Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

The new Coalition Government's package of measures to reduce people smuggling has once more highlighted the importance of effective national systems for maritime surveillance and response.

Australia's arrangements are better than most, but there remains a degree of confusion as to how they work and, more critically, how they should work. A survey of the arrangements around the world and their successes and failures leads to a number of principles which seem to underlie best practice. They also suggest that Australia is generally on the right track with the Border Protection Command construct.

Principle 1

Complexity has to be accepted as a given.

There are inevitably multiple government agencies with an interest in and responsibilities for aspects of the maritime environment. The diversity of those interests and responsibilities makes an all-embracing 'oceans' organisation a practical impossibility. In other words, bringing the management of maritime affairs too closely together would result in something even more complicated than the US Department of Homeland Security.

The solution is to provide effective mechanisms for identifying security threats in the maritime environment and align the various agencies' responses to managing them (which don't just involve surveillance or on-water response) so that the best results are achieved with the resources available. 

Principle 2

There should be only one civil agency running the civil assets used for maritime security surveillance and response. This is a corollary of principle 1.

This is really important if money is not to be wasted on a grand scale. Many deficiencies in national programs and demarcation disputes between maritime security agencies in other countries are cloaks for what is actually competition over budgets. This is because the big money, and thus the potential bureaucratic power and status, lies in the acquisition and operation of the air and sea platforms.

China clearly recognised that this was an issue with the 'five dragons stirring up the sea', four of which were recently brought together in the new China Coast Guard.

Notably, however, China's search and rescue organisation, the Maritime Safety Administration, has not yet been incorporated into the new arrangements, despite the size and capability of its fleet. There are indications that the Coast Guard decision was made very quickly by China's leadership and that the new organisation is in 'catch-up' mode as it tries to bring the old Marine Surveillance, Fisheries Law Enforcement and Customs marine organisations together, but it will be interesting to see whether Maritime Safety is eventually dragged into the tent. Australia has a similar long-term question to answer in relation to the operational assets operated by Australian Maritime Safety Authority.

Multiple maritime enforcement organisations are also an issue in several South East Asian nations, despite repeated efforts to create coordinating mechanisms or even specifically designated 'coast guards'. Unless amalgamation of the operational formations is forced by a central authority, the result of new creations has generally been just to add another player to the game and complicate matters further. Having one civil agency also considerably simplifies operational coordination with the military — Australia's Border Protection Command is a good example of this.

Principle 3

The maritime surveillance and response task is not, except in the very smallest and the very largest of nations, a purely military or a purely civil problem. The best value for money lies in a careful combination of the two, particularly since the military generally has a reserve capacity that allows reinforcement of the effort in the event of trouble.

In this respect it is important to understand that the American use of its Coast Guard is effectively unique in that it is a military organisation that in peacetime operates under the Department of Homeland Security. The US Coast Guard is the key maritime law enforcement body for the US, not just because of its own long and distinguished history, but because of the inclusion of the US Navy (by regulation, rather than by law, as is the case for the Army and Air Force) in the Posse Comitatus legislation. This restricts the US military from involvement in law enforcement, particularly domestic enforcement.

Australia, with the flexible provisions of the old Customs Act, now replaced in this context by the Maritime Powers Act, has never had such restrictions on the use of the armed forces for law enforcement in the maritime domain. 

Principle 4

Asserting the need for such a civil-military combination obviously raises the question as to how assets are to be divided between the two. The decision as to whether a capability should be operated by the military or by the civil agency depends upon where its allocation provides the most options for governments.

This is not necessarily a matter of straightforward platform characteristics such as hull size, speed or range, but more usually a matter of the sensor, communications and weapon fit.

A maritime patrol aircraft which has an anti-submarine capability is clearly a military asset. One with purely surface-search equipment is not necessarily so. As far as ships are concerned, possession of sensors more sophisticated than radars and very basic electronic intercept equipment or weapons larger than light calibre guns in the 20mm range should place the vessels so fitted into naval hands, since such systems confer significant combatant capability. They also cost too much for them not to be available for higher intensity contingencies and, given that, cost too much to be value for money in purely civil organisations, which do not have to cover those other contingencies.

Finally, one of the issues which must be watched is the extent to which engagement in civil maritime security operations affects the readiness of the navy and air force for warfighting.

There is no easy answer. It requires a sophisticated and continuing dialogue between government and defence forces, particularly at times when additional units have been provided to deal with a particular civil security problem. The conversation needs to include the impact on availability for other tasking and for short-notice contingencies, the effect on training and the achievement of the appropriate standards of complex warfighting capability and the overall material readiness of the fleet.

In the end, choices have to be made and they are sometimes very difficult.

Photo by Flickr user #PACOM.