmich,
who heads the Maritime Domain Awareness program. He said the
Coast Guard wanted to push a current 75-mile tracking radius to
2,000 nautical miles, and ultimately across the globe.


The agency has asked a satellite communications company to
look into picking up these signals, but it has so far only made
"preliminary inquiries" to see if airlines would be willing to
do the same.

Nimmich said putting radio receivers on small, unmanned
aircraft could also be an option.

Efforts to gather information from ships up to 2,000 miles
away from the United States could raise some concerns among
neighboring states and the shipping industry.

A 2,000-mile reach would include vessels in the territorial
waters of many other countries including Canada, Mexico, and
parts of Central and South America.

The information on ships' location and cargo can also be
commercially sensitive and provide competitive advantages if it
falls into the wrong hands.

The Coast Guard says it will ensure the data is protected,
and it is trying to allay the concerns of neighboring states
and the shipping industry.

Ships above 300 gross tons -- which account for the bulk of
vessels crossing oceans -- must transmit the AIS signal, which
gives information such as the vessel's size, speed, location
and direction, as well as data on its cargo.

While this information is not a foolproof means of spotting
threats, it helps the Coast Guard assess risk and whittle down
the number of approaching vessels to focus on those which
trigger red flags. Some 7,000-8,000 foreign vessels dock in the
United States each year.