Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance:

DOD Needs a Strategic, Risk-Based Approach to Enhance Its Maritime Domain Awareness

GAO-11-621: Published: Jun 20, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 2011.

Additional Materials:


Davi M. Dagostino
(202) 512-3000


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Maritime security threats to the United States are broad, including the naval forces of potential adversary nations, terrorism, and piracy. The attacks on the USS Cole in 2000, in Mumbai in 2008, and on the Maersk Alabama in 2009 highlight these very real threats. The Department of Defense (DOD) considers maritime domain awareness--that is, identifying threats and providing commanders with sufficient awareness to make timely decisions--a means for facilitating effective action in the maritime domain and critical to its homeland defense mission. GAO was asked to examine the extent to which DOD has developed a strategy to manage its maritime domain awareness efforts and uses a risk-based approach. GAO analyzed national and DOD documents; interviewed DOD and interagency maritime domain awareness officials; and conducted site visits to select facilities engaged in maritime related activities. This report is a public version of a previous, sensitive report..

DOD has identified numerous maritime capability gaps and developed documents that articulate a broad strategy for maritime domain awareness. However, DOD does not have a departmentwide strategy that adequately defines roles and responsibilities for addressing gaps, aligns objectives with national strategy, and includes measures to guide the implementation of maritime domain awareness efforts, and to assess and manage risk associated with capability gaps. GAO has previously reported that it is standard practice to have a strategy that lays out goals and objectives, suggests actions for addressing those objectives, allocates resources, identifies roles and responsibilities, and measures performance against objectives. DOD and its components have developed a number of documents that incorporate some of these key elements of an overall strategy for maritime domain awareness such as a definition of the problem. However, collectively they do not have several key elements a strategy should contain. For example, neither DOD's Maritime Domain Awareness Joint Integrating Concept nor the DOD's Executive Agent Assessment of U.S. Defense Components Annual Maritime Domain Awareness Plans fully address organizational roles and responsibilities and resources, investments, performance measures, and risk management. Additionally, DOD leverages numerous capabilities to collect, fuse, and share maritime information to respond to global maritime challenges. DOD components have identified and started prioritizing capability gaps; however, DOD does not have a departmentwide risk assessment to address high priority capability gaps. DOD combatant commands and components prioritize maritime domain awareness differently based upon their respective missions and these component-level views may not provide a full view of the risks associated with these gaps at a departmentwide level. Prior GAO work has emphasized the importance of using a comprehensive risk assessment process. A strategy that includes a comprehensive, risk-based approach to managing maritime domain awareness may provide better information to decision makers about the potential implications of policy and resourcing decisions both within DOD and across the interagency. In the absence of a departmentwide strategy, DOD may not be effectively managing its maritime domain awareness efforts. This report is a publicly releasable version of a previously issued, sensitive report. GAO recommends that DOD (1) develop and implement a strategy with objectives, roles, and responsibilities for maritime domain awareness, aligns with DOD's corporate process, identifies capability resourcing responsibilities, and includes performance measures; and (2) perform a comprehensive risk-based analysis, including prioritized capability gaps and future investments. DOD agreed with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation and reported a number of efforts underway or planned to address the recommendation. Most of the efforts come under the purview of the DOD Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA). Some of these efforts include updated Policy, Goals and Objectives for MDA within the Navy and updated MDA Planning & Program Recommendations. DOD reported that updates to these documents will assign roles and responsibilities and align efforts with DOD's established processes for determining requirements and allocating resources. The MDA Executive Agent also plans to continue assessing Annual MDA Plans throughout major DOD commands and components, which inform DOD's overall guidance and planning documents for MDA. In July 2013 Navy officials reported that the DOD Executive Agent for Maritime Domain Awareness consulted with Office of Deputy Assitant Secretary of Defense for Strategy and formed a writing team to draft a DoD MDA Strategic Plan. The strategy will be signed by the Under Secretary of Defense Policy and supplement DoD Directive 2005.02E. The strategy will include the baseline metrics and assignments for execution of the Interagency Solutions Analysis. Navy officials report that the the department-wide strategy has been completed and will be officially released on September 30, 2015. This addresses the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve DOD's ability to manage the implementation of maritime domain awareness across DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy, as DOD's Executive Agent, to develop and implement a departmentwide strategy for maritime domain awareness that, at a minimum (1) Identifies DOD objectives and roles and responsibilities within DOD for achieving maritime domain awareness, and aligns efforts and objectives with DOD's corporate process for determining requirements and allocating resources; and (2) Identifies responsibilities for resourcing capability areas and includes performance measures for assessing progress of the overall strategy that will assist in the implementation of maritime domain awareness efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with the recommendation and reported that the MDA Executive Agent planned to present the matter to the members of the interagency National MDA Coordination Office (NMCO) for further consideration on implementation. The MDA Executive Agent also planned to request that--as part of future Annual MDA Plans--DOD Components report on threats, vulnerabilities, and criticalities as well as provide insight on how threats and vulnerabilities are balanced. The MDA Executive Agent would incorporate requirements from the National Maritime Intelligence Center into the Annual MDA Plans cycle. In July 2013 Navy officials stated that the DOD Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Executive Agent gained won approval by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council of the Interagency MDA Initial Capabilities Document addressing the most critical information gaps concerning vessels, people, and cargo. This was followed by the Interagency Solutions Analysis, which emphasizes non-material solutions and integration of existing interagency efforts and recommends thirty seven actions, of which DoD is the recommended interagency lead for eighteen. Assigning roles and responsibilities within DoD to close these gaps forms the core of the DOD MDA Strategic Plan. The executive agent office is working on the DOD owned MDA gaps by identifying existing tools, and assuring their availability for department wide use. The office is also working with the combatant commands and the Navy fleets to identify local tools that can be used for enterprise use. In addition, the executive agent office is working with program offices developing new tools to ensure MDA gaps are being addressed. The executive agent office priorities and objectives are all based on closing those 20 MDA gaps. The DoD MDA Strategic Plan Core Writing Team is completing the draft plan, which will reflect the national goals set forth in the new National MDA Plan and build upon the Department's progress in implementing whole of government Shared Enterprise Solutions for MDA. Navy official report that the plan has been completed and will be signed on September 30, 2015. Taken together, these actions address the intent of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve DOD's ability to manage the implementation of maritime domain awareness across DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Navy, as DOD's Executive Agent, in collaboration with other maritime interagency stakeholders, such as the Coast Guard and the National Maritime Intelligence Center, to perform a comprehensive risk-based analysis to include consideration of threats, vulnerabilities, and criticalities relating to the management of maritime domain awareness in order to prioritize and address DOD's critical maritime capability gaps and guide future investments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 23, 2020

Aug 20, 2020

Aug 14, 2020

Aug 6, 2020

Jul 30, 2020

Jul 27, 2020

Jul 23, 2020

Jul 22, 2020

Jul 20, 2020

Looking for more? Browse all our products here