In response to parliamentary questions regarding the Singapore Navy’s capabilities to survey maritime traffic, in the wake of two recent incidents of ship collision (here and here) in Singapore’s territorial waters, the Minister for Defence, Dr. Ng Eng Hen provided an overview of Singapore’s approach to dealing with threats at and from the sea through an oral reply.
Dr. Ng said that Singapore adopts a Whole-of-Government (WoG) approach to ensure a comprehensive coverage of varied scenarios as well as co-ordinated responses. An overview of approach was also provided in a factsheet from the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) released in June 2017.
Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre
The Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre (SMCC) was set up in 2011 to bring together the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), the Police Coast Guard (PCG), the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), the Maritime and Port Authority (MPA), and the Singapore Customs.
The SMCC maintains a comprehensive maritime situation picture, shares information between agencies and coordinates responses to deal with potential threats.
It achieved full operational capability in 2013, and serves to tighten linkages between the national maritime security agencies in the areas of (i) sense-making and threat assessment, (ii) doctrine and operations planning, (iii) conduct and monitoring of current and future operations, (iv) capability development, and (v) conduct of training and exercises. This strengthens interoperability between agencies during a maritime security contingency, allowing for a more coordinated operational response and minimising the duplication of efforts.
The SMCC comprises the National Maritime Sense-making Group (NMSG) and National Maritime Operations Group (NMOG).
The NMSG uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics collected from multiple sources to generate unique signatures and build profiles for the close to a thousand commercial shipping vessels that pass through Singapore's waters daily. It is able to detect deviations from these signatures, picking out anomalies and suspicious behaviour for further investigation.
The NMSG also continuously monitors indications of threat scenarios. The results of its analyses and pick-ups are shared with the relevant national agencies so that decisive actions can be taken to neutralise the identified threats. Such methods detected a possible ISIS supporter on board a tanker in 2015, and that person was barred from disembarking in Singapore.
The NMOG drives training, builds common protocols and conducts exercises to tighten operational responses between the various agencies. It has also been leading efforts to review the national maritime security response framework to close any operational gaps and build a more coordinated operational response. For example, the NMOG coordinated a layered defence plan involving all national maritime agencies to safeguard the National Day Parade, which was held at the Sports Hub in 2016.
Maritime Security Task Force
Also as part of WOG efforts, the RSN’s Maritime Security Task Force (MSTF) feeds its information to the SMCC. This information is obtained from monitoring close to a thousand ships passing through the Singapore Strait each day, through a network of sensors such as coastal surveillance radars, electro-optic devices and RSN ships on patrol. This surveillance is continuous through day and at night. MSTF comprises two groups: (i) the Comprehensive Maritime Awareness Group (CMAG); and (ii) the Operations Group.
CMAG works closely with the NMSG, national agencies, international partners and the shipping community (such as ship owners, ships charterers, agents and port operators) to share maritime information. The Operations Group comprises operations planners who undertake planning and execution of all maritime security operations. It conducts daily patrols, boarding and escort operations in the Singapore Strait and Sea Lines of Communication, to ensure maritime security and the protection of key installations and potential targets.
On a daily basis, MSTF conducts threat evaluation for every vessel calling into Singapore’s ports or transiting through the Singapore Straits. MSTF does this by deploying analytic tools to build profiles of each vessel based on attributes such as their voyage, owners, crew and cargo, as well as additional data shared by government agencies. MSTF would then decide the appropriate operational responses, which include for example, closer monitoring, escorting or even boarding the ship to mitigate the threat.
In the event of maritime incidents, the MSTF, coordinated by the SMCC, works hand-in-hand with representatives from the other national maritime agencies, to forestall and interdict any potential maritime threats. Linkages are exercised regularly in scenarios ranging from the interdiction of hijacked vessels to responses to maritime emergencies.
The MSTF’s key focus is on potential threats to Singapore, while the MPA watches over the navigation of ships in our waters. For both their purposes, the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) mandates the use of the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to identify ships at sea.
This AIS however, does not apply to warships. For ships that are not required or have not complied with vessel identification, their presence can still be detected via our network of coastal surveillance radars and electro-optic devices.
With regard to the two recent incidents which resulted in collisions, Dr. Ng said that the sensors had detected, and identified, the vessels involved in the both collisions. In both these incidents, none of the ships were designated as potential threats to security, which was correct.
In compliance with standard protocols, they did not require close monitoring by the MSTF and by the rules of navigation under the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS), the master and crew of the vessels involved were responsible to guide their ships safely through. The various parties involved with the collision will now have to investigate what went wrong and what remedial actions to take if necessary. The Transport Safety Investigation Bureau (TSIB) is also conducting an investigation and have announced that they will make the findings public.