“In today’s global environment, no one agency can effectively deal with the asymmetrical threats we face,” Ray Oliver acknowledges. “The only approach for the future is an integrated, interdepartmental, collaborative and cooperative one.”

Oliver, an inspector with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s marine and ports branch, and Lieutenant-Commander Jim Day of the Canadian Navy know that all too well. Need to share – preached but rarely practiced – has taken on new meaning in recent years, but bringing together the resources of departments with common concerns remains a challenging task.

Marine domain awareness has always been a Navy priority, but when the National Security Policy (NSP) was unveiled in 2004, it contained measures and a promise of funding to “better track vessels operating in Canadian waters, increase surveillance, protect marine infrastructure, and improve domestic and international coordination.”

Included in the government’s proposal were “long-range detection technologies; enhanced screening of ships’ passengers and crews; advanced reporting requirements to improve the assessment of potential risks posed by vessels, their passengers and cargo; and measures to intercept vessels of concern before they arrive on our shores.”

It laid out the framework for Marine Security Operations Centres (MSOC), information gathering centers on each coast headed by Canadian Forces Maritime Command, and staffed by personnel from the RCMP, CBSA, Transport Canada, and the Canadian Coast Guard with “the authority and capacity…to bring to bear all civilian and military resources necessary to detect, assess, and respond to a marine security threat.”

The MSOCs (pronounced m-sock), with a start up budget of $165 million, would also be networked with the Coast Guard’s vessel traffic and communications systems, and with the Government Operations Centre in Ottawa.

Two years later, though still very much in their infancy, the centres have become vital components of maritime situational awareness and, according to Day, a gauge to interdepartmental cooperation.

“The MSOC initiative has become a lightning rod for change,” says the 25-year veteran of the Navy. “It can influence information exchange practices in departments, the technical interoperability of information systems within government, and I believe it will influence a cultural change of how we do business.

“This is a business transformation – everybody has to understand how other departments work and what assets they can bring to bear. It’s still rudimentary. But we are becoming much more aware of what other departments are doing, where their focus is and how we can help them.”

The MSOC framework may derive from the NSP, but its origins lie in a Navy project called MOSIC (Maritime Operations Surveillance and Information Centre) intended to upgrade intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance centres on both coasts.

Day, who had been steering the project, recommended a more integrated approach that capitalized on assets of other departments – “they all had a chunk of marine security,” he explained. “We took the MOSIC project – what we had learned – and morphed it from a Navy-centric requirement to an interdepartmental capability.”

Located in Halifax and Esquimalt, BC, the two centres are tasked with producing actionable intelligence. “We assess everything,” Day says. “Transport Canada is informed of every ship that comes to Canada; CBSA receives notice of all cargo; the Coast Guard tracks all vessels. When something is weird, such as a ship that normally travels east-south suddenly turns north – commerce is such that going off course costs money – DND brings its sensors to bear, the RCMP, CBSA and Transport bring intelligence reports, and Coast Guard brings sensors and communications. It creates a persistent, dynamic, moving picture – not just a snapshot of time, because 30 seconds later everything has changed. It’s near real-time situational awareness for the decision-maker.”

The onus to respond, however, still rests with the appropriate authority. “The MSOC does not prosecute events; we supply information and knowledge about what is occurring to enable the decision-makers to evaluate and then come up with options for a response,” Oliver notes.

Though each MSOC has representatives from the five partners onsite, information sharing has its limits. “At this point, we’re learning by being living labs where and when we can and cannot share information because of legal restrictions,” Day admits. “Anything collected under the auspices of the Customs Act cannot be shared with any other department. It can be as benign as the name of a ship. But we’re building those relationships and understanding the other partners’ capabilities.”

“Law enforcement can share or obtain information on a case-by-case basis specific to an investigation,” Oliver adds. “And there is a tremendous amount of sharing that can go on between certain partners within the MSOC, but not the whole communal MSOC.“

Similar restrictions limit what can be shared with US agencies. With a nod to recent events, Day says, “We’re being judicious on what we share and when we share it.“

“There are relationships built between the different agencies with our US counterparts, and, as they exist today, that’s the way they will exist for the foreseeable future,” Oliver notes. “But as we go down this road, one would envision that there may be opportunities for the relationship to become more efficient.“

As a result, each department conducts trend analysis – one key component to intelligence operations – independently. In the long run, however, the MSOCs may reduce duplication of effort. “If I’m collecting all the information on X, you don’t have to do it,” Day explains. “There is an economy of effort by having these people co-located. They still have to do the independent analysis for their departments. Hopefully, at some point, that analysis can be done by a pan-government approach.”

Much has been made of an expanded NORAD mandate that now includes maritime warning. Both Day and Oliver, however, do not believe it will have much effect on the MSOCs. “The NORAD agreement is pretty generic about maritime domain awareness,” Day says. “We will be interfacing with NORAD, but MSOC is still a national asset and we will be doing maritime domain awareness and security on behalf of the government – nobody is going to do it for us.”

“Our first priority will be national protection,” Oliver adds, “but we will provide information where we can that would assist our allies. There already is that relationship between the coastal entities. I think NORAD actually adds impetuous to be more synergistic in our relationships.”

According to Lieutenant-General Eric Findley, deputy commander of NORAD, the organization’s maritime role will likely evolve into bi-national information sharing. “The coast guards, police and the navies in both countries have a vested interest in the security and cargo of ships. What we’re really talking about is getting some information from all these various sources and collating it. If [terrorists] have exploited commercial air, it’s intuitive that some day they’ll exploit maritime. If we plan now, maybe we can nip it in the bud. If [information] is communicated to the right folks, there are a lot more assets we can use on the maritime side.”

In 2005, the government provided the RCMP and DND with funding to examine the requirements of a MSOC on the Great Lakes. An interim centre with a greater law enforcement focus was established by August of that year, with funding until April 2008.

“The vast size of the Atlantic and the Pacific allows time to do analysis work as these vessels approach. We do not have that time on the Great Lakes,” Oliver observes. “From a national security perspective, should terrorists want to utilize vessels or the Great Lakes as a staging ground, this law enforcement-focus gives us an ability to coordinate provincial and municipal authorities with our federal components for a more synergistic approach.”

As he glances at a map of Canada, Day acknowledges the possible need for a fourth centre in the Arctic. “With global warming, the Northwest Passage is going to change commerce. Right now, the two coastal MSOCs divide the line at 95 degrees west. It’s a harsh environment – there aren’t many criminals or terrorists walking over the polar cap – but we’re going to have to address it.”

By April 2007, Day hopes to have a 24/7 capability from all departments, and have the MSOCs fully staffed and operational by 2010. That, however, will mean building new facilities in both Esquimalt and Halifax.

And expansion will be necessary as more departments recognize the MSOC value, Day believes. “We have five core partners with a vested interest in marine security. But what about the Canadian Food Inspection Agency or Health Canada, which must deal with SARS or anthrax? What about PSEPC or Environment Canada during a natural disaster or hazardous waste spill? Although they may not be required every day, I think you’ll see these departments become more engaged because of the capability that is being built on the coasts.”

Appropriately for a marine operation, Oliver sees the three integrated MSOCs as a large security net. “Where before there was no coordinated approach to our waters, coastal and internal, we now have the ability and time for an efficient look from a pan-government perspective.”