New AI system identifies terrorist threats in Singapore waters in real time

SAF personnel working on the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre watchfloor at Changi Naval Base on Nov 12, 2021. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN
SCDF vessels extinguishing a simulated fire on board a hijacked ship after it has been neutralised, as part of Exercise Highcrest. PHOTO: MINDEF
RSN Colonel Desmond Low, director of the national maritime sense-making group. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - The Republic's shores will soon be safer with a new artificial intelligence data processing system that can identify threatening ships along Singapore's shores in real time.

The "sense-making system", which will be used by the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre (SMCC), automatically takes in updated information from local and foreign governmental and commercial sources and uses anything from the crew's criminal records to the route the ship is sailing to determine threat levels.

This information and the vessel profile is then instantly shared with other maritime security agencies, allowing them to calibrate coordinated responses.

Such responses include boarding a ship by force, diverting and managing maritime traffic, extinguishing fires on board a vessel or, as in a case of a chemical tanker in 2019, banning the crew of a suspicious ship from disembarking.

The agencies using the sense-making system together are the Republic of Singapore Navy, the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, Singapore Customs, the police and the Singapore Civil Defence Force.

In the SMCC control centre in Changi Naval Base on Friday (Nov 12), Colonel Desmond Low, director of the national maritime sense-making group, said the system, which replaces a previous one that could handle data only in batches, should be rolled out in the middle of next year.

Behind him, a map of Singapore beamed onto a screen was surrounded by blinking green dots, each representing one of more than 2,000 big vessels parked in Singapore waters daily.

He said: "With thousands of ships in Singapore waters and hundreds arriving each day, we cannot board or search every single one. We need to sense-make and focus on those of a higher risk. For SMCC, the objective is to detect threats early and as far away as possible."

"The new system will arrive at conclusions 10 times faster than its predecessor. This reduces time needed from hours to minutes."

The sense-making system has been in development since 2016 and is now in the final stages of integration and testing. The SMCC is also ensuring that the system is secure from hacking threats.

Col Low said that, ultimately, defence coverage should be more comprehensive while allowing the six agencies to share information with one another faster.

"One of the biggest differences is the number of sources that the system is taking in. It is much faster because the data is coming in through a direct system automatically. It also provides real-time analytics and continually refines vessel profiles.

"Because it is much faster, it frees up the officers to conduct higher-level investigations."

A screen showing the new AI sense-making system, which can determine threat levels of the more than 2,000 ships parked in Singapore waters in real time. PHOTO: MINDEF

All six agencies have personnel seconded to the SMCC, and have just completed the inter-agency Exercise Highcrest 2021, during which they practised neutralising a hijacked vessel that was on course to crash into Jurong Island.

The crisis centre was created after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days, killing 175 people.

Agencies here decided that Singapore needed a centralised organisation to make sure intelligence data is shared effectively and responses are coordinated - key gaps in India's 2008 response. It marks its 10th anniversary this year.

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean, who observed Exercise Highcrest on Friday, said: "We have to be ready for all kinds of different threats mainly because we sit on one of the key sea lanes in the world.

"I'm glad to see that each of the agencies in the past 10 years has increased its capability and coordination between the agencies has also increased."

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean on board the RSS Fortitude to observe Exercise Highcrest. PHOTO: MINDEF

He said the successful conclusion of the exercise proves the pandemic has not had an impact on operational readiness.

Asked if it has become more difficult to detect threats to national security as terrorist tactics evolve, Mr Teo said that it has always been difficult.

"The new sense-making system brings in more databases, and does more data analytics to try to detect possible threat patterns earlier, so that we can be sensitised to them and we can deal with them earlier."

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