- A.N. Other
- RAN operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
This essay won the New Entry Officers Course 61 Naval Historical Society History Prize, awarded in December 2019.
By Lieutenant Melissa Chen RAN1
Australia has unique problems and may thus require some unique solutions to its maritime security. Goldrick 2008.
Australia’s geopolitical position has been fundamentally influenced by one inescapable fact – that it is ‘a large continent surrounded by oceans’ (Donohue 2000). This characteristic is advantageous when viewed in terms of greater access to maritime resources, trade opportunities and protection from land–based territorial claims. Yet it has also created certain inherent vulnerabilities, primarily in relation to the illegal exploitation of natural resources, piracy, illegal maritime arrivals and maritime terrorism (Goldrick 2008).
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been at the forefront of Australia’s protective capabilities in dealing with these maritime threats. However, given the vast areas of ocean that must be monitored, effective cooperation between civil agencies and international partners is necessary if long term progress and security is to be maintained.
The aim of this essay is to critically analyse the history of RAN involvement in Australia’s maritime border protection arrangements, from the 1960s to the present. It will focus on the interactions between the RAN and other domestic and international agencies, and the various challenges that have arisen in maintaining effective border control arrangements. It will also contemplate what measures may be necessary in the future in order to continue combatting maritime security threats.
This essay will begin by outlining the legal and geopolitical changes of the 1960s to the 1990s which had a drastic impact on the evolution of Australia’s maritime security challenges and the use of the RAN in managing and monitoring these security threats. It will then examine how the MV Tampa incident and an increase in illegal maritime arrivals eventually resulted in the creation of more sophisticated arrangements for RAN and civil agency cooperation. Finally, it will postulate about two key strategies for the RAN to address future challenges in border protection – namely, fostering connections with neighbouring countries, and embracing new technologies.
Legal and geopolitical changes—the expansion of RAN maritime responsibilities
Various legislative changes concerning jurisdictional maritime limitations have had lasting impacts on Australia’s geopolitical position and subsequent border monitoring needs. In 1967, Australia officially declared territorial rights over the 12 nautical mile area of sea measured from the baseline (Donohue 2000), leading to the first formal usage of RAN and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) aircraft to patrol maritime activities (Coyne 2019). Prior to this, RAN involvement in ocean monitoring had been restricted to surveillance of Bass Strait to ensure the safety of commercial fishing vessels (Woolner 2013).
In 1977, the Australian government declared a 200 nautical mile zone over which it began to assert its exclusive right to fishing resources, leading to a sudden and dramatic increase in the need for RAN, RAAF and civil agency surveys over a significantly larger area of sea (Coyne 2019). The presence of Indonesian fishermen illegally exploiting Australian fisheries resources, alongside the arrival of Vietnamese asylum seekers, required a greater number of RAN personnel, ships and aircraft for surveillance and monitoring purposes (Gately and Moore 2002).
In the 1980s, the Australian government transferred more maritime border capabilities to civil agencies such as Customs (Donohue 2000). Further, in 1994, Australia declared a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone over its surrounding oceans, in order to claim ownership and responsibility over the resources found therein (Donohue 2000). Australia’s area of maritime responsibility was thereby increased to 8.2 million square kilometres, larger than its land mass (Woolner 2013) – an indication of the sheer enormity of distances over which monitoring capabilities had to be established.
Woolner (2002) contests that Australia’s border protection priorities were shaped primarily by public outcries and the politically sensitive reactions to the influx of illegal maritime arrivals since the 1970s. It is the ‘crisis’ reactions which helped to enlarge the spheres of responsibility for both RAN and Australian civil maritime agencies (Woolner 2013), leaving little choice but for agencies to ‘muddle through’ together (Bateman 2007). The legal changes to Australia’s maritime boundaries directly increased RAN involvement in border and resource protection, but little effort had been directed towards developing a cohesive plan to ensure cooperation and clear communication between the RAN and other Australian agencies.
The Tampa incident and the development of interagency cooperation
The Tampa incident has been described as having ‘done more than anything to bring issues of offshore enforcement by the ADF into prominence’ (Moore 2004). The incident, which took place in August 2001, involved a Norwegian container ship (the Tampa), rescuing more than 400 asylum seekers from a distressed Indonesian vessel. The Australian government subsequently declined the Tampa passage to Australian territorial waters. After a tense period of publicised accusations that some asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in order to enter Australian waters, HMAS Manoora eventually took the asylum seekers on-board and transported them to an offshore processing facility in Nauru (Bateman 2007).
The intense focus by the media on the Tampa incident, the increase in illegal maritime arrivals, the advent of offshore processing and the generally hard–line approach towards border protection adopted by successive Australian governments led to an even greater increase in RAN resources aimed at maritime border patrol (Williams 2002). This was in the form of Operation Relex and subsequently Operation Resolute, the RAN’s current response to illegal maritime arrivals (Woolner 2013). The operations have been aimed at interdiction and the turn-back of vessels towards Indonesia utilising RAN ships such as Manoora and embarked helicopters as part of a blockade to prevent foreign vessels from entering Australian waters (Woolner 2002). Yet directly following the Tampa incident, there was still no central agency with the core responsibility for maritime border protection, no designated lead for the development of a cohesive maritime border protection policy, and a ‘historical tangle of existing law’ (Woolner 2002).
In 2004, the Taskforce on Offshore Maritime Security produced the Tonkin Report. This report recommended the formation of ‘a multi-agency entity which coordinated maritime security using task-assigned military and civil assets’ (Farrer 2011). There was a shared understanding that effective border protection required the cooperation and fusion of information and resources (Donohue 2000), and the political imperative to ensure that this occurred.
In March 2005, the Joint Offshore Protection Command, later designated the Border Protection Command (and subsequently the Maritime Border Command) was created as the first Australian inter–agency organisation focusing on its mission ‘to coordinate and control whole-of-government efforts to protect Australia’s national interests against security threats in the offshore maritime domain’ (Goldrick 2008). To support the agency, the Chief of Navy allocated RAN vessels and personnel to the operational control of the Commander of Border Protection Command (Woolner 2013). The exact makeup of the Command has evolved over time, but the majority of capability comes from Customs, the RAN and a balance of other agency stakeholders (Slocombe 2013). The head of the Command is a Rear Admiral from the Department of Defence but also a designated Australian Border Force officer, and can therefore effectively coordinate activities using both border force and RAN assets. The formation of this agency has been seen as a bridging of the boundary between civil and military agencies, a necessity in light of a larger and more intertwined maritime security area (Bateman 2007).
While it is clear that there is now some level of integration between the RAN and civil agencies, as Goldrick (2018) suggests:
The next step is to ensure a symbiotic relationship between the administration that manages the civil maritime security capabilities and the parallel organisations responsible for supporting the ships and aircraft to the Defence Force. Without it, there is not only the certainty of waste and confusion, but also the possibility of system failure when put under stress in the years ahead.
The importance of properly integrating agency capabilities can be illustrated by what occurred with the Surveillance Information Management (SIM) system in 2008. The SIM system allowed RAN patrol boats to access surveillance and communications data but did not permit the same for customs vessels also involved in border patrol operations (Woolner 2013). Information is key to the maritime border protection role and without the sharing of surveillance intelligence across the vast area of responsibility, success is unattainable.
Australian governments have valued the need for interagency cooperation in the maritime border protection sphere—for example, the 2009 Budget allocated $645 million towards further developing interagency cooperation as the number of boat arrivals steadily increased (Woolner 2013). Ultimately, the proper integration of civil agencies like Customs, Coastwatch and the RAN can be a cost–effective solution to Australia’s maritime security issues (Gately and Moore 2002).
Future opportunities—promoting international relationships and new technologies
Given Australia’s unchangeable status as an island continent, the challenges to its maritime border security will continue into the future. However, there are two key factors which may influence how effectively the RAN will be able to deal with these challenges – the relationships that it fosters with neighbouring countries and their navies, and the integration of new technologies into RAN surveillance systems.
The fostering of positive relationships with Australia’s regional and international neighbours is vital due to the vast areas of water that require monitoring. As such, interoperability should not just be focused on civil agency cooperation but also the cooperation with ‘our allies, close friends and neighbours’ (Oxenbould 2000). There is a need for the RAN to continue building linkages with Asia-Pacific navies so that cooperation in areas such as people smuggling, humanitarian relief and anti-piracy can be effectively harnessed (Huxley 2008).
In particular, the relationship with Indonesia is key to Australian and RAN maritime border protection capabilities (Grewcock 2013). The 2016 Defence White Paper acknowledged that it was critical to strengthen the maritime security relationship with Indonesia to enhance Australia’s security, and that this could be achieved with exercises, operations, policy and dialogue exchanges and intelligence (Department of Defence 2016). Initiatives to prevent illegal maritime arrivals from Indonesia as a source country have been longstanding (Bateman 2007). The reason why the Indo-Australian relationship is so important is that it can help in ameliorating Australia’s maritime concerns at the source, thereby treating the causes of maritime insecurity and not just the symptoms. Joint RAN exercises aimed at increasing Indonesian capabilities to deal with illegal fishing and the education of Indonesian fishermen by the RAN about the consequences of breaking Australian maritime law are examples of ways in which this has been approached (Goldrick 2008).
The development of new technologies will also play a key role in the future of RAN maritime resource and border security protection. For example, the Wave Glider and Sea Glider Unmanned Maritime Systems have been created to autonomously conduct surveillance using sensor technology to verify and record information during day and night operations (Fastwave Com-munications 2015). In 2018, the Australian Government began to explore the future development of this technology by releasing the Future Maritime Surveillance Capability project, a formal request for information from private industry about the kinds of capabilities options that could potentially be harnessed as part of Australia’s border protection efforts (Department of Home Affairs 2018). Recently, Wyndham in Western Australia was chosen as the launch site for the Airbus Zephyr Drone, a battery operated, solar charged, lightweight aircraft that can fly for significant periods without landing (ABC News 2019).
The benefits of these technologies are that they increase the information available to decision makers relying on various sources of intelligence to make decisions about border patrol and resource protection. Woolner (2013) suggests that new technologies cannot completely overcome the difficulties involved in monitoring and gathering information at such a large scale, but they can offer the possibility of significant headway being made. Of course, such information can only be successfully acted upon when matched with a concomitant increase in manpower to react to maritime security threats (Goldrick 2008). As Coyne (2019) pertinently notes, there is a ‘need to be careful that the allure of technology doesn’t get in the way of getting the capability mix right’. The RAN’s new patrol boat fleet is an important aspect of Australia’s mix of manpower and technologies. There is no doubt that the harnessing of new technologies will continue to place the RAN at the forefront of Australia’s response to maritime security threats.
This essay has delved into the history of RAN maritime border protection since the 1960s. It began by outlining the various legal and geopolitical transformations to maritime boundaries, and continued by examining the challenges associated with RAN and civil agency interoperability following the Tampa incident.
Ultimately, this essay has suggested that in order to effectively operate as a border protection force into the future, the RAN must focus on fostering cooperation with neighbouring countries like Indonesia, and embracing new technologies. It is through these two mechanisms that the immense challenges of Australia’s maritime border protection can continue to be addressed.
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Coyne, J., (2019), Australia’s future maritime surveillance capability – it’s not just about technology, viewed 19 October 2019, <https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-future- maritime-surveillance-capability-its-not-just-about-technology/>.
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Oceans Governance and Maritime Strategy, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards.
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- LEUT Melissa Chen RAN
Where raised: I was born in Sydney and grew up in the Hills District (West Pennant Hills). After graduating from university I worked in Melbourne and Darwin as a lawyer.
Education: I attended James Ruse Agricultural High School, achieving a perfect UAI score of 100.00 in 2008. I then undertook a combined Bachelor of Arts/Law degree at the University of Sydney from 2010 to 2015. For my Bachelor of Law degree, I achieved First Class Honours and the University Medal.
Entry into the RAN: I do not have any family members in the Defence Force, however, I have always had an interest in joining the military. After completing high school, I undertook my Gap Year in the Royal Australian Navy in 2009. After completing recruit school and seamanship training at HMAS Cerberus, I was posted to HMAS Childers in Cairns. I was discharged from the Navy after completing my gap year, but throughout university and my working life as a criminal lawyer I would often reflect upon my experience during that time and wondered whether I should take the plunge to join as an officer. While I initially went through the recruitment process to become a reservist legal officer, my heart kept telling me that joining the Defence Force was something that I wanted to do on a full- time basis.
Future aspirations on graduation: I was posted to HMAS Kuttabul until the end of June 2019, and subsequently to HMAS Harman for 6 to 12 months. I want to experience as many different areas of law as possible and to increase my knowledge and skills base, and I want to travel around Australia and be deployed on ships to far flung locations around the world. I have a particular interest in teaching, education and military prosecutions, having been a lecturer and criminal defence lawyer in my previous life