Outsourcing Surveillance: A Cost-Effective Strategy to Maintain Maritime Supremacy

The Russo-Ukrainian war has confirmed what was already widely known about this age-old practice: Valuable surveillance is difficult to maintain over long periods of time. It demands both assets and money. Naval surveillance in the Russo-Ukrainian war is further complicated by the fact that a third party — Turkey — controls access to the territorial sea — the Black Sea — bordering the conflict zone and that Ankara has chosen to remain neutral in the conflict. No matter how difficult to maintain, however, surveillance of the Black Sea and its environs remains critical for Ukraine and its allies. Taking as a given that Turkey will deny traditional U.S. Navy vessels access to the Black Sea for the conflict’s duration, we believe a bit of creativity is warranted to maintain persistent surveillance in the region. 

The U.S. Navy could pursue two interrelated policies to achieve this. First, it could outsource a significant amount of surveillance tasks to both American and allied merchant vessels. Second, the United States could deploy small numbers of marines or special operations forces on allied vessels and equip them with military and commercial-grade sensors for surveillance. These partially outsourced surveillance systems could also be scalable for other contingencies around the world to support broader U.S. interests and increase global surveillance.


The Chinese government has used a maritime militia to expand its reach into the South China Sea. China’s use of these militias is destabilizing. However, there are some advantages to having ships “deployed” in a lot of places. The ability to leverage commercial ships is of particular interest to us — and for many who think about how to deploy naval power around the world.

Comprised primarily of fishing vessels, the Chinese maritime militia frustrates freedom of navigation and trade between the United States and its allies. Its use is also a brilliant “defense-in-depth” strategy that enables deniable misbehavior in peacetime while providing the Chinese government with cheap and omnipresent reconnaissance and surveillance in preparation for conflict.


Similarly, if the United States outfitted merchant ships that are already conducting trade through sea lanes around the Mediterranean and Black Sea with a rack of equipment and perhaps an extra radar, the cost of increased surveillance would be one to two orders of magnitude less per ship than if done through new construction. The same is also true for deploying small numbers of marines or special operations forces on allied ships, thereby enabling more U.S. presence in more places without having to send U.S. Navy ships to every global hotspot. In addition, commercial shipping and merchant vessels have greater endurance (and are more robust) than fishing vessels. The adaptation is a leg up from the Chinese maritime militia, as the merchant vessels can go much greater distances and enjoy longer sustained speeds.

Portzer and Aaron Stein conclude:

The United States has a need for military surveillance, but the most valuable forms of surveillance are costly and require significant resources. To address this, the U.S. military and its allies could scale up from the fundamental thesis of China’s maritime militia and outsource maritime surveillance in select locations vis-à-vis merchant shipping. Such a bold maneuver would enable a great increase in surveillance (in desired locations) at a fraction of what it costs to increase military vessel procurement. Using these vessels for surveillance only, all the way up to the beginning of a conflict, would spare the West from the same international finger wagging that China often receives.

We envision that this outsourcing would be used primarily in the recurring preparation of the operational environment, prior to hostilities taking place. This is where the United States and its allies find themselves today. Should conflict become imminent, this surveillance web would afford the U.S. Navy and its allies a better-informed first strike advantage, without the total tail cost associated with massing military units for the sake of surveillance. And should continued surveillance webs be necessary, a much smaller subset of vessels with marines and special forces aboard could negotiate that risk.

The military is a business and sound business decisions are important, as is thinking creatively. Audacity has won many a contract and made many a company wildly successful. It also can enable the United States to win big in the realm of surveillance, if played correctly.