Filling the Maritime Law Enforcement Gap


Last week, Japan gathered world maritime security leaders in Tokyo for the first-ever Coast Guard Global Summit. Even without the U.S. Coast Guard’s headline-grabbing search and rescue operations in the wake of recent hurricanes, attendees had plenty to talk about. They face an array of maritime challenges including piracy in Africa and Asia, large-scale migration in Europe, and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing pretty much everywhere. And this before, as a concession to cooperation and dialogue, the summit agenda avoided an issue increasingly important to Asian maritime services: protecting sovereign rights in the face of competing maritime entitlement claims.

Any one of those challenges could stress a maritime law enforcement service to the limits of its operational effectiveness; taken together, they point to a critical security danger that has been ignored by too many for too long. Around the world there is a pervasive lack of adequate capabilities to deal with maritime security challenges below the threshold of war. Nations that have rarely assessed their interests accurately in the maritime domain or resourced their protection accordingly are beginning to face up to the mounting threats. More than ever, governments are seeking assistance with what are primarily maritime law enforcement operations, leading even NGOs and private enterprise to try to fill the gaps in some instances.

Those in Tokyo would have been well aware of these dangers, but they still grapple with “sea blindness” among their peoples and leaders. With a few exceptions, national security spending worldwide favors ground forces around the world. And those who are starting to see more public awareness and fiscal support nonetheless face a steep learning and investment curve.

The U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, and the rest of the U.S. government support maritime partners in many ways, but alone they can’t substitute for the most capital-intensive endeavors: at-sea enforcement operations. When the Coast Guard released its 2014 “Western Hemisphere Strategy,” it acknowledged that the service would retrench to the Eastern Pacific to concentrate in large part on countering narcotic networks. Practically, this means the Coast Guard will dedicate few vessels to at-sea enforcement with partners outside of this area for the foreseeable future. Yet continuing the discussions started at the Global Summit provides an ideal opportunity to highlight America’s successes in creatively addressing the demand for at-sea operations and make the case for an international burden-sharing approach.

If the United States were to play a larger role confronting this challenge, it would not be acting solely out of the goodness of its heart. In many cases, partners’ unmet requests for maritime law enforcement assistance are missed opportunities to strengthen relations and thereby advance larger foreign policy objectives. Similarly, meeting such requests would bolster maritime security cooperation and shape operations in pursuit of key theater objectives. These unresolved maritime security challenges also endanger U.S. national security objectives directly and indirectly. Directly, they aid the gestation of transnational threat networks involved in terrorism, piracy, and trafficking of all stripes. Indirectly, such challenges undermine partner nations’ rule of law and degrade regional food and environmental security. Last, but not least, the United States itself is not immune to the dangers of a maritime security capacity gap. With the world’s largest Exclusive Economic Zone to protect and patrol, the U.S. sea services need creative solutions to not only advance American interests abroad, but to plug holes in security at home.

How can this be achieved? One approach is to actually fund the Navy and Coast Guard’s budgets at the projected need, while sticking to the force structure mix of their shipbuilding programs. At a minimum, this means committing to spending to replace or modernize aging vessels and grow the fleets to the sizes argued for by service chiefs without substantially altering the ratio of the types of ships. This would provide more operational platforms, more at-sea operational days, and therefore more opportunities for supporting maritime law enforcement partnerships, despite the Navy’s rightful focus on deterring and defeating competitors. Another approach would be to modify the U.S. military’s force structure mix, including more high-endurance vessels explicitly built for expeditionary law enforcement mission sets, such as increasing the Coast Guard’s Legend-class National Security Cutter production run. While both these options would deliver major payoffs, their impacts would not be felt for some time and fiscal and political realities make them remote prospects at present.

Instead, existing programs like the Secretary of Defense’s Oceania Maritime Security Initiative and the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership under the auspices of Africa Command point to a creative, collaborative way of addressing the capacity deficiency. Both initiatives mix and match available maritime platforms, enforcement capabilities, and sovereign authorities across services and nations in models that could be expanded to a global program. In a typical Oceania Maritime Security Initiative joint fishery patrol, a liaison officer and a law enforcement detachment from the U.S. Coast Guard embark a U.S. Navy vessel. They are joined by a local law enforcement official under the auspices of a bilateral “shiprider” agreement, which allows these officials to ride on foreign vessels and “share and exercise maritime laws and regulations from the country.” The Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership similarly employs Navy vessels and Coast Guard law enforcement detachments. But in a variation on the model, the detachments act in an “advise and assist” role to the local boarding teams, which lead the enforcement operations, and a partner nation’s vessel often substitutes for the Navy’s.

Elsewhere nations have signed bilateral shiprider agreements to enforce international conventions for managing fish stocks on the high seas (beyond the limits of coastal states’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones). To take one example, the U.S. Coast Guard embarks Chinese fisheries officials to facilitate the timely boarding of Chinese-flagged vessels suspected of high seas driftnet fishing, which contravenes both a convention and a U.N. General Assembly resolution prohibiting large-scale high seas driftnet fishing. While these agreements have historically been limited to fishing violations or narcotics trafficking, their scope has been broadening to cover all maritime law enforcement missions.

To unlock the full potential of these models, the United States needs to take a global and flexible view towards maritime security burden-sharing. This involves increasing the number of partners undertaking such endeavors by contributing any mix of maritime platforms, enforcement capabilities, and sovereign authorities. Call it the Global Maritime Security Initiative. There are many ways to structure such an effort, but the most impactful option that still kept a lid on required resources would see it serve as a clearinghouse and catalyst rather than an operational coordinator.

In many ways, a Global Maritime Security Initiative would be the conceptual heir to former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Mullen’s “1000 ship navy,” but it would provide a framework for tangible collaboration by emulating elements of the Proliferation Security Initiative. A Global Maritime Security Initiative would publish a statement of principles to which signatories would aspire. These would include the need for increased cooperation, the propagation of bilateral shiprider agreements, and the identification of opportunities to provide assets, for example during transits between different theaters. As with the Proliferation Security Initiative, the measure of success would be the impact of the collaborative activity the initiative generated, rather than the endorsement of flowery language in the principles or the creation of a formal organizational structure.

Policy coordination promoting the Global Maritime Security Initiative would ideally be run out of the National Security Council at first. This would emphasize the required interagency synchronization between the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, State, and Justice and the prioritization of the initiative in talks between those departments’ representatives and their counterparts abroad. For example, although the U.S. Navy might be less naturally inclined than the Coast Guard to prioritize the initiative’s talking points in international dialogues, most navies in the world are more akin to coast guards in their authorities and mission sets. Raising the initiative in navy staff talks could be critical to securing key stakeholder interest in active participation. In the absence of National Security Council championship, one of the departments could lead policy promotion, but buy-in from the other three would then be all the more essential for success.

While administrative overhead should be kept to a minimum, the initiative would benefit from performing a few centralizing functions. It would track agreements and provide a repository of shiprider lessons learned and best practices, model legislation, and maritime law enforcement partners’ authorities. Depending on resources, the initiative could mimic the Proliferation Security Initiative with workshops, exercises, training coordination, and expert groups, one of which could act as a security cooperation coordinating body. This would help ensure that efforts like the United States’ various maritime security programs and the new Japanese fund to boost Indo-Pacific states’ maritime security complement one another.

In practice the initiative would work to empower partners like India, which recently unveiled plans for a major expansion of its coast guard, deployment of regional naval training teams under the new Sambandh Initiative, and the embarkation of shipriders to familiarize them with India naval platforms and practices. As a Global Maritime Security Initiative partner, India’s coast guard would be offered legal templates to enable cooperation with other potential initiative partners, such as Bangladesh and the Seychelles, if they identified overlapping maritime interests. Technical advice and training on shiprider and boarding procedures could follow from another initiative partner. India’s program might copy the Africa Maritime Law Enforcement Partnership model of implementation, building towards collaborative operations that mix boarding teams and patrol vessels with those of the host nation. With the Indian Coast Guard and Indian Navy expanding their reach, it’s not hard to imagine such a program incorporating their increasing collaboration with partners in Africa and Southeast Asia as well.

A Global Maritime Security Initiative is limited only by imagination. Individual nations would be left free to determine their level of involvement and choose their partners, including deciding whether to incorporate non-traditional security providers such as NGOs and private companies in their mix of collaborations. Additional cost to the United States would primarily come from paying for the necessary political capital, administrative overhead, and international engagement. But given what a crucial need it addresses, the Global Maritime Security Initiative is worth the costs, whether or not the Navy and Coast Guard budgets are adequately funded.

Regional coast guard forums such as those in the North Pacific and Arctic already spur collaborative maritime security exercises and operations. They could serve as platforms for discussing the initiative principles, and the initiative in turn could enhance these forums’ existing efforts. In the future, the Coast Guard Global Summit might follow this path. In the shorter term, next year’s summit would be an excellent opportunity to lay the groundwork for a cooperative approach to maritime security burden-sharing.

Individual security threats in the maritime domain will wax and wane, but the transnational networks and states that support them are only growing more sophisticated. At-sea enforcement is only one part of the solution, but it is a critical one. To provide adequate capacity to meet this global challenge, collaboration among maritime security forces must improve, and a Global Maritime Security Initiative might be just the partnership needed.


Scott Cheney-Peters served as a Foreign Affairs Officer with the U.S. Department of State and is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He is the founder of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project. This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Government, the Department of State, the Navy, or CIMSEC.