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Urgent need: It’s time to address the maritime security challenge

8 June 2024 | Jennifer Parker

Image: HMAS Warramunga. Defence Images

Australia is an island nation that is hugely dependent on the maritime domain, yet where is our overall maritime strategy?

Incredibly, we have no comprehensive plan for this and the gaps are ripe for exploitation.

The vast majority of our international trade passes through our ports, most of our internet passes through subsea cables, our exclusive economic zone is the third largest in the world, and our search and rescue area is enormous.

Protecting Australia’s strategic interests in the maritime domain is therefore a massive challenge.

Every recent government announcement on defence, including the recent fanfare around increases to the defence budget, has highlighted the need to protect our sea lines of communication, our maritime trade.

Given the importance of this, you’d be forgiven for thinking Australia has a comprehensive maritime strategy for dealing with threats, especially at a time when they are increasing.

Yet Australia does not have one, despite the fact 20 years ago the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade tabled an expansive report on the subject.

That report’s 14 recommendations included that the government release a national security strategy, clearly articulate Australia’s strategic interests, review its reserves, conduct an independent review into Australian shipping, and outline the role of merchant shipping.

Yet many of these recommendations were not followed up.

Two decades later, our dependence on maritime trade and subsea cables has increased while the threat to our strategic interests also has increased.

There also have been advancements in technology, including uncrewed underwater vehicles that provide opportunity and create risk for our maritime strategic interests.

Despite the maritime domain accounting for the 38 per cent of investment in Defence’s integrated investment program across the next 10 years, there are clear gaps in Defence’s ability to protect it.

Maritime strategy should not only address the military elements tasked to the Australian Defence Force and the Royal Australian Navy but also the civil elements including infrastructure protection, maritime safety and dealing with illegal fishing and irregular immigration, among other challenges.

While Australia released a civil maritime strategy in 2022, there are several problems with it. Despite the dependence of Australia on its subsea cables for its internet, they are not mentioned once in this civil strategy. Unaccountably, issues relating to maritime safety and pollution also were omitted from the strategy.

The relationship between Australia’s civil and military maritime elements is confused and unclear. In the event of conflict, for example, who is responsible for defence of Australia’s ports? The RAN will not have capacity.

How often are RAN frigates, destroyers and amphibious platforms being pulled from military tasks to look for irregular migrants while the Indo-Pacific maritime situation deteriorates in the face of Chinese aggression?

Again, these are just a few examples of the issues – there are many.

Now, 20 years on from the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s maritime strategy, it is time to revisit the conversation.

The Joint Standing Committee into Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade should once again take a comprehensive look at Australia’s maritime strategy and the structures that are required to protect Australia’s strategic interests against evolving maritime threats.

The global and regional trends are clear – we don’t have another 20 years to get this right.

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