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KIMS Periscope

KIMS Periscope No. 336

Beyond surface: The six spatial domains of maritime security

University of Copenhagen Professor
Christian Bueger

When debates on maritime security as a new paradigm for understanding the oceans intensified in the 2000s, the main concerns were ship and port security. Terrorism, piracy and smuggling were the main issues driving the agenda.

Increasingly, the maritime security agenda has diversified and multiplied. Environmental concerns, such as pollution, illegal fishing and climate change adaptation were included in the debate. Most lately, cyber security concerns, and the protection of offshore energy and underwater data cables further enriched the understanding of maritime security.

Hardly noticed, over the course of this expansion, also the spaces that concern maritime security have widened. Today security at sea needs to consider a multi-dimensional spatial domain. Maritime security concerns six spatial dimensions: surface, airspace, low orbit, subsea, seabed and cyber. In this contribution I review the six domains, then reflect on what it implies to think maritime security in 6D and why in particular the seabed requires further attention.

(1) Surface: Ships and ports

The maritime surface, including sea lanes and the connection to land through ports and anchoring zones, is historically the main focus of maritime security. This is unsurprising, since the majority of maritime activities take place on the surface. Ships are the main object of protection, whether its is commercial marine transport, offshore supply vessels or fishing boats.

Threats to freedom of navigation and commercial circulation from extremist groups, pirates or other criminals, but also the environmental and economic destruction caused by illicit fishing activities are often seen as forming the heart of maritime security. The surface, however, constitutes only one spatial domain, and technological acceleration implies that other domains increasingly gain strategic importance.

(2) Airspace: radio, surveillance and drone attacks

The airspace is often excluded from marine security debates, since there are specific regimes in place for aviation security. However, there are reasons for why airspace was for instance included in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The sea becomes accessible through airspace. Often planes and helicopters provide the most effective means of transport to island, ships or offshore installation.

This applies to malign actors as well. Rockets and uncrewed aerial vehicles might be used to attack maritime targets, and helicopters can be used to hijack vessels. Incident in the Northwestern Indian Ocean indicate the potential scale. In the region, in 2021 the MT Mercer Street was attacked by drones, while in 2023 Houthi forces hijacked a vessel using a helicopter. Airspace is key in the provision of maritime security too. Surveillance of larger maritime spaces takes place through planes and drones, and helicopters allow for more rapid response time to incidents. Finally, radio communication continues to be the main mean of communication at sea.

(3) Low earth orbit: Satellites and floating space ports

The low earth orbit, defined as the space below 1000 km from the surface, differs from airspace in that it allows for permanent installations and is governed by a different legal regime. Discussions on space security have recently intensified, with the links to the maritime hardly considered. Satellites, in particular through the Automated Identification system (AIS) – compulsory for large seagoing vessels –, are important for navigation; and a new generation of micro-satellites is set out to revolutionize the management of fleets, navigation and communication.

Satellite surveillance forms the backbone of the majority of maritime domain awareness systems. AIS is increasingly complemented through other surveillance data, such as electro magnetic emissions, allowing for the detection of dark vessels that operate without AIS. Moreover, space garbage, for instance from missile launches has the potential to damage marine vessels, and one of the emerging technologies for accessing low earth orbit is from the sea, with floating spaceports providing a new affordable way to launch rockets.

(4) Subsea: Narco-submarines and submersibles

The subsea, consisting of the space from the surface to seabed, is a concern of sea power strategy and warfare since the emergence of submarine war in the 1920s, and a key space within nuclear deterrence since the cold war. Given the limited amount of civilian activity in this domain –recreational diving –, and the technological demands of accessing the domain, the subsea is often excluded from maritime security debates.

This neglects that long range and deep-sea diving equipment are increasingly available on civilian markets and that submersible vessels have become easier and cheaper to manufacture without the need for a high-end defence industry. The rise of what is know as ‘narco submarines’ – submersibles used in narcotic smuggling operations – indicates that the subsea is increasingly exploited by criminals, and that extremists have opportunity to do so as well, for instance, in using mines or underwater drones.

(5) Seabed: Critical energy and communication infrastructure

Throughout human history, the seabed has been a dumping ground and storage space. Military fleets have been sunk to the ground to make them inaccessible to enemies, and ammunitions have been dumped as part of disarmament. Some of such deep-sea artefacts have become part of the marine heritage, others, such as the unexploded ammunition in the Baltic Sea, are today seen as major hazards for navigation and the environment. This is not the only way that the seabed matters in maritime security.

The seabed has been mined for generations for sand, rocks, and minerals, such as diamonds, and a new wave of deep seabed mining initiatives accelerates this development. This raises questions of theft and environmental damage. Perhaps most importantly for maritime security, the seabed hosts vital infrastructure for energy and global communications.

Offshore energy platforms, extracting oil and gas, or wind and solar energy, are mounted to the seabed. Oil and gas pipelines, and underwater electricity cables transport energy to the land, but also enable transnational energy markets. Global communication depends on cables laid on the seabed since telegraphic wires connected the globe in the 1850s. Today’s internet is full dependent on a global network of optic fibre cables, through which up to 99% of data travels. Intentional damages to the Nord Stream and Baltic Connector pipelines have led to raising awareness of the vulnerability of seabed infrastructure, and made their protection part of maritime security.

(6) Cyber: Automation, Digitalization and Navigation

The trend towards automation, digitalization and remote control is as vivid in the maritime domain as elsewhere. Commercial ports are fully automated environments, navigation increasingly dependents on digital charts and satellite communications, offshore installations are remotely controlled. Maritime security capabilities are equally increasingly dependent on the digital realm, whether it is through networked operations, communication, force integration, surveillance, autonomous vehicles, or other ways.

Digital dependencies imply vulnerabilities from deliberate attack as well as from spill over from attacks in other domains. Digital means can be also used to facilitate crimes, in particular ransom, theft, smuggling or illicit transhipment operations. Incident reports point to a growing number of attacks on the maritime industry, and attempts to spoof AIS position data to hide maritime activity.

Strategizing Maritime security in 6D

As this exposition documents, we should not approach the maritime as singular space. Maritime security unfolds in differentiated spatial domains, each implying different activities, infrastructures, economic and environmental stakes and security concerns. The six basic spatial domains, without doubt, can be further refined, such as in geophysical terms considering ice, shallow waters and wetlands, or in distinguishing the multiple layers of the cyber domain and the orbit, which each have their unique properties.

Since its inception, maritime security has always been a challenge and an opportunity. It is an opportunity to reflect on our profound dependency on the sea and to integrate policies and coordinate agencies to provide security. The complexity of maritime security and how to carry out integration and coordination in practice is, however, a major challenge.

So far, this complexity has been discussed in terms of the number of actors involved, and the need for governmental agencies, civil society, states and the private sector to work concertedly. Thinking in spatial terms, appreciating the six spatial domains of maritime security, on the one hand, adds further complexity, but on the other also gives us new lenses through which to think maritime security. It calls for further integrating surveillance and cross-domain operations.

It also gives us a better sense where the gaps are. While maritime cyber security is intensively discussed, and the low earth orbit only an arising domain, further strategizing the seabed is a requirement, given the profound dependencies and vulnerabilities of this domain.

The seabed domain as a strategic gap

The seabed is an increasingly important domain given three trends: First, the green energy transition required to address climate change implies an accelerated use of the seabed. Electricity cables on the seabed enable transmission of green energy and integrated electricity markets. They for instance connect offshore wind farms — the currently cheapest green energy — to terrestrial grids; solar energy can be transported across larger -distances, connecting for instance North African solar farms to the European networks, or Australian production to Southeast Asia. A new generation of hydrogen pipelines laying on the ocean floor is also on the horizon, as are technologies for storing Co2 in the seabed.

Second, digitalization is not going to stop, but will further accelerate. Since in the near future underwater optic fibre cables will continue to be the most effective means of transmission, more and more cables will be laid on the ocean floor.

Thirdly, the seabed holds vast resources which will be exploited. While much current debate concerns the prospects and consequences of mining deep seabed minerals, far less attention has been given to the issue of genetic resources. Given the harsh conditions under which species survive on the seabed, their genetic codes may offer paths to new therapies. The recent conclusion of the UN treaty on areas beyond national jurisdiction in 2023 provides a legal framework for genetic resources, yet without considering security implications.

It is often said that we know less about the seabed then the surface of the moon. Whether accurate or not, it points to the lack of knowledge and awareness (beyond submarine detection) — a problem that we might call ‘subseablindness’. New maritime security strategies, for instance, by the UK and the EU already point to the problem, a global campaign is underway to map the seabed (Seabed 2030), and NATO and navies such as France and Italy have launched dedicated seabed projects. These are important initiatives to address the gap, with results expected in the coming years, which have to be, however, integrated in broader 6D maritime security architectures.

Christian Bueger is Professor of International Relations at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, where he leads the Ocean Infrastructure Research Group, and one of the directors of SafeSeas – the research network for maritime security and ocean governance. He is the author of Understanding Maritime Security forthcoming with Oxford University Press (with Tim Edmunds). Further information is available on his personal website: www.bueger.info

  • The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of KIMS. 

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