The Maritime Border Command: Concepts of Operations and the Coming of the Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel

By Robbin Laird

In my recent discussion with the CASG team in the Department of Defence managing the build of Arafura Class Offshore Patrol Vessel.  a key point was that the new build ship was being designed to enable innovations in concepts of operations and to incorporate changes in concepts of operations, rather than simply being built to a set of requirements for a particular class of vessel.

What is being established is a shift from a platform specific set of requirements to be enforced through a contracting process to a concept of operations model.

How can the mission systems evolve on the ship working interactively with other platforms deliver the effect desired from the program?

For example, rather than focusing on what the OPV will be able to contribute in terms of its organic systems onboard to deliver counter mine capabilities, the focus is on how the missions systems and maritime remote or autonomous systems onboard can work together with other relevant platforms to deliver an integrative effect to deliver the counter mine capability desired.

The synergy between the approach involved in the build of the OPV and that of the concepts of operations being shaped by the Maritime Border Command is significant.

The Maritime Border Command operates with a whole of government, integrated approach to dealing with its challenges. It requires an integrated approach to C2 and decision-making and provides a clear case of the most integrated force within the ADF/Government nexus.

As a result, the coming of the OPV fits right into their approach, and will add integrative capabilities to their overall operational capabilities.

Within the Australian forces, the Maritime Border Command is a key example of what is seen as the kind of blended force able to operate in the gray zone which is suggestive of the ADF as a whole.

In my various discussions with Rear Admiral Goddard, the head of the command, as well as his presentation at the Williams Seminar last Fall on Fifth Generation Maneuver, he discussed how the Maritime Border Command is structured to operate and in discussions with senior ADF after the seminar it is clear that this Command is a model of sorts with regard to the kind of integrated and tailorable force they view as needed to deal with regional dynamics.

He laid out how the Command  operates and its approach to integratability in his presentation to the Fifth Generation Manoeuvre Williams Foundation Seminar last Fall.

The Maritime Border Command: Rear Admiral Goddard’s Presentation at the October 2019 Williams Foundation Seminar on Fifth Generation Manoeuvre

Maritime Border Command (MBC) as a multi-agency organization, is a blended Australian Border Force and Australian Defence Force Command. Our mission is to support a whole of government effort to protect Australia’s national interests by responding with assigned forces to undertake civil maritime security operations to detect, deter, respond to and prevent illegal activities in the Australian Maritime Domain.

The civil maritime security mission is vast – and covers almost 11% of the earths surface. It is a mission that the ADF nor ABF can achieve alone – and so my command is a practical example of integration of several arms of the Australian government. Through our capacity as a convening authority, at any point in time I can rely on ADF, AFP, AFMA, intelligence agency, AFP and others unified together for effect; a true Multi-Agency.

However, the advantages of this unity of effort must be leveraged ultimately at the tactical level, through what I would term Command and not control – Robbin Laird has termed control the ‘legacy approach to hierarchical approval’ and I would tend to agree with his assertion that any advantage on the battlefield we currently have would be negated by a hierarchical approach. MBC must take advantage of the opportunities afforded from a distributed force to achieve mission success through technological advantages – our future will be through allowing sound decision making at the tactical level through sound connectedness.

By virtue of the nature of the command, MBC is answerable to both the Home Affairs Portfolio and the Australian Defence Force through the Chief of Joint Operations. This in itself has the opportunity to create advantage for the civil maritime security mission; the advantage of operating in the so-called ‘Grey Zone.’ While MBC operations are civil in nature, it has a high end mission – security of our maritime borders – and uses high-end assets to do so; an ideal future would to see the entire spectrum of both civilian and military assets put to the task.

Operating within this grey zone allows MBC to play a large role supporting and engaging a large remit of stakeholders. With regular contact with all facets of government from State/territory up to Commonwealth as well as industry in a supportive role, MBC’s force elements encompass land, sea and air – a unique arrangement in regards civil maritime security, however Australia’s Borders are unique which necessitate this approach. Reflecting a Fifth-Generation approach, the force is scalable dependent on the threat or response that is required and the structure at Maritime Border Command allows this force to fully integrate providing both situational awareness and effect.

Why do we need the flexibility such a force provides?  Maritime Border Command is responsible for 8 Civil Maritime Security Threats; not all these threats represent what might be considered traditional Coast Guard functions, rather they embody Border threats across the spectrum of Crime, violence, environment and exploitation. Piracy, robbery and violence at sea, response to Oil Platform and illegal domestic activity in our marine parks might be three examples of Coast Guard like functions performed by MBC on any given day.

MBC – even with the combined force assigned elements at its disposal – cannot conduct this mission alone. It takes global partnerships and strong interagency co-operation and co-ordination.

Maritime Border Command’s coordinating function is aimed to create time and space aiming to prevent crisis management. By way of example, in the counter narcotics space, MBC coordinates with the Australian Federal Police, Australia Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC and State Police Forces as well as international agencies such as the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime and the INTERPOL. Overseas national law enforcement agencies such as the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the UK’s National Crime Agency not only provide valuable and timely intelligence, they also allow us to push our national border for narcotics importation far off shore.

The ability to create time and space beyond our physical national borders improves MBC’s responsiveness within the SFAA and is only achievable through effective Maritime Domain Awareness. Technological improvements in platforms are only part of the picture for effective MDA – the platforms must be combined as a Joint effect and they must be interconnected – isolated pockets of effect will not only devalue the operating picture, such a  limited focus may lead to decision making out of context with the wholistic picture; the veritable fog of war. Our collective mission through the Fifth Generation manoeuvre must be a forcing function to enable effective decision making though interconnectedness.

A unique environment – one that encompasses civil maritime security from the northern extremes to the southern, from some of the hottest to the coldest places on earth. The challenges transcend geography though, how to ensure the tactical elements are receiving real-time information which will maximise their effect? How to avoid paralysis through analysis and ensure effective identification of the threats within normal patterns-of-life? MBC examines a region of the world in which major shipping lanes traverse east-west, north-south and the volume is large – more than 20000 contacts per day.

A vast area to which, on a daily basis, sufficient surveillance to provide logical decisions as to force disposition and responses can be made.

To improve understanding, MBC reliesy on an effective and complex network of inter-agency interactions, a force-multiplier greater than MBC or its Force assigned elements alone. Government Policy as always is the driver supported through the Domestic and International Engagement. Awareness is achieved through wide information sharing; MBC continuously looks to foster relationships with like-minded organisations facing similar challenges where information sharing is mutually beneficial.

So to be effective in this massive area of the global commons MBC:

  1. Seeks to push our national borders as far offshore as possible
  2. Work with international agencies to ensure a global response to Maritime Security Threats
  3. Develop and maintain a Common Operating picture covering our Maritime Domain to ensure we can identify and respond to threats well out to sea or be well prepared for their arrival in the littoral
  4. Harnessed the resources of the ADF and ABF and other government agencies to maximize the surveillance and response options available to us.
  5. Work closely with domestic agencies to ensure a robust response when threats arrive at the national border.

What of the future?

A healthy, open and accessible maritime environment is key to Australia’s economy, security and culture. We expect that the maritime domain will become more interconnected than ever before.

Australia will have to consider ways and means to share information with regional partners more fulsomely, and more rapidly; if we are to truly support a regional surveillance and awareness effort. Current ways of sharing may not be flexible enough to meet our needs – our international engagement efforts in realising this are critical to shared situational awareness.

In summary, Maritime Border Commands effectiveness is reliant on building and maintaining strong relationships between a broad network of interagency stakeholders; government and industry. This provides me the assurance that I am achieving the level of situational understanding I require to achieve my mission.

The Building of the OPV as a Reflection of the New Approach

With this focus on building what I call an integrated distributed approach, it is clear that the ADF will address building many of its new platforms with regard to how they both contribute to and can benefit most from such a concept of operations.

The new Navy vessel the Offshore Patrol Vessel being built for the Australian Navy, with some of those vessels to be used by Maritime Border Command, is clearly a case in point, and one which if highlighted and studied carefully can provide a case study of the new approach which the Australians are taking with regard to both the integrated distributed force and the role which such a force needs to play in the region.

Rear Admiral Goddard noted that in the Australian Border Force headquarters, into which Maritime Border Command’s headquarters is integrated, they have an operations floor on which the various security agencies involved in dealing with the spectrum of civil security operations work together to be able to support or direct operations at a distance dealing with a challenge coming from a regional or maritime source.

“We have on the operations floor representatives of Australian Border Force, Maritime Border Command, Border Command, Customs, Immigration, the ADF, the AFP, intelligence agencies and members of five eyes, and together we work to tailor support to the particular challenge or problem.”

He then discussed how the Command was looking forward to the future of the Offshore Patrol Vessel, which as a Navy asset (not a Maritime Border Command asset) will need to fit into this paradigm and provide the kind of operational capability looked for at sea.

In effect, the evolving C2 and ISR infrastructure being built at the Command aim to be configured to operate seamlessly with the systems which will be delivered on the OPV.

This technology advantage should provide improved communications and real-time SA for the Command, improving the speed and quality of decision making for the command element onboard the OPV to make decisions at the tactical edge.

It is understood that the Navy is building in new capabilities onto the OPV which will allow it to work with a wide variety of assets, to be able to integrate capabilities for a solution on the fly, including the ability to communicate directly to partners operating ashore in their area of interest or with partner assets in the air or on the sea.

In effect, the Navy’s new asset was being built fit for purpose, and in this case, it was building a capability able to deliver decision making at the tactical edge.

Thus, it is a microcosm of a broader set of changes occurring in the ADF which are often referred to as building a fifth-generation force.

Indeed, the shift entailed with the OPV is suggestive of broader shift within the Australian Navy as a whole. In a discussion with a former member of the Australian Navy, we discussed the nature of that shift. As this former Naval officer underscored, his earlier training as a member of the RAN highlighted more traditional thinking such as that developed by Admiral Mahan.  The main focus there has been on naval force versus naval force, naval counter-force against naval counter-force with operations conducted by the core capital ships with supporting fleet and air elements.

According to this officer, “The evolution of the technology over the past thirty years has transformed the way navies will fight going forward. So when you refer to the new C2/ISR infrastructure, a key point to keep in mind is that it morphs dependent on the operations you are trying to do and are engaged in.”

Frankly, the notion of a morphing C2/ISR infrastructure makes a lot of sense when you consider that platforms are shifting for a largely dedicated mission to becoming multi-mission and dependent on the mission you are addressing, the task forces are shaped and with it the morphing C2/ISR infrastructure.

The way he put it was as follows: “every platform is a node within that infrastructure. Their role and importance within that infrastructure changes in accordance with the tasks you are trying to accomplish and how the enemy behaves and reacts as well.”

He underscored that as maritime remotes matured they can play an important role as nodes or platforms in the morphing infrastructure as well.

“The remotes can be distributed throughout the area of interest and be there significantly in advance of when we have to create a kinetic effect. In fact, they could be operating months or years in advance of shaping the decision of what kind of kinetic effect we would need in a crisis situation.

“We need to learn how to work the machines to shape our understanding of the battlespace and to shape the kind of C2 which could direct the kind of kinetic or non-kinetic effect we are trying to achieve.”

He added a very useful insight with regard to the evolving tool sets associated with the non-kinetic domain.  He highlighted that the Bismarck entered the kill zone because of the disabling of its rudder.  This was done with a British torpedo, but what if that could by non-kinetic actions?

This is the sort of dynamic of change with which modern maritime battles will fought in part.

In my work on dealing with full spectrum crisis management, I have started with the importance of platforms and persistence, and then scalability and reachback, or in other words shaping tailored force packages appropriate to the mission and to crisis management.

He highlighted the importance of coming maritime remotes to the presence mission.

“What we want to do is actually take the mechanics behind what one might call morphing infrastructure to build a persistent capability within the theater.  With maritime remotes, we are not working to break into the area of interest, we are already there.

“What we’re doing by bringing remotes into that AO, is actually we’ve gone beyond that gray zone. We’re in the pre-kinetic mode of operation, but the infrastructure that is existing with UUVs, and surface nodes and subsurface nodes and ships, are already pre-deployed. In addition, we have patrol which can provide an environment where we have full situational awareness. That can be leveraged for kinetic operations within a crisis engagement setting as needed.”

In effect, the situational awareness piece is a prelude to the kind of full spectrum dominance one would need in a kinetic effort which would leverage such capabilities.

It is clear that this way ahead, which is central to being able to shape, operate and command, an integrated distributed force is building on the legacy platforms we have now, but is also a prologue to any new platforms to be built in the future.

A case in point is the Australian Offshore Patrol vessel, which is being built with the kind of ability to leverage offboarded systems and capabilities as part of its own operational capabilities. In this sense, the coming of the OPV plays a forcing function role within the ADF as its shapes what they call a fifth-generation force.

“The OPV will have a crew of around 40 and be tasked with the normal patrol boat tasks for the Navy and the border command.

“But because of the C2/ISR infrastructure onboard, the OPV will be part of a much larger force with reachback and range way beyond its reach as a single ship. It could operate as the mothership for a wide range of remotes; it can push that information into the wider battlespace or area of interest.”

In other words, the OPV is being designed from the ground up with off-board systems and the new C2/ISR morphing infrastructure as key building blocks.

And given the modular flexibility associated with the ship and with the remote systems payloads, the OPV could be part of an amphibious task force, provide support to a destroyer task force, be a key command element for a gray zone operation, and so on.

Because it is designed to be able to contribute to and to leverage offboard systems from the outset, it can be task organized beyond its core mission. From that sense, the future is now.