Coastal MSOCs use technology and collaboration to improve maritime picture

Navy News / November 16, 2016

By Ryan Melanson

The evolution of Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOC), one of which is located in Halifax, has resulted in the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and other government agencies having a clearer picture of what’s happening in our waters at all times, says Rear-Admiral John Newton, Commander Maritime Forces Atlantic and Joint Task Force Atlantic.

While the day-to-day work at the centre may involve more monitoring of civilian activity and assisting government partners who have personnel on site, there is a clear warfare advantage with the cutting edge technology being used and data sharing taking place, according to RAdm Newton. “It gives us the best chance to know where our adversaries are.”

The strategic location of MSOC East, with the watch floor located just steps away from the Regional Joint Operations Centre and very close to the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC), has also proved beneficial, RAdm Newton explains. For search and rescue (SAR) specifically, and when timing becomes critical in low light or bad weather, the added information means personnel can do less searching and more rescuing.

“It really does help in terms of SAR; it allows us to get straight to the source. We don’t want there to be any confusion when we get the call,” he says.

The concept of the MSOC came about following the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. The federal government saw a need for greater coordination between departments, including the Department of National Defence (DND), Canadian Coast Guard, RCMP, Canadian Border Services Agency and Transport Canada, with an aspect of that involving marine safety.

The goal of the project is to allow for collaboration and real-time sharing of marine data and intelligence among the different departments, resulting in a clearer picture than each would be able to generate on its own. Pieces of the end product, when appropriate, are also shared with other national and international agencies and military allies.

The last decade has been spent establishing and improving the capability of the two coastal centres, with the other located in Esquimalt, B.C. They work by monitoring activity (in the North Atlantic and Eastern Arctic for MSOC East in Halifax) while collecting the most relevant data and intelligence, using the expertise of each partner agency. The data sharing helps to generate a comprehensive picture of the marine environment and the massive amount of shipping, fishing and other activity taking place.

This whole-of-government approach is a success story that DND and the other partners are eager to communicate to stakeholder groups and the public, with a recent example being a briefing and tour of the MSOC/JRCC watch floors for members of Nova Scotia’s Royal United Services Institute and researchers from Dalhousie University’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies.

The centres have also had milestones to celebrate recently. After the delivery of software and hardware upgrades in early 2015, the project reached full operational capability. This was made official in December of 2015, when each of the core MSOC partners signed the MSOC Full Operational Capability Certificate. In January of this year, that certificate was endorsed at the DND Project Senior Review Board and signed by Vice-Admiral Mark Norman, then Commander RCN. This means the operational and technical authority over the MSOC project has been transferred to the RCN, under the Directorate of Naval Operations and Plans.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the quality of the maritime picture or the capability of the centre won’t continue to improve in areas where current information has gaps. One example is the resource-heavy process of data fusion, explains Lieutenant (Navy) Joe Collins, an intelligence analyst at MSOC East. Because of the amount of information being gathered from numerous sources, a lot of work goes into cutting out the “noise” of the ocean to focus on the important information.

“There’s upwards of a million target tracks per day coming into the system; that all needs to be distilled,” Lt(N) Collins says.

Software improvements coming to the watch floor will help to more easily detect anomalous behaviour at sea, like deviations from planned routes or if a ship suddenly comes to a halt.

“Ninety per cent of the traffic out there is doing the commerce work we rely on. We want to clear the noise and get a threat picture. If we can spend less time on data fusion, we can do better,” Lt(N) Collins says.

Though capability will continue to be improved now that the MSOCs have moved past the project phase, all the partners involved agree that the extensive data sharing and collaboration has improved maritime domain awareness since the project’s inception in 2004. From SAR and anti-submarine warfare, to drug trafficking, overfishing and pollution, the centres on each coast will be playing an increasingly important role in marine security through the coming years.