• Queenie Valencia

Drawing the ‘Big Picture’: US-PH Alliance Towards A Robust Maritime Domain Awareness

Photo Source: Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative

Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is where it all begins. According to American Admiral Gary Roughead, the military cannot start its operations without knowing what's out there, moving on, above, or under the sea. Likewise, he also often called it the 'glue' that binds maritime security activities as it is, per definition, the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of a nation. Similarly, maritime partnerships on MDA through increased capacity-building activities act as the 'glue' that binds long-existing US-PH alliance for the past decades. Thus far, maritime partnership with the US has increased the Philippines’ capacity in building a common operating picture (COP) at sea.

For years, The United States has helped the Philippines in building the critical capacity of its maritime forces through various capacity-building activities to improve maritime awareness. Said activities include information exchanges, transfer of technology, and establishment or upgrading of radar stations. While much has been done by the US to aid the Philippines' capacity on addressing traditional and non-traditional challenges at sea, the country, which has long sought internal peace, is still at the early stage of transitioning to territorial defense. Building robust maritime domain awareness is a novel concept for its Armed Forces. Much is needed to be done such as (1) improving policies and systems; (2) investing in advanced surveillance and intelligence & information technology; (3) expanding cooperation with the other stakeholders such as the private sector; and (4) incorporating maritime clusters in education.

Taking a whole-of-government approach to MDA

Augmenting whole of government efforts and establishing coordinated policies and system are integral in enhancing MDA. The United States began implementing its so-called Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) in 2016, with efforts on improving regional maritime domain awareness towards establishing a common operating picture (COP). One of its initiatives is the facilitation of the construction of the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) building in the Philippines, which has the mandate to coordinate and implement the whole of government efforts to protect the Philippine national interests against security threats. It is the operating arm of the National Coast Watch System (NCWS) though, unlike other maritime law enforcement agencies, the NCWC does not operate on the ground and only provides coordinative assistance and periodic assessments on maritime operations to update COP. As such, according to Jesse Pascasio, former Director for Strategic Planning and Communications of the NCWC Secretariat, existing NCWC is an aberration from established inter-agency practice as it fuses both policy-making and operations making it structurally misplaced. Further, inter-agency collaboration in the Philippines is plagued with maritime illiteracy, which led to the overlapping of functions and mandates, and Philippine maritime law enforcers cannot even agree on a working definition of maritime security.

Enhancing maritime domain awareness also often requires advanced surveillance and intelligence & information technology to collect depth of information and weave the information together to generate a comprehensive common operating picture (COP). The US government has allocated the so-called '1206-Funds' to the Indo-Pacific region to facilitate a variety of key projects such as the establishment and upgrading of radar stations along key sea lanes in the region such as the Philippines. In 2018, the Philippines has also received its six Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicles purchased from the United States, which are used to augment counter-terrorism efforts and limited military maritime patrols to support government efforts to combat illegal fishing. Recently, in 2020, the Philippine Navy has also received the ‘eye in the sky’ from the US, which are the 8 Insitu ScanEagle 2 unmanned aerial systems to bolster Philippine Navy’s readiness for territorial defense and better maritime patrols. Locally, the Philippines’ armed forces has continue augmenting its efforts to enhance its capabilities despite the limited budget and the unforeseeable adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Exploring other partnership opportunities in MDA

Engaging the private sector to improve maritime domain awareness is found to be useful and efficient in collecting intelligence at sea. Conducting maritime domain awareness must therefore go beyond and expand partnerships with the private sector, particularly with the shipping and fishing industries. The mFish Initiative of the US launched in 2014 is a good example of the effectiveness of public-private partnerships in improving MDA. One of its pillars, the Mobile Technology Solutions, uses mobile services and data analytics to provide real-time information to the fishermen and fishing industry to share and access information seamlessly. The mFish Initiative still does not have a partnership with the Philippines, exploring the said initiative between the US and the Philippines may particularly be fruitful.

MDA will serve not only for military purposes but also other purposes such as law enforcement, national disaster relief, safety of navigation, meteorological broadcast, and development of natural resources by providing efficient data. For instance, in 2017, the US delivered the 28M Class Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS) to Philippine Navy, which is an unmanned maritime ISR platform effective for detecting maritime traffic and criminal activities within the country’s coastal waters. TARS also includes a weather station that generates telemetry data for the monitoring of wind speed, pressure, and ambient temperature, which is being used for humanitarian and disaster response operations.

The geographic nature of the Philippines and several activities in relation to the sea are also integral in building the identity of the country. Recognizing that we are an archipelagic nation than a land-based one is also essential towards robust maritime domain awareness as Filipinos as a whole often lack appreciation and recognition of the country being an archipelagic nation. Incorporating maritime security and maritime domain awareness in our education curriculum from primary to tertiary education is essential in understanding our surroundings. Going back to the definition, maritime domain awareness is the ‘effective understanding of anything associated with maritime domain’, as such recognizing our identity and geography as an archipelagic nation is the alpha and omega in maritime domain awareness.


The US-PH alliance maintain close ties since the signing of the Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951. The two countries' bilateral relationship has been evolving despite potential constraints and limitations due to their respective domestic politics. In terms of maritime security cooperation, the US and the Philippines further strengthened their ties through capacity-building activities focused on maritime domain awareness (MDA) especially amid the growing security anxiety in the Indo-Pacific region. Aforementioned, capacity-building activities focused on MDA between the two countries address both traditional and non-traditional security threats. Through this maritime partnership, the Philippines’ effort on strengthening MDA has been augmented particularly in monitoring areas in the South China Sea. Likewise, it has been beneficial to the US in establishing a common operating picture and boosting interoperability complementary with like-minded Asian states in the Indo-Pacific.

In the celebration of its 75 years of diplomatic relations, the Philippines and the US have indeed conducted various maritime capacity-building activities to enhance maritime domain awareness in the Indo-Pacific region. Meanwhile, other maritime partnerships may also be explored by the two countries focusing on the private and education sector. Nonetheless, as the Philippines’ shifts from searching internal peace to external territorial defense, US-PH relations shall be further strengthened to draw the ‘big picture’ at sea.


Queenie Valencia is a Defense Research Analyst at the Office of Naval Strategic Studies, Philippine Navy. She also worked as a Research Analyst at the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Plans, G5, Philippine Army. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Consular and Diplomatic Affairs at the De La Salle College of Saint Benilde in 2018. At present, she is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines-Diliman.

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