Securing Australia’s maritime domain

Lee Cordner, University of Wollongong

Australia shares no land borders with other nations, has 60,000 kilometres of coastline, and claims jurisdiction over a vast maritime domain. The Australian Exclusive Economic Zone is the third largest in the world (after the United States and France). Were the waters of the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) to be included, Australia’s maritime domain would be twice the size of the continental landmass and by far the largest in the world (Geoscience Australia 2001, 2003, 2005). A significant extension to Australia’s continental shelf jurisdiction has recently been announced, which brings jurisdictional and enforcement responsibilities for a further sea bed area equal to about one third of the continental landmass. (See Figure 1.)

The national economy is largely dependent upon maritime trade and Australia has one of the largest Maritime Search and Rescue Regions in the world, covering over one-tenth of the earth’s surface. Fishing is set to become increasingly important in our region, due to population growth and economic improvement in Asian countries. Meanwhile, global and regional fish stocks are under significant stress, and the incidence of illegal fishing is predicted to increase. Enforcement tasks, then, will also expand greatly.

Figure 1: Australia’s Maritime Domains

Australia is faced with a significant challenge in asserting jurisdiction over its maritime domain and protecting its maritime interests. Australia’s border security challenges are principally maritime. Unlike many countries, Australia does not have a separately constituted national coastguard. Australia relies upon the Navy and other defence assets in conjunction with Australian Customs Service (ACS) vessels and chartered surveillance aircraft to control the maritime domain and border. Much of the political debate about maritime security prior to the last two Federal elections centred on whether or not Australia needs a coastguard. Former Leader of the Opposition, Kim Beazley, was a strong advocate for a coastguard (Beazley 2005, p. 124) although ardour for the idea appeared to lose traction when Kevin Rudd took over the leadership of the Labor Party in 2006.

Whether or not Australia needs a coastguard remains a moot point. Rather than becoming absorbed with a single solution to a very complex problem, this article identifies key principles and highlights key factors that should be considered when designing and evaluating Australia’s peacetime maritime border security arrangements and options.


Shortly after assuming office, the Rudd Government announced a comprehensive review of homeland and border security arrangements for Australia (Prime Minister 2008), with the focus on carefully examining the need for change. The review was tasked with considering the roles, responsibilities and functions of the departments and agencies involved. Ric Smith, former Secretary for the Department of Defence, was appointed as its head and directed to report to Government by 30 June 2008. The outcomes of the review remain to be announced by Government.

Australia’s border security challenges are principally maritime.

This review signalled a cautious approach to making changes to Australia’s security. It represents an understanding that Australia’s homeland and border security arrangements have advanced considerably in recent years. In the maritime security arena, a largely administrative arrangement in 1999 between Defence and ACS known as Director General Coastwatch has evolved to become Border Protection Command (BPC). The Commander BPC, a Rear Admiral, has Customs and Navy vessels and aircraft permanently assigned under his control and can have other defence assets assigned when necessary to execute peacetime maritime domain and border security tasks. Changes to these maturing arrangements need to be made with care so as not to disrupt the operational effectiveness of maritime security enforcement and not to incur greater costs.


Border security for Australia is maritime border security. The key outcome required from Australia’s maritime border security arrangements may be defined as: the provision of policies, regulation and enforcement to ensure that all aspects of Australia’s maritime domain (including physical, legal, economic and environment aspects; over, on, in, and under the sea and seabed, along the coasts and in the ports) are effectively and efficiently protected.

The outcome required is easily stated, but hard to achieve in practice. It involves comprehensive regulation and enforcement of a broad spectrum of Australian and international law. Australia’s maritime domains and interests are vast and varied and there is the need to provide effective coverage over a dauntingly large geographic area of responsibility. Australia’s population is relatively small, especially in comparison to this diverse and vast geographic challenge. Achieving satisfactory maritime security for Australia requires innovative solutions.

Australia’s day to day, peacetime maritime security challenges are many and they are evolving. In recent years several security factors have complicated maritime security management responsibilities and tested maritime enforcement capabilities. Ongoing maritime security concerns include drugs and people smuggling, illegal immigration, illegal fishing in shallow and increasingly deeper waters further offshore, plus threats to marine biosecurity. In addition, Australia has abiding interests in ensuring the freedom and security of navigation, particularly important in light of Australia’s and the Asia-Pacific region’s heavy dependence on seaborne trade. Interests extend from the security of our national ports and offshore facilities, along the full length of the trade routes that connect Australia with its trading partners, and include Australia’s coastal routes.

Australia has abiding interests in ensuring the freedom and security of navigation.

Emerging security issues include the possibility that regional pandemics may pose significant maritime security challenges, including the prospect of mass migrations of people. Increasing security related problems will be generated by the impact of climate change on the oceans and on our regional neighbours, including the prospect of rising sea levels, the increased incidence and severity of natural disasters (caused by extreme weather events), and changing marine environment profiles. There is significant evidence that this is already happening in the region.


Given the extent of the challenge there are several key principles that should be considered when designing and evaluating Australia’s maritime homeland and border security options and arrangements. While many of the principles may seem obvious their careful application should ensure a focus on achieving results effectively and efficiently.

Unity of Purpose and Leadership

The control and co-ordination of maritime homeland and border security should be centralised and concentrated where possible so that unity of purpose and leadership can be achieved. Surveillance and response activities should be closely co-ordinated to ensure optimum effectiveness and employment of scarce resources. Fragmented and diffuse arrangements will inevitably lead to the inefficient use of resources, increase the likelihood of gaps emerging in maritime border and domain policing, and reduce the likelihood of achieving high levels of operational effectiveness required by the Australian Government, and expected by the Australian public.

Alignment of authority, responsibility, accountability and resources

Those conducting maritime border security operations should be delegated appropriate levels of authority, have direct and priority access to the resources necessary to discharge assigned responsibilities in the most efficient and effective way, and must be held accountable for performance. Authority here should include operational, legal, administrative, financial and personnel authority.

Simplicity of organisational arrangements

Co-ordination arrangements, including the assignment of authority and the ability to call upon resources need to be clear and simple. There is a need for direct and timely access to professional advice, information and the operational assets required to effectively and efficiently achieve operational outcomes.

Direct access to government decision makers, policy developers and administrators

Those responsible for conducting maritime security operations require direct and timely access to political decision makers in order to execute often complex and sensitive missions. Administrative arrangements need to be in place to afford operational level leaders the ability to influence and inform policy development and strategic direction. This is also important to ensure maritime security organisations learn and evolve.

An integrated maritime border and domain security system

Australia’s maritime border and domain security arrangements should be constructed, in organisational design terms, to be a fully integrated system where the components are linked and mutually supportive. The following key features need to be accommodated.

Australia has significant, diverse and distant offshore island territories.

Seamless cover: Seamless cover means providing comprehensive domain awareness and access to response options across the complete extent of Australia’s maritime domains and borders. Information from many sources, including multiple-source intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information, plus information from industry sources and the public, must be collated, analysed by qualified and experienced personnel, and fused to facilitate effective decision making. Given the vastness and diversity of Australia’s maritime domain there will be difficult cost-effectiveness and risk management decisions. A desirable aspiration is 100 per cent coverage, but this is likely to be unaffordable in practice. This means that priorities must be carefully considered.

Capabilities that can operate across a vast and diverse maritime domain: The diversity, geographical extent and in many instances remoteness of Australia’s maritime domain and security interests are key considerations. The maritime domain extends into the three largest oceans on the planet: the Indian, Southern and Pacific Oceans and includes the Timor and Arafura Seas. Climatic and oceanic conditions range from tropical and monsoonal through temperate to high latitude sub-Antarctic and Antarctic; deep and distant ocean, and shallow, close to shore. Australia has significant, diverse and distant offshore island territories including for example Christmas and Cocos Islands; the islands of the Torres Strait and the Great Barrier Reef; Heard, McDonald and Macquarie Islands; and Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. In this scenario, Australia needs to have the equipment, systems and trained and experienced personnel to regulate and enforce maritime security across the whole of the Australian maritime domain.

Materiel capabilities: Materiel capabilities or the wherewithal to do the job (for example, patrol vessels, operations centres, and satellite and aircraft surveillance) should be carefully designed and selected to meet diverse and challenging operational requirements. Maritime response capabilities (primarily patrol vessels) must be provided in adequate numbers with the endurance, robustness, and speed and security enforcement abilities to discharge complex missions quickly and decisively, across the Australian climatic and oceanic conditions. A close understanding by maritime security agencies of the challenges of operating in the range of Australian climatic and oceanic conditions is important. This can only be achieved by frequent operational exposure.

Ad hoc chartering arrangements may appear financially attractive and may occasionally be necessary to support specific tasking; however, they should not be the norm. Such arrangements ultimately undermine Australia’s ability to effectively exercise control over its maritime domains in the longer term. Cases in point include the pursuit of the South Tomi, a Togo registered vessel, for fourteen days after it was intercepted fishing illegally in Australian sub-Antarctic waters in March 2001 and the 21-day pursuit of the Viarsa 1, a Uruguayan registered vessel, in August 2003. The South Tomi was boarded by Australian defence forces near Cape Town, South Africa with the assistance of the South African Navy. Viarsa 1 was eventually boarded by Australian authorities 2,000 nautical miles southwest of Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean, with assistance of vessels from South Africa and the United Kingdom (Molenaar 2004). The Southern Supporter, an unarmed Australian-flagged chartered vessel with a maximum speed of twelve knots (P&O Maritime Services 2008) was used in both cases. Attempts to shadow Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters in 2008 with another chartered vessel also highlighted the need for Australia to have a capability to effectively police its southern domains. In this case, the chartered ship was the Oceanic Viking, an armed patrol vessel with a maximum speed of 17 knots (Eidesvik Shipping 2008) owned by a Norwegian shipping company and contracted to the ACS.

The Navy must be developed and nurtured in the national security interest.

Australia must acquire and operate properly constituted capabilities to conduct maritime surveillance and response operations in the Southern Ocean as part of the national suite of maritime domain policing options. As outlined previously, ad hoc and ineffectual attempts to police Australia’s southern maritime zones in recent years have resulted in embarrassment internationally and encouragement to offenders. The importance of Australia being able to demonstrate that it is serious about asserting jurisdiction over disputed AAT waters and other southern maritime zones is likely to become more pronounced as competition for the oceans resources increases, along with increasing realisation of the importance of the Polar Regions to the world’s environmental health.

Human capacity and capacity building: Common to most activities, human capacity is the central factor in providing effective maritime homeland and border security. This paramount consideration is made even more critical due to Australia’s small population and vast maritime interests. Well led, organised, trained, experienced, motivated and empowered people across the security system are essential to support effective operations. Scarce and valuable people resources must be employed to the optimum effect. Multi-skilling and multi-tasking should be key priorities. Officers need to be trained and authorised to enforce multiple regulatory requirements where possible (that is, fisheries, immigration, quarantine, customs, environment and criminal).

The maritime environment is harsh and unforgiving. Mariners require special skills and experience to operate safely and effectively in it. Maritime security regulators and enforcers need to be at least as skilled and experienced as the other maritime sector participants that they are policing and protecting. Similarly, those who develop policy advice to Government and direct the implementation of maritime security regulatory requirements need to have a deep understanding of the maritime operating environment that can only be gained through operational experience at sea. Maritime capacity building must be a key priority; it is essential to achieving effective maritime security.

Australia’s maritime sector human capacity is relatively small by international standards. The national capacity to understand, research, implement, develop policy about and effectively implement maritime security is vital and will inevitably be bounded by the availability of skilled and experienced people.

Australia has a small permanent Navy with a workforce of approximately 13,000 people in uniform. Recruitment and retention is an ongoing concern. However, the Navy remains the largest professional maritime institution in the country. The Navy must be developed and nurtured in the national security interest. This means Navy people need to be provided with worthwhile and satisfying careers. In addition to preparing for higher intensity war fighting, it is in the interests of Navy people and the nation for them to be engaged in peacetime maritime security operations.

The maritime environment is harsh and unforgiving.

Maritime constabulary roles are within Navy capacities and have long been recognised as legitimate uses of naval forces. Participation in ongoing national security activities is motivating, good experience and makes effective use of human and materiel resources. Many naval capabilities have utility across the spectrum of conflict from peacetime policing and enforcement to war. Maintaining skills and a balance between higher intensity maritime security operations and training and lower intensity civil response maritime operations will require careful management. Flexible employment of skilled naval personnel to achieve and effective balance between national, naval and personal requirements must be a key consideration.

The availability of people with maritime experience across the civil maritime sectors in Australia is also limited. For example, the merchant marine workforce (qualified and training) is estimated to be approximately 6,500 people. In addition to seagoing areas of employment, there are many non-seagoing areas that require people with maritime qualifications and experience, including for example the offshore oil and gas industry. The fishing industry is also small as are the marine science and oceanographic communities by comparable international standards.

The overall result for Australia is a dearth of people with maritime backgrounds. This affects the availability of people with maritime experience to staff government departments and agencies charged with maritime policy development and implementing regulation and enforcement. Capacity building must be a key consideration in ensuring Australia has sufficient skilled and motivated personnel to effectively achieve maritime border security. Building the capacity to build capacity is important. Australia’s maritime policy research and education capabilities are limited and small in comparison to the extent of the task. They too need to be nurtured, developed and used to the best effect in the national interest.

Managing with constrained resources; operational flexibility and adaptability: Amalgamation of capabilities into multi-role constructs (that is, patrol vessels and supporting surveillance and intelligence facilities designed to support a broad range and scale of different types of operations throughout the Australian maritime domain) will present both efficiencies and inefficiencies. Care should be taken in assessing measures of effectiveness with multi-role capabilities to ensure a suitable balance between competing operational requirements.

Capabilities designed to meet narrow, specific, lower threat level requirements may appear attractive, and a range of these in the maritime security system may be justified. However, such capabilities usually cannot be readily role-changed nor can they meet higher threat level requirements. For example: small fast patrol vessels designed to operate inshore to the north of Australia will have little utility in other contexts like the Southern Ocean. Conversely, multi-role capabilities designed and prepared to meet higher threat level requirements at long distances offshore can often deal with lower threat level and inshore requirements. The potential for over-investment in capability and training in some areas must be carefully considered and managed from an efficiency perspective; and the need for flexibility and adaptability should be key effectiveness considerations.

Providing for Australia’s maritime security is a complex problem that involves many agencies.

Regional co-ordination and co-operation arrangements and capacity building: The Australian maritime border security system must be effectively integrated with our regional neighbours. We share common security concerns and challenges in policing adjacent maritime domains. Co-ordination and co-operation among complementary regional organisations is essential to effective security in the vast and complex regional maritime domain. Regional capacity building is an important consideration, particularly with Australia’s smaller island neighbours and developing states. Australia’s maritime security interests are furthered by assisting neighbours to implement effective maritime security where necessary.

Maritime security capacity building is a key focus for regional engagement and co-operation. Many island and developing counties in the region have significant capacity shortcomings. Numerous Australian government departments and agencies who are participants in the maritime agendas support regional capacity building programs. These programs are largely unco-ordinated and therefore less effective than they could be.


Australia has one of the largest maritime security challenges in the world due to the extent of its maritime domains and borders. The importance of maritime domain and border security will increase due to mounting pressure on the oceans resources and environment, and the increasing importance of maritime trade. Regulation and enforcement of jurisdiction over this vast domain will require innovative solutions, particularly given Australia’s relatively small population and small maritime sector workforce.

Political debate has, until recently, centred on whether a national coastguard is needed. A more useful policy approach to meeting Australia’s maritime domain and border security needs will be derived by concentrating upon the outcomes required, the key principles to be applied, and the impact of key drivers like national human capacity. The focus should be upon unity of purpose, simplicity and alignment of integrated organisational arrangements, and the need for capabilities designed to operate effectively and efficiently across the maritime domain. Providing for Australia’s maritime security is a complex problem that involves many agencies. Care must be taken when designing and evaluating Australia’s peacetime maritime border security arrangements and options.


Beazley, K. 2005, ‘A nation unprepared: Australia in the fourth year of a long war’, The Sydney Papers, vol. 17, no. 3/4, pp. 114–127.

Eidesvik Shipping 2008, Oceanic Viking Specifications [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].

Geoscience Australia 2001, Australia’s Oceans and Seas [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].

Geoscience Australia 2003, Coastline Lengths [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].

Geoscience Australia 2008c, Area of Australia, States, and Territories [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].

Molenaar, E.J. 2004, ‘Multilateral hot pursuit and illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean: The pursuits of the Viarsa 1 and the South Tomi’, International Journal of Marine and Coastal Law, vol. 19, no. 1, pp 19–42.

P&O Maritime Services 2008, Southern Supporter Specifications [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].

Prime Minister of Australia 2008, Media Release Homeland and Border Security Review, 22 February [Online], Available: [2008, Aug 11].


This article is derived from a submission to the review of homeland and border security arrangements for Australia, prepared by the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS). The arguments developed in the article draw on the Centre’s expertise, experience and abiding interests in maritime security policy and maritime policy more broadly.

Lee Cordner is a Principal Research Fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong. He was formerly Managing Director of strategic think tank Future Directions International Pty Ltd and a naval officer for over 30 years. He retired as a Commodore.