Maritime Domain Awareness in the Philippines

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National Coast Watch Center: A Look at the country’s Maritime Inter-Agency Set-Up

Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is defined by the International Maritime Organization as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment. The maritime domain is defined as all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway, including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.

We received the following article by Ely Loyd A. Villarosa, currently the Senior Intelligence Analyst of the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center: The article is about the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center, the only government agency that caters inter-agency mechanisms for maritime security operations.  The NCWC was funded by the US government through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

In 2011, then-President Benigno S. Aquino III signed Executive Order No. 57 creating the National Coast Watch System as the central inter-agency mechanism for a coordinated and coherent approach on maritime issues and maritime security operations towards enhancing governance in the Philippines’ maritime domain.  One of its organs is the National Coast Watch Center, the implementing and operating arm of the System. 

With the support from the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency (US DTRA), the Center building was inaugurated in 2015. This infrastructure located inside the Philippine Coast Guard National Headquarters is envisioned to be the repository of all maritime-related information in the country. Regional Coordinating Centers and Sub-regional Monitoring Centers were also placed in strategic parts of the archipelago to complement the existing capabilities for maritime domain awareness.

Evidently, inter-agency collaboration and coordination effect daunting experiences in any bureaucracy around the world.  The dynamics become complicated especially when an inter-agency set up is composed of military, law enforcement and civilian actors – same set up with the Center.  Adding to this intricacy is the field of maritime domain awareness which involves a vast array of interrelated issues.

Operationally, the Center handles various maritime issues and concerns ranging from smuggling and trafficking of illicit goods; human trafficking; environmental crimes; illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing (IUUF); piracy and terrorism; weapons of mass destruction to matters pertaining to South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.  This makes the Center the central hub of all maritime-related intelligence and information.

Through the years, the Center’s journey as the focal point for information sharing has been exigent and challenging.  Because of the principle of the “Need-To-Know-Basis” being strictly observed by most government agencies, the flow of intelligence and information is hampered, if not, hoarded.   Thus, the principle of “Responsibility-To-Share” must be practiced among agencies concerned, especially if it deals with matters which require a whole-of-government approach.  But despite the challenges the Center is facing, it still manages to contribute for the overall maritime security aspect of the country.

Inter-agency Milestones

Case 1: Sanctioned vessel JIN TENG

One of the most well-known accomplishments of the National Coast Watch Center during its early years is the “MV JIN TENG Case”. It took place in March 2016, barely a year after the Center building was inaugurated.  The case involved the North Korean vessel JIN TENG which was included in the list of vessels sanctioned under the UNSC Resolution 2270.  Philippine government authorities detained the subject vessel when it was monitored inside the country’s waters.  Going back to the transcript of the case, the Center spearheaded the inter-agency collaboration and coordination efforts surrounding the issues and concerns of the event.  This demonstrates the crucial role of the Center in connecting all relevant government agencies even though the subject vessel was later on released following its delisting under the UNSC Resolution 2270.

Case 2: FOREVER LUCKY carrying illegal workers

The next case is about a Philippine-registered vessel named “MV FOREVER LUCKY” which was allegedly involved in the transport of undocumented Filipino workers to Micronesia in July 2018.  The case stemmed from an intelligence report received by the Center that the vessel FOREVER LUCKY was carrying undocumented 139 Filipino workers and is bound to Micronesia.  Acting on the said report, the Center searched for the vessel’s exact location through its vessel monitoring system.  When the vessel was located somewhere in Bataan, a corresponding inter-agency meeting was conducted by the Center to include operators on the ground namely: the Philippine Coast Guard, the National Bureau of Investigation and the members of the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.  The meeting included validation of report and pre-operational planning that led to the successful interception and detention of the subject vessel.

Case 3: “Operation Wild Hog”

The case of a multi-piggery farm dumping animal waste directly to the seawaters of San Fernando, Cebu Province is another milestone for the Center.  Coined as the “Operation Wild Hog” by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), its Environmental Crime Division tapped the National Coast Watch Center for inter-agency coordinative assistance.  The Center then directed the Regional Coordinating Center in Cebu to facilitate the needed assistance for the inter-agency operation.  This is the first case where the Regional Coordinating Center-Cebu (RCC-Cebu) validated its structure and operational inter-agency setup.

Case 4: DAYANG CENTURY carrying toxic chemicals

Another notable case is the “MV DAYANG CENTURY”, a Liberian-flagged vessel carrying toxic chemicals in the Province of Zambales in 2019.  The case was initially based on an intelligence report from foreign counterparts regarding the subject vessel which came from South Korea and was carrying more than 50,000 metric tons of phosphogypsum, a waste product.  The entire NCWC, especially the Information Operations Group (IOG), worked hand-in-hand in gathering, consolidating, and analyzing information from all sources just to validate the intelligence report.  From sending the Request for Information to other agencies to coordinating law enforcement agencies on the ground, the IOG was right on its track in intercepting and detaining the subject vessel.  The entire inter-agency operations ran for fifteen days and which consisted of validating the intelligence report, gathering pertinent information, coordinating with other agencies concerned, laboratory tests, and the actual operations on the ground.  Currently, the cases filed against the subject vessel and the crew are still pending before the court.

Novel Significance of the National Coast Watch Center

The importance of having an inter-agency body that deals with all kinds of maritime-related issues and concerns is conjectural.  For an agency which does not have command and authority over other maritime agencies, an inter-agency mechanism would be futile.  However, these inter-agency milestones reflect a compelling indication that despite the differences in the respective agencies’ mandates, the NCWC can be an epitome in enhancing governance in the Philippines’ maritime domain.

A foreign counterpart once asked what the Center can offer to other agencies in return for the intelligence and information received from them.  The answer is that as a hub of all maritime-related issues and concerns, the products and outputs of the Center in relation to its core principle views the maritime domain in a unique way.  Unique in a sense that inasmuch as the diverse mandates by the different maritime agencies involving a vast array of issues and concerns, the Center uses a holistic view for an effective understanding of the maritime domain. The Center recognizes the fact that by overlaying all maritime-related information and intelligence into a coherent picture, we can achieve Maritime Domain Awareness, not just for one agency alone, but for all agencies concerned regardless of their mandates.