International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, South Asia

19 October 2018

If countries of the Indo-Pacific are to be prepared for the maritime threats of the future, they must know what’s happening at sea. David Brewster writes that Australia can share its expertise with the region at a relatively low cost.

On 8 March 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared without a trace. After fading from radar screens off the northern tip of Sumatra, the plane vanished somewhere in Australia’s vast Search and Rescue Region in the Indian Ocean.

Despite the most extensive search and rescue effort in history, involving aircraft and ships from at least 26 countries, the missing airliner has not been found. This incident underlines how little we know about the maritime spaces that surround Australia.

Our efforts to understand what is occurring in the maritime domain is called ‘maritime domain awareness’ (MDA). In essence, MDA involves gaining an understanding of the position and intention of actors in a given maritime environment.

Since the turn of this century, there has been a growing realisation of the importance of MDA as an essential enabler of maritime security. Of course, understanding the position and likely intention of maritime actors has always been a major concern of navies. But only with recent advances in sensor and computing technology has it become possible to create a networked real-time picture that allows for a shared understanding of threats and developments in the maritime domain.

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Australia has developed a very successful national MDA system. The Australian Maritime Identification System (AMIS), which is operated by Maritime Border Command, provides whole-of-government MDA by bringing together all shipping data available to Australian Federal agencies including defence forces, intelligence agencies, law enforcement, immigration, maritime safety and fisheries agencies. It then applies a risk assessment approach using artificial intelligence to identify potential threats by identifying anomalies in the normal operating environment.

Over the last decade, AMIS has been a key enabler in addressing maritime threats such as piracy, illegal and unreported fishing and smuggling of people, arms and drugs. The controversy over the unexpected arrival of 17 Vietnamese asylum seekers north of Cairns in August 2018 obscured just how successful the system has been – including in preventing any irregular maritime arrivals on the Australian continent since 2015.

However, MDA is not just about existing challenges. New threats will certainly emerge, whether driven by climate change, civil conflicts or challenges we haven’t even thought of yet.

But it won’t be enough for Australia to rely on its own national system. National MDA systems, no matter how good they are, will always be subject to limitations in scope and geographic reach that can only be overcome through international cooperation. This is especially so for Australia, which is surrounded by three oceans and whose strategic interests span a large proportion of the earth’s surface. The United States freely recognises that even with its global network of defence assets, achieving MDA requires international cooperation.

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Recent Australian policy statements have prioritised regional MDA cooperation. The 2016 Defence White Paper pledged, “We will work with regional partners to develop shared maritime domain awareness capabilities that provide a basis for greater maritime security cooperation”.

The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper also specifically identified regional training on maritime domain awareness as a priority. But there has been relatively little implementation of these policy statements.

Australia has two basic objectives for promoting regional MDA cooperation. The first is to effectively extend the scope and reach of Australia’s national system (for example, through information sharing). The second is to enhance the MDA capabilities of Australia’s regional partners in order to strengthen their own national efforts. Their security is also our security.

Building regional information sharing systems is often seen as a panacea, but it is sometimes more of a mirage. International information sharing, while great in theory, comes with a lot of challenges that can be very difficult to overcome.

Even longstanding allies such as the Five Eyes find it very difficult in practice to build a shared maritime picture. These problems are magnified when it comes to sharing information on a multilateral basis, particularly with non-traditional partners. The limitations faced by multilateral information sharing centres in Southeast Asia demonstrate just how hard it is in practice.

This doesn’t mean that Australia shouldn’t support initiatives such as proposals by India to build a regional information sharing centre for the Indian Ocean. But we need to be realistic about what these initiatives can achieve.

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Another way of enhancing regional MDA is to help build the capabilities of Australia’s regional partners. This may be one of the most effective contributions that Australia could make.

This is not just about handing out patrol boats (although that can sometimes be important too). In fact, the lowest-hanging fruit may involve the more effective use of already-available information.

Australia is very good at this. We are well placed to provide training and advice on how to build integrated national MDA systems that help make use of the information that may already available to various civil and military agencies. Australian companies also have valuable expertise in integrating and fusing MDA data.

The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has recently completed a multi-year project working with counterpart agencies in the Indian Ocean to help establish integrated national search and rescue centres. There is considerable potential for Australia to conduct a similar program to establish integrated national MDA systems.

The sharing of Australian expertise could have considerable impact at a relatively modest cost. Multilateral information sharing arrangements can be useful, but helping to build the national capabilities of our regional partners may be an even more important contribution by Australia to regional security.

David Brewster is the author of Give light, and the darkness will disappear: Australia’s Quest for Maritime Domain Awareness in the Indian Ocean.

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