Maritime Strategy Perspectives

Ever since the arrival of First Nations people in Australia more than 65,000 years ago, we have been a maritime nation, girt by seas that connect us to the wider world. So it’s a great honour to speak here today. Thank you Air Marshal Brown for the kind invitation.

The Australian Maritime Domain can be unpredictable – as recent news headlines have shown. It’s certainly an interesting week to be speaking at this conference. But I’m not here to talk about current headlines; I want to look more broadly at the future of our civil maritime security arrangements and the strategic situation Australia will face in the coming years, and what this means for Australian maritime strategy.

I think that the next 10 years will be very, very different to the past 10 years. Certainly the Defence Strategic Review and the Independent Analysis into Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet take a similar view of the future.

And safeguarding our maritime domain isn’t just something that the ABF, Defence and those of us who have vessels, aircraft or technology in the game need to think about. It’s vitally important to Australia’s national security and our prosperity – in fact, it’s vitally important to every Australian.

Conflict around the world is increasing, unfortunately. And climate change is already having huge impacts here, in our region and globally. Those forces, combined with significant leaps in technology, are going to lead to increased irregular migration, food scarcity and a range of new threats that we possibly haven’t yet anticipated. Indeed, the pandemic is a recent example of this and showed how fragile our supply chains can be, and how much we depend on them.

There are also pressures on liberal democracies, whether it be mis- or disinformation, division and polarisation and other threats to our social cohesion, the actions of authoritarian states, or the malicious use of digital technology, including the rise of AI.

Add to that the current challenges in terms of maintaining the rules-based order which includes the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, freedom of navigation and territorial sovereignty.

Economically, civil maritime assets help keep trade routes safe and reliable – if this was to deteriorate (for example, as is happening in the Gulf of Aden), this would have an impact on supply chains.

It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination – and you don’t have to be a pessimist or an alarmist either – to think of a situation in Australia’s maritime domain that could drive a big spike in cost of living for us all.

Nearly a trillion dollars in two-way trade is transacted across the Australian border every year. And nearly $1.2 billion worth of trade is moved into and out of Australian seaports every day. And those numbers are only going to increase – for example, we’re going to see a 72% increase in all cargo imports here in Australia over the next decade.

The ‘blue economy’, as it’s called, supports nearly half a million Australian jobs and contributes more than 5 per cent of our GDP. Even when it comes to tourism, six out of 10 of Australia’s top attractions are aquatic or coastal.

So the economic importance of our maritime domain can’t be overstated.

In our Exclusive Economic Zone we also have the offshore energy sector – not just oil and gas but renewables, as well as carbon storage.

And of course, you can’t talk about security in any domain without talking about cyber or digital threats. What many people don’t realise is that 99 per cent of Australia’s international data traffic is transferred using subsea cables. So security in our maritime domain is crucially important to our digital future as well.

Our marine environment is a natural protector from biosecurity threats, but cannot for a moment be taken for granted. A widespread, multi-state outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease, for example, could cost Australia as much as $80 billion over 10 years.

I think there’s a need for greater awareness, at every level of government, industry and society, of just how vital Australia’s civil maritime security is to our way of life.

If you backcast 20 years from today, there have been plenty of civil maritime challenges, but I think we’ve tackled them well.

Illegal foreign fishing in Australia’s waters peaked in 2005, before a concerted whole-of-government effort and additional funding was provided to support the destruction of foreign fishing vessels and the prosecution of crews. Subsequently, there was a reduction in illegal foreign fishing until it re-emerged again in 2023.

Newer methods of highly organised illegal poaching now include using smaller vessels supported by larger supply ships sitting just outside Australian waters. The recent deployment of new counter-measures by the ABF into very remote areas of north-western Australia are a direct response to these developments.

Meanwhile, transnational, serious and organised crime operates in the maritime domain. These networks are increasingly resilient and agile. While we and our partners coordinate really well, resulting in a higher frequency and scale of illicit drug seizures, crime groups continue to exploit our international borders.

Agencies like ours are increasingly outgunned in terms of the finances, the reach and the access to advanced technology that organised crime networks enjoy. Obviously it’s difficult for publicly accountable, budget-constrained bureaucracies to keep pace – and this is particularly so in the maritime domain.  

So let’s now start to look ahead. The next 10 years will be even more challenging. Any potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific region would have significant implications for our civil maritime security – mainly due to the reliance the ABF places on Defence for maritime surveillance and response assets under an operating model that has served us well for 20 years.

Even (and of course hopefully) without conflict, increased competition for limited food resources in the South China Sea will likely cause some countries to look elsewhere for viable fishing grounds. Growing populations, overfishing, climate change and the associated drop in food security are driving some of this competition – so we can expect more incursions by illegal foreign fishing fleets in our northern waters.

The ABF will also increasingly need to look south – towards Antarctica as competition between nations puts pressure on long-standing international agreements such as the Antarctic Treaty.

We have existing capabilities that are proven in the Southern Ocean, but the sheer size of the area and challenging marine environments mean we can’t do this alone. Our close collaboration with the coast guards of Pacific and regional countries is evidence of our willingness to cooperate with like-minded agencies.

For example, increased criminal activity has been seen in the Pacific, where in some areas resilience to crime has declined. Many of these countries are insufficiently prepared to withstand growing criminal threats, and the ABF has now posted 10 officers to work with Pacific island nations to help them improve their border and maritime security.

In the future, it’s likely that there will be an even greater demand on us to support capacity-building across our region.

When I look at the global situation in terms of conflict, climate change, and political unrest, all off the factors that influence illegal or irregular migration are tracking the wrong way. At this time, I don’t see much cause for optimism, and this is why we continue to invest so much time and money into Operation Sovereign Borders.

We have never, and should never, take our success for granted.

Maritime Border Command, or MBC, is a joint agency task force within the ABF.

ABF officers and their Defence force colleagues work side by side, 24/7 365 under the command of a Royal Australian Navy Rear Admiral who is also a sworn Assistant Commissioner of the Australian Border Force. Today, MBC is ably led by Rear Admiral Brett Sonter, and it’s not lost on any of us that the new Chief of Defence, the new Chief of Joint Operations and two former Chiefs of Navy served in this role.

For nearly 20 years now, MBC has been surveilling, monitoring, planning and deploying ABF and Defence resources across our 8.2 million square kilometre EEZ to uphold our sovereignty and security, and ensure the vitality of our natural resources. To put this into context, on any given day, MBC actively tracks between 4000 and 5000 vessels in our EEZ amongst tens of thousands more in the Australian Maritime Domain.

MBC’s people and assets also build the credibility of, and trust in, our border control systems, so that Australia remains a safe and predictable place to trade, work and visit.

The work of MBC and the capability that supports it is intended to manage a range of civil maritime threats, yet MBC’s role and the purpose of our capabilities are often misrepresented as being solely for the purpose of dealing with people smuggling by sea.

Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders was established over 10 years ago to manage this threat, and MBC, along with a range of other national security agencies, provides support to one or more of the three pillars that constitute OSB.

There’s the Deterrence and Disruption Task Group, the Detection, Interception and Returns Task Group (which is where MBC comes in), and the Regional Processing and Third Country Resettlement Task Group. 

Of course, there is an area of overlap between the ABF’s constabulary mission and Defence’s combat mission in the Australian Maritime Domain – and the overlap is quite big but not static. It’s constantly shifting and changing depending on circumstances, and will evolve for the future.

It’s sometimes necessary for ABF assets to support the military mission, and sometimes it’s necessary for combat assets to be used in support of the ABF’s mission. It’s not just a one-way street where ABF relies on Defence assets, it’s a two-way street. But, I should note that Defence’s priorities and requirements over the next decade may be unlike those of the last decade, raising questions as to how this area of overlap will be effectively serviced.

However, the legislative and regulatory framework within which the ABF operates its vessels and employs its mariners is quite different from Defence’s. The ABF operates under a number of constraining factors that inhibit our ability to mirror the agility of Defence.

We also employ a number of contactors within our maritime operations, which further complicates the picture when you look at the way we raise, train and sustain the respective workforces who undertake our civil maritime mission.

For both the ABF and Defence, recruitment and retention of staff is a challenge – particularly in the maritime domain where people spend long periods of time away from their loved ones. Getting the right culture in place is going to be increasingly essential if we want to attract and retain the best people.

This is a strategic issue.

Like much of the maritime sector, our marine unit is male-dominated – only 6 per cent of marine unit staff are women. As Navy has done before us, we have identified a number of risk factors, including inflexible working arrangements and inappropriate behaviours, that require a deliberate approach in order to increase the diversity of our maritime workforce and attract talent. We’re addressing these and other issues, but we still have work to do to satisfy the requirements of the positive duty to provide a workplace free from harassment and sexual harassment.

Regardless of how good your architecture and strategy are, you can’t put them to best use without the right culture and the right people. People implement strategies.

And there’s no focus on people in the last Australian Government Civil Maritime Security Strategy. I see that Strategy as a foundation that we can use to build a better one, one that is more equipped to deal with the challenges of the next decade.

And of course, the world and Australia have moved on since the Civil Maritime Security Strategy was published in 2022.

Over and above the DSR and Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet review, the Quad partnership has only grown in importance in the past two years, and of course the AUKUS partnership has dramatically changed the dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region.

This changed environment may require new thinking. The strategies of the last 10 years, including our approach to civil maritime capability, funding and governance, the definition and scope of what we mean by civil maritime security, perhaps even the operating model that has held us in good stead for the last 20 years, should be thoroughly and objectively reviewed and evaluated before a new strategy is put into place.

For the past 10 years, across multiple governments, increasing funding gaps in maintaining our civil maritime capability have been addressed at MYEFO and Budget through estimates variations, which are adjustments made to the Budget estimates, and new policy proposals for ongoing or future funding.

So at least annually, and often twice a year for the past decade, we have asked for an ever-increasing amount of funding to cover critical capability gaps in delivering against our core mission.

We’re currently working with the Government to refine these funding mechanisms, so that we can plan longer-term and address our capability in a more systematic and sustainable way.

If we’re to take advantage of new and emerging technologies, including potentially through AUKUS, and become far more efficient in the way that we police our maritime domain, we must not only address these long-term structural funding issues, but also develop a strategy that realistically brings those new and emerging technologies into play over the next decade and beyond.

Our current command, control and communications systems are robust and secure, but of course we must be ever-vigilant in terms of the potential threats we face from state-based or non-state-based actors.

As we adopt new technologies, cyber threats will of course commensurately increase and we will need to amp up the level of sophistication and vigilance we build into our capability writ large.

Our ability to deploy a range of new sensors on different platforms into the maritime domain will give us a much more informed and real-time view of the threat and risk in our maritime domain.

To that end, the ABF is preparing to introduce our Targeting 2.0 process. We see Targeting as a wide range of activities that cover all of our assessments of border-related threats, risks and vulnerabilities. It’s going to be as important in the maritime domain as anywhere.

Targeting 2.0 is about applying the extraordinary power of AI and data to complement and amplify the deep expertise of our people. We can identify new patterns, at speed and at scale, so we can detect and disrupt threats as they manifest. It will also mean that we can keep pace with the perpetual evolution of criminals and malicious actors – who are very motivated to innovate. So we always have to be as well.

And this next point is not a recommendation, it’s just something I’d like to raise for consideration. I think the development of a new strategy should include a series of future-focused, scenario based planning exercises.

These should tease out questions about whether our current operating model, or an alternative model, such as an independent Coast Guard, as exists in many countries, would be more effective in dealing with the shifts that we’re observing and that I think will become manifest over the next decade or more.

Effectiveness in this context would include consideration of workforce, consolidation of functions, economies of scale, establishment costs, capability management, partnerships and regionalism, and lines of command and control in times of peace and conflict similar to the US Coast Guard model.

What it comes down to is that we have to innovate. We have to increase our resilience in our vast maritime domain, and do so while realising efficiencies and enhancing effectiveness in the allocation of finite resources.

Civil maritime security isn’t about the ABF. It’s a matter of our national and economic security.

Essentially I think there are three questions we need to ask as a country – and which will need to be addressed in the coming years.

  • Do the regional security, geopolitical and technological shifts we’re seeing require a different strategic approach to civil maritime security, and possibly a re-defining of its meaning?
  • Is our current civil maritime strategic architecture – planning, governance, funding, and structure – fit for purpose for the next decade and beyond?
  • And, at an operational level, is the civil maritime operating model that has served Australia so well for the last 20 years sustainable and fit for purpose for the next 20 years?

I may be hanging up my uniform later this year, but I’ll be urging my staff – and my successor – to give serious thought to these questions. And I’ll continue to lay the groundwork for the future during my remaining term as ABF Commissioner.

And I know that we’re all going to get a lot of incredible insights out of this conference today – we’ve already had quite a few this morning. We have some of the best minds in the country here to help us face the challenges of the future in the Australian Maritime Domain.

Thank you.

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