Maritime surveillance

Australia’s – and the Region’s – Grand Challenge:
Situational Maritime Domain Awareness

Byline: George Galdorisi / Washington DC


“Tools, or weapons, if only the right ones can be discovered, form 99 percent of victory … Strategy, command, leadership, courage, discipline, supply, organization and all the moral and physical paraphernalia of war are nothing to a high superiority of weapons – at most they go to form the one percent which makes the whole possible.”
J.F.C. Fuller (1919)
War Made New

While few today would ascribe to Major General J.F.C. Fuller’s contention, quoted in Max Boot’s best-selling book, War Made New, the influence of technology on warfare is profound. And with this in mind, it is useful to ask what “technological course,” Australia’s Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century: Force 2030, has set Australia – and by extension – the Asia-Pacific Region on as we come to grips with the complex dynamics of the Asia-Pacific Century.

As Jack McCaffrie and Chris Rahman pointed out in their article, “Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper: A Maritime Focus for Uncertain Times,” in the Winter 2010 issue of the U.S. Naval War College Review, during the past decade Australia has shifted from fielding a defence force with a continental focus to building one that is predominantly maritime.

McCaffrie and Rahman contend that notwithstanding the broad geographical reach of its outlook, the white paper geographically bounds Australia’s main strategic interests: the defense of Australia and security in the immediate neighborhood – that is, Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and the South Pacific. This is based on the premise that Australia’s capacity to influence events is greatest closer to home.

This underlying theme profoundly influences the kind of technology the Australian Defence Force – the ADF – as well as other regional militaries with similar defence imperatives must procure to make them a viable force. Now that this White Paper has had almost a half-decade to make its influence felt, it is fair to ask what this means for industry, which must supply the technology militaries need to operationalize the White Paper’s strategy.


Geography Rules

Mention geography, and for many, their eyes glaze over as they recall primary school lessons recalling endless names of countries and capitals. But for Australia – and for other nations in the region – the influence of geography on their strategic situation is so profound, it is worth taking a moment to step back and assess the geographic realities.

It is no surprise that Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us about Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, was an instant best seller. And the mantra of his new book, that those who forget geography can never defeat it, has a profound impact of how Australia and its neighbor nations think strategically as well as what technologies they procure to execute those strategies.

And as Kaplan explained in his previous best-selling book, Monsoon, the nexus of world power is shifting decidedly to the Asia-Pacific region and Indo-Pacific Ocean. “The Greater Indian Ocean,” he writes, “stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.”

As the only country comprising a continent surrounded by water, Australians are living what Kaplan writes about and they recognize that the 21st Century represents a decided shift “from Mackinder to Mahan.” Said another way, perhaps the most profound difference between the 20th and 21st centuries is this: Europe is a landscape, East Asia is a seascape. The nexus of world power is shifting dramatically to the Asia-Pacific region and Indo-Pacific Ocean. As the only country-continent fronting both the Indian and Pacific Oceans, Australia is a critically important player in this region.

Australia has one of the largest areas of maritime jurisdiction in the world. This is vitally important to the nation’s future prosperity and security, but managing this area is a major national challenge. Furthermore, the maritime environment around Australia is becoming more complex and contentious. Over the past decade, there have been increased differences between Indo-Pacific nations on maritime issues, such as the disputes between China and Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea; the disputes between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea; North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in May 2010; and the differences of view between the United States and major Asian nations over freedoms of navigation.

The ADF has an enormous challenge to adapt to this new maritime focus given Australia’s vast responsibilities in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well as surrounding seas. The first order assignment, and one that is crucial to success or failure, is maintaining situational maritime domain awareness (MDA) of the air, surface and subsurface domains in the millions of square kilometers these oceanic areas comprise. By way of comparison, focusing on the 200 nautical mile EEZ alone, Australia has the largest area of maritime jurisdiction in the Asia-Pacific region, with an EEZ of 8.51 million square kilometres ( followed by Indonesia (6.16, India (2.30, the Philippines (1.89 and China (1.36 The ADF would be challenged as it is to selectively maintain MDA in these areas, but given Australia’s recent austerity moves, this task is becoming increasingly challenging.


The New Budget Realities

Extrapolating Robert Kaplan’s contention that, “Those who forget geography can never defeat it,” a nation – or a defence force – that ignores budget realities is doomed to failure. And the budget realities facing the ADF today can charitably be described as grim. Much ink has been spilled in the defence and international media about Australia’s recent austerity moves and especially the impact on the ADF, with Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter’s editor Kym Bergmann noting in these pages in November 2012, “At a time of Defence budget reductions it is worth considering Australia’s strategic circumstances for a moment.”

While the informed readership of APDR doesn’t need a tutorial on these new budget realities, a few points are worth noting. In the May budget, the government cut Australia’s defence spending as a share of GDP to its smallest level since 1938, at a time when the trend among major Asian powers, including China, is to increase defence spending. Australia’s defence budget this fiscal year is set to be 1.56 per cent of GDP, down from 1.8 per cent last year. And this is occurring as the total defence spending in Asia this year is projected to overtake that of Europe for the first time since the industrial revolution.
In Australia’s own region, strategic competition is creating uncertainty and driving increased military expenditure. China’s military spending continues to grow at 11 per cent, and growth in Indian military spending peaked this year at 17 percent. The need for a fully-funded defence budget for the ADF is especially compelling because while many militaries – such as the U.S. military – have modernized over the past decade, the ADF has not. Many recall that only three years ago, the Rudd government declared a need to spend an additional $130 billion modernizing the ADF.
And as widely-reported in the international press, leaders in other nations have voiced concern over Australia’s defence spending, ultimately causing some of those officials to back-track and soften what was said, leading to a situation where there is far more heat than light. Indeed, Defence Minister Stephen Smith was quoted in the Financial Review calling reports of U.S. concern about Australian defence spending “A nonsense.”
It is fair to say that the ADF is still coming to grips with these new budget realities and tough decisions will need to be made in the near and far term. And while how this will all shake out is, for the moment, opaque, what is certain is that the ADF will need to make choices and separate the “need to have” platforms, weapons, systems, and sensors from those that are “nice to have.” And as we noted above, these tradeoffs will need to be made in the context of what McCaffrie and Rahman so aptly called “Australia’s main strategic interests: the defense of Australia and security in the immediate neighborhood.”




Situational Maritime Domain Awareness

“All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I call guessing what’s on the other side of the hill.”
Duke of Wellington
The Correspondence and Diaries of the Late
Right Honourable John Wilson Croker

Few military heroes are more well-known to the inhabitants of English-speaking nations than Duke of Wellington. And while Wellington’s epic victory at Waterloo occurred almost two centuries ago in 1815, what he knew tactically as a land commander is true today in the maritime domain. The first order of business is to know, in this case, what is beyond the visual horizon in the maritime arena, in other words, to have at least situational maritime domain awareness over an area of strategic, operational, or tactical interest.

While current platforms, systems and sensors fielded by the ADF are able to provide situational coverage in some areas for some of the time, the ability to provide continuous coverage for any reasonable oceanic expanse around Australia today is nascent – at best. The areas are just too vast and the threats are just too diverse for the ADF to have a fair chance to meet the challenge of reasonable situational MDA today.

And given the types of threats the ADF will need to deal with in its “immediate neighborhood” – threats as diverse as the territorial integrity of the continent, illegal and illicit transport of drugs or persons, security of Australia’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone, other maritime territorial disputes with neighboring nations and a host of other potential threats – air assets are a primary, and often the only effective way, of “guessing what is on the other side of the hill,” in the oceanic expanse surrounding Australia.


ADF Plans for Airborne Surveillance

The ADF has made a commitment – even with its constrained budget – to procure capable assets that are well suited to provide maritime domain awareness in Australia’s immediate neighborhood – and beyond. But as with most militaries, it is not just a question of capability – but also of capacity, that is, does the totality of assets in the plan provide reasonable adequacy to do the job?

To review the bidding, as revealed in Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific Century: Force 2030, Australia has committed – in cooperation with the U.S. Navy – to acquire eight P-8A Poseidon aircraft and support systems to partially replace its fleet of aging P-3 Orion aircraft, the last of which are scheduled to be retired from service in 2018. The P-8A Poseidon is based on the Boeing 737, and modified to incorporate the latest maritime surveillance and attack capabilities. These aircraft figure to form the basis for providing for Australia’s maritime domain awareness.

But partially is the operative word here, because the Project AIR 7000 Plan has called for a multi-mission unmanned aircraft system to complement the manned Poseidon in much the same way that the U.S. Navy intends to operate these platforms. For the US Navy, the maritime surveillance package of the future teams the Poseidon with the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system (UAS), a derivative of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, the high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system with an integrated sensor suite that is currently providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – ISR – capability worldwide.

A word about Global Hawk. Global Hawk is produced in four distinct blocks. Seven Block 10 aircraft were procured, but were retired from the inventory in FY11. Block 20s were initially fielded with IMINT only capabilities, but four Block 20s were converted to an EQ-4 communication relay configuration carrying the Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) payload. Block 30 is a multi-intelligence platform that simultaneously carries electro-optical, infrared, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and high and low band SIGINT sensors. Block 30 Initial Operating Capability (IOC) was declared in August 2011. Eleven Block 30s are currently fielded with IMINT sensors and support every geographic combatant command. Block 30s also supported Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya and humanitarian relief efforts during Operation Tomodachi in Japan. SIGINT sensors will be added to all Block 30s. Block 40 will carry the Radar Technology Insertion Program (RTIP) active electronically scanned array.

For the same reasons the U.S. Air Force employs the Global Hawk to support its efforts primarily in land campaigns, the U.S. Navy is procuring the Triton UAS because it is optimized for the maritime domain. In a broadcast in September 2012, Radio Australia quoted American intelligence analyst and author Matthew Aid who clarified the difference between the Global Hawk and the Triton. Aid noted, “Global Hawk was designed for pin-point imagery or eavesdropping on land targets, by overflight, or by flying obliquely up to 450 kilometres off an enemy’s coastline. Triton was designed for broad area maritime surveillance – [tasks such as] following ships from high altitude.” This is one reason the U.S. Navy expects to procure up to 68 Tritons and why the ADF and RAAF now see the Triton as their UAS of choice.

Australia is at the leading edge of a trend that is gaining increased traction with militaries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. In November 2012, in an article entitled, “In Asia, C4ISR Market is Growing,” Defense News noted, in part:

Maritime territorial disputes and security problems have caused the Asian market for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) to continue expanding. China’s aggressive behavior in the East China and South China seas over the past two years has rattled the region. And continued concerns over piracy and other security issues in the Malacca Strait and Singapore Strait feed Singapore’s quest for “sense-making” by the military…Nations in the region are looking at procuring maritime patrol aircraft, UAVs, and beacon location systems for ships … The military needs ISR aircraft and UAVs to patrol offshore islands and sea lines of communication and monitor fishing areas…ISR is not only for military operations but also for disaster relief, commercial fishing surveillance command and control, anti-terrorism, and search and rescue.

This survey of the maritime C4ISR needs of Asia, collectively, also provides a fair representation of Australia’s defence needs as it works its way through the second decade of the 21st Century and clarifies (it’s the next iteration of its defence white paper, scheduled to be released in 2013) its regional security responsibilities. But clearly, “guessing what is on the other side of the hill,” will be a bedrock responsibility for the ADF. And simply put, a fleet of eight P-8A Poseidon aircraft will not be sufficient to begin to carry out this mandate.

Inside the UAV Part of the Equation

In a nutshell, Triton is capable of flying at altitudes up to 56,000 feet above inclement weather and prevailing winds for more than 28 hours at a time and traveling at speeds above 300 knots. It’s a big bird, with max gross takeoff weight of over 16 tons, a length of almost 50 feet and a wingspan of 130 feet. It can fly over 8,200 nautical miles on a single bag of fuel and perhaps most importantly, has a combined internal and external payload capacity of over 5,000 pounds.

This high-altitude high-endurance unmanned aircraft system includes an air vehicle, a suite of integrated payloads and sensors, and a ground-based command and control component. It is designed to provide persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance coverage of wide littoral and oceanographic areas. It is re-configurable to meet changing maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission requirements.

Triton’s operating altitude puts it above most air traffic and weather, while providing significant additional sensor horizon above all manned platforms. That high altitude also provides significant range to its suite of payloads that includes an electro-optical targeting system and an Automatic Identification System (AIS) among others. The air vehicle’s speed gives the system responsiveness and flexibility while its ability to loiter above an area of interest for longer than a day provides persistence crucial to ISR and MDA operations.

The bird’s attributes aside, the system’s ability to collect and share data and information are impressive. Using multiple line-of-sight and satellite communications data links, images and other ISR data can be delivered in near real time for rapid exploitation. In addition, that same information can be sent from the air vehicle directly to maritime forces or multiple ground processing facilities simultaneously.

As in every other nation or military that has even considered adding UAS to its arsenal, there has been some resistance to this change by advocates of an all-manned aircraft option. And as a U.S. Naval Aviator for three decades, the author had been part of the “union” that once harbored the same attitude. But for Australia and especially the ADF, trying to do this mission with more manned aircraft is simply not an option. And what is likely to happen if the ADF fails to procure UAS to complement its fleet of Poseidons, is the operational challenges the ADF faces will, literally, force it to overuse and wear out its fleet of Poseidons, sub-optimizing its multi-billion investment in these highly-capable multi-mission aircraft.



Into the Future

The arguments to support the ADF’s procurement of the Poseidon and a large UAS like Triton are compelling and supported by substantial data. Fortunately for the ADF and the RAAF, the U.S. Navy has stepped forward as the “first user,” compiled this data, and made a well-informed decision to build its future MDA and ISR on the Poseidon-Triton solution.

The ADF and RAAF would be well served to study the data in making their own informed decision regarding how to satisfy its compelling MDA and ISR challenges. The ADF and RAAF can optimize the substantial investment in new airborne platforms by procuring the right platforms to perform the right missions. Nothing less is at stake than the security and prosperity of the Australian nation.

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