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Rapid Environmental Assessment (REA) Of The Maritime Battlespace

by Doctor Brian G. Whitehouse, OEA Technologies Incorporated, Halifax, Canada, Doctor Paris W. Vachon, Radar Data Exploitation Group, Defence R&D Canada – Ottawa, Canada, Doctor Andrew C. Thomas, School of Marine Sciences, University of Maine, USA, Lieutenant-Commander Robert J. Quinn, Directorate of Space Development (D Space D), National Defence Headquarters, Ottawa, Canada, Lieutenant-Commander Wayne M. Renaud, SSO Meteorology and Oceanography (MetOc), Maritime Forces Atlantic Headquarters, Halifax, Canada

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The navies of NATO engage in rapid environmental assessment (REA) to improve the performance of sensors, weapons and vessels. The Canadian Forces’ Polar Epsilon project, for example, will use Canada’s Radarsat satellite to expand ship and oil spill detection capabilities in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but Radarsat’s performance is influenced by surface winds, waves and currents. Similarly, Canada’s extensive antisubmarine warfare capabilities are founded upon acoustic technologies, the performance of which is influenced by water column density structure and other environmental parameters, such as the depth and character of the sea floor.

Civilian organizations also assess marine waters on an operational basis. In fact, military and non-military operational requirements are so interrelated that effective REA and its civilian equivalent can be fulfilled through a cooperative network of sensors, platforms, communications systems, data processing, storage and distribution architectures, and environmental models. A lack of coordination between these two components of a nation’s ocean-observing capabilities will, in most cases, prevent that nation from attaining state-of-the-art in REA.


In the mid-1980s, the US Navy shifted its oceanographic focus from ‘blue’ (i.e. oceanic) to ‘littoral’ (i.e. coastal) waters. This changed the focus of military meteorology and oceanography (MetOc), initiated a renaissance in coastal monitoring and surveillance technologies, and gave rise to the subject of rapid environmental assessment (REA).

By definition, REA provides NATO’s deployed forces with environmental information in littoral waters in tactical time frames. Critical to comprehension of this subject is understanding that the rapid in REA does not refer to the time scales of environmental variability or the duration of a military operation. It refers to the time available to respond to a request for environmental information. And to an increasing extent, the environmental information is being requested and retrieved by the deployed war fighter, as opposed to the shore-based specialist, and it is being collected covertly.

REA emerged as a result of NATO’s post-Cold War shift in operations towards crisis response and littoral waters. Inaugural REA product requirements were published in 2001 and pertained to anti-submarine, mine and amphibious warfare; however, this publication is already out-of-date, as NATO’s REA product requirements have expanded well beyond these activities.

From a Canadian perspective, the East Coast Department of MetOc, located within the Maritime Forces Atlantic Headquarters, has drafted a Canadian Forces REA policy paper now undergoing formal review. To ensure interoperability, proposed Canadian REA procedures closely mirror NATO procedures. Once reviewed, and, if accepted, it is expected that REA will become Canadian naval doctrine.

REA is a military-specific form of operational ocean observing, which is an emerging field within the civilian maritime community. Both the military and civilian forms of ocean observing involve detection and measurement of environmental parameters and features in three spatial dimensions, observing their dynamics and forecasting their behaviour.

Table 1 identifies coastal activities that have (a) socio-economic value and (b) a critical or high requirement for ocean observing. Note that collectively these activities are both military and civilian in nature and that the two communities have common requirements. The defence, security and enforcement and the education and research sectors have the broadest MetOc information requirements and the greatest degree of commonality.


Graphics courtesy of Dr. Peter Ranelli, NATO NURC, Italy

Table 1. Coastal activities having socio-economic value and their critical or high priority METOC requirements. Users are identified as two broad groups – publicly funded organizations and the private sector. Overall demand decreases with lighter shades of blue. Overall demand is not the same as priority within a specific sector.

Bigger version.

NATO’s REA concept of operations is depicted in Figure 1. The red lines represent NATO’s spaceborne, ground-based and sub sea data communications infrastructure. Replacing the military vessels and terminology used in Figure 1 with civilian vessels and terminology, and recognizing the red lines as civilian communications infrastructure, transforms this figure into a representation of existing civilian ocean observing systems. From a structural perspective, they are similar. Both are also very expensive to install and maintain. As a result of these and other factors, nations on the forefront of this field are moving away from duplicate ocean observing infrastructures to meet military and civilian requirements. The infrastructure that is emerging includes shared assets, decentralized databases, Web-based and standardized product searching, retrieval and viewing tools, and restricted access to certain military components.


Figure 1. Le concept d’évaluation rapide de l’environnement selon l’Extac 777 de l’OTAN, modifié afin d’y inclure les tout derniers progrès. Publié avec la permission de Recherche et Développement pour la Défense Canada, région de l’Atlantique.

REA forms a large part of NATO infrastructure designed to provide allied command with the so-called Recognized Environmental Picture (REP). This concept is depicted in Figure 2. It illustrates that REA, which includes capabilities shown within the large oval, is a subset of the REP.

If NATO’s relevant operational infrastructure is viewed at an even broader scale, it is seen that the REP is in turn a component of NATO’s overall Recognized Maritime Picture (RMP). A commonality among the three – REA, REP and RMP – is that they all deliver geospatial data in littoral waters in tactical time frames.

Flow diagram

Figure 2. REA within the context of the Recognized Environmental Picture (REP). REA includes activities contained within the large oval. EOS = Expeditionary Operations Support. COP = Common Operating Picture.

The broader the scale at which this military environmental infrastructure is considered, the more removed it becomes from the civilian ocean-observing community. In other words, the greatest commonalities between civilian and military ocean-observing systems are the initial environmental data collection, processing, storage and distribution activities. It follows that the greatest mutual benefit for the military and civilian communities arises when respective data collection, processing and distribution resources are interoperable.

With the exception of infrastructure operated by the offshore oil and gas industry, North American operational civilian ocean-observing infrastructure is owned and operated by publicly funded agencies and institutions. Foremost among these are networks operated by American and Canadian universities, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, Environment Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Waters bordering Canada and the US have the greatest concentration of operational ocean observing infrastructure that is (a) relevant to Canadian interests and (b) required for REA operations. In these areas, data produced by American systems overlap into Canadian waters, and vice versa.

In addition to NOAA, FNMOC (the US Navy’s Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center), and NASA, three US university-based ocean observatories either provide or plan to provide operational MetOc information for these border regions. They are the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System on the east coast, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems on the west coast, and the Alaska Ocean Observing System in the US Arctic and northern Pacific waters. Among these, the Maine facility is the most advanced in terms of operational status and breadth of capabilities, and has the greatest amount of Canadian involvement.

Some Final Thoughts

From a Canadian government perspective, departments requiring operational MetOc products include the Department of National Defence, Environment Canada, Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the latter of which includes the Canadian Coast Guard. The RCMP are also involved, albeit indirectly. Relevant federally-mandated operations include participation in NATO and United Nations operations, search and rescue, weather forecasting, ocean forecasting, sovereignty promotion, fisheries, immigration and drug enforcement, habitat and environmental monitoring, and responding to man-made and natural disasters, such as oil spills and coastal flooding.

Among these federal departments, only the Canadian Forces MetOc operations centres have a clear mandate from their governing department to engage in operational oceanography in a manner that fulfills REA requirements. Unfortunately, these centres lack critical mass in oceanographic manpower. In addition to the private sector, the federally-funded university research community and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have substantive oceanographic expertise and manpower, but lack critical mass in observing infrastructure, and are largely void of required operational environmental modelling infrastructure – the latter of which resides within Environment Canada – as a result of its operational meteorology mandate. This description of the status quo may be reminiscent of Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First, but it demonstrates that when viewed across multiple societal sectors, most of the required resources exist within Canada. This is being recognized of late through limited but cooperative ocean- observing initiatives between federal departments, academia and the private sector. If such initiatives are expanded upon – substantially – and embraced at the departmental level, state-of-the-art in REA is attainable within Canada.

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