Tac Talks: Protecting Australia’s Maritime Trade: The need to plan now to bring the future into the present

Tac Talks No. 1
Tac Talks No. 1

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CAPT Michael Beard



Maritime security incidents in 2019 saw coordinated attacks against commercial shipping near the Strait of Hormuz, off the Port of Fujairah, and in the Sea of Oman. These events proved a lightning rod to fuel international concerns over the fundamental importance and integrity of maritime trade to the broader global commons.[1] The incidents highlighted the very real consequences of having shipping interrupted, be it short-term or of a more sustained nature, particularly in terms of the resilience, security and the economic prosperity of those nations reliant upon freedom of navigation through unfettered access to international maritime commerce.

Ongoing maritime security incidents of this nature, coupled with unforeseen global shocks such as the emergence of coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), have a disrupting effect on the global commons and on the movement of international shipping.

Australia is not impervious to such effects. While there appears a low national tolerance of any disruption to critical Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC)[2] Australia is not immune to the fallout arising from any interference to international maritime trade supply deemed critical to national security. There are any number of maritime-based strategic vulnerabilities relating to Australia’s own economic interconnectedness, just-in-time supply arrangements, our continuing reliance on single sources of essential sea supply, and fundamental dependence on maritime-based imports and exports. However, there is the expectation that, regardless of how the strategic environment may shift in the future, such supply through key SLOC will continue. As the events of 2019 demonstrate things can change rapidly and therefore, maintaining this blinkered view of maritime supply is unrealistic.

In 2017-2019 the combined value of Australia’s seagoing international imports and exports was over $600 billion.

ANI & Naval Studies Group (UNSW)
Protecting Australian Maritime Trade
Proceedings of the 2019 Goldrick Seminar, 19 March 2020

The fundamental importance of Australia’s SLOC to the nation’s future and wellbeing is well understood. More than 99 percent of Australia’s imports and exports by volume (and nearly 80 percent by value) rely on international shipping. Some 90 percent of total transport fuels are imported by sea; approximately 15 percent of this tanker trade transits the Strait of Hormuz.[3] The INDOPAC region is home to the world’s ten busiest seaports. The greatest international sea-lane traffic by volume of trade and economic activity transits this region on a daily basis.

Figure 1: Submarine Cable Network - Pacific and Indian Oceans (TeleGeography)
Figure 1: Submarine Cable Network - Pacific and Indian Oceans (TeleGeography)

Such importance is not simply restricted to merchant shipping considerations. There is also the offshore estate to factor in, along with a strong dependence on a comprehensive network of submarine cables that link Australia with the rest of the world. This communications network for example, carries exponential information flows that account for more than 95 percent of Australia’s telecommunications traffic.[4] Australia’s maritime communications links and oil and gas infrastructure also present significant SLOC vulnerabilities. Even minor interference or short-duration disruption to these vital ‘sea lines of commerce’ would have significant and wide-ranging economic and security consequences.

In highlighting such vulnerabilities, in particular the susceptibility of merchant shipping and what needs to be done to mitigate the risk, a key take-away from the 2019 Goldrick Seminar, that convened to discuss maritime trade and its implications for Australia’s defence, confirmed that:

Australia has a critical dependence on maritime trade for both sustainment of national society and for generation of wealth.[5]

Of relevance to the Royal Australian Navy (Navy) was a related seminar finding stating that not only is there ‘no coherent whole-of-government strategy’ to address Australia’s strategic vulnerabilities but also a lack of supporting naval measures in the form of a maritime trade plan.[6]

The Absence of a Maritime Trade Strategy - Implications for Navy


At a whole-of-nation level, the framework for our [Australia’s] preparedness should be a National Security Strategy. And at the heart of a National Security Strategy, should be a Maritime Trade Strategy. Today, in Australia, neither exist.

ANI & Naval Studies Group (UNSW)
Protecting Australian Maritime Trade
Proceedings of the 2019 Goldrick Seminar, 19 March 2020

Without recourse to a maritime trade strategy that nests neatly within a broader national (maritime) security strategy, Navy will continue to operate in a vacuum in its efforts to assure open and stable SLOC. The absence of a maritime trade strategy makes it problematic to adopt a unified warfighting mentality that includes definitive guidance in executing one of Navy’s core warfighting roles; the protection of maritime trade and the safeguarding of merchant shipping, either in close proximity to Australia’s ports and coastal margins or off the Australian station.[7]

The lack of direction in addressing the various intersections and interdependencies associated with protecting Australia’s maritime trade across the spectrum of scalable threats, places Navy at a significant disadvantage in terms of its preparedness for a prolonged fight. This is especially true in relation to Navy’s capacity and ability to effectively prosecute the economic warfare aspects of any low or high intensity conflict in the event that we actually end up having to do this for real. Put another way, the inability to leverage a contemporary strategy to inform operational planning which can then optimise professional competencies to effectively undertake Navy’s sea supply protection role, is irreconcilable with both the intended vision for an integrated warfighting community and the Navy mission and the task of preserving the integrity of Australia’s SLOC.

“Seaborne commerce and naval power are meshed together.” Australia’s maritime industry will always remain fundamental to current and future defence capability. Industry should therefore be viewed as an allied enabler in the warfighting effort and considered an invaluable partner central to the “sine qua non of [Australia’s] naval power.”[8]

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Maritime military operations in the future will likely see more interactions with industry in terms of assisting the flow of strategic forces and the movement of equipment and combat-related cargo to theatres of operation. Such a future will be shaped not only by military sealift but by having a much greater reliance on contracted commercial resources. Having the warfighter simply appreciate this relationship, the importance of maritime trade, and the need to secure our SLOC is not sufficient. Likewise, adopting a self-assured ‘it’ll be right on the day’ approach and hoping that industry will be able to self-manage in any contingency, is misinformed and short-sighted. Further, those charged with providing the ‘security of the sea’ need to have a contemporary understanding of trade and industry-related warfare skills and knowledge and be able to exercise this by exploiting diverse naval capabilities. This mindset needs to evolve from having some reasonable idea of the processes governing, and the thinking behind, those responsible for the ‘business of the sea’.[9]

Without fully appreciating how Australia’s maritime industry functions and how to effectively engage with merchant vessels if and when naval protection is required, the efficacy of Navy’s warfighting effort will come under scrutiny. The challenge will manifest not only in terms of actively demonstrating its trade protection remit but perhaps more importantly, in terms of Navy’s preparation to execute such responsibilities. Without this awareness and without a practical level of industry familiarity, Navy will find it difficult to communicate in any meaningful way with the commercial sector, particularly when it comes to interoperability. And without having some reasonable understanding of how industry actually operates, Fleet units will find it difficult to employ the tactical measures that can effectively protect shipping in a way that is recognised, understood and accepted by all stakeholders.

Protecting Australia’s Maritime Trade - Commonwealth War Book


Understanding the need for some form of strategic plan to protect Australia’s maritime trade was once approached in a collegiate manner as a whole-of-government responsibility. As late as the early 1960s, governmental planning to mitigate the threat to national SLOC during conflict was articulated and captured in the Commonwealth War Book (CWB). The intent of the CWB was to prepare Australia by taking the entire machinery of Government to a ‘war footing’, to mobilise on a national scale.[10]

The CWB leveraged the lessons learned from periods of conflict and other contingency events between 1897 and 1956, particularly those that required the Commonwealth to rapidly transition from a peacetime setting to a war emergency. In effect, the CWB was a high-level maritime-focussed security strategy that provided the necessary direction and guidance during times of uncertainty, to inform the development of related subordinate Service, agency, departmental, industrial and bureau plans at a State, Territory and local level.[11]

Figure 2: Naval Measures Relating to SLOC - Commonwealth War Book 1956 (Dr M. Bailey)
Figure 2: Naval Measures Relating to SLOC - Commonwealth War Book 1956 (Dr M. Bailey)

The CWB was effective in its ability to trigger the processes designed to activate and integrate existing contingency-based planning around national security, the preservation of national wellbeing, and the protection of Australia’s SLOC. Such processes included clear direction to each of the Services. For example, no less than seven of the sixteen chapters comprising the 1956 version of the publication talked to maritime trade issues in some form. This included Chapters 3 and 9 which detailed specific measures to be taken by Navy to enact maritime trade operations to protect Australia’s maritime trade. To this end these particular chapters arguably once formed the basis of Navy’s maritime trade strategy.

However, after an extended period of certainty and peace where the prospect of a military attack has been remote, the need to maintain such collaboration has diminished. The CWB has fallen by the wayside and the once firmly-entrenched naval responsibility to protect maritime trade has largely been forgotten. Contemporary military planning seems to have headed off on a tangential course from one that previously prioritised the importance of maritime trade protection. Understandably, the very notion of the warfighter needing to retain proven skills necessary for the application of naval measures designed to protect shipping, and to then refine this knowledge in collaboration with industry, has been missing from Navy’s operational thinking and tactical training for too long. “In previous conflicts the RAN developed comprehensive plans to protect merchant shipping in the port precinct, the approaches, the littoral, and open ocean. [Today]...such plans are absent.”[12] In witnessing the current realignment of Australia’s strategic landscape as detailed in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, and as nations address the global disruption to maritime trade in the face of COVID-19, it is argued that the same ‘general war planning’ and established trade-related responsibilities and functions once in place are just as relevant today.

A Renewed Strategic Focus on Maritime Trade Security and National SLOC


Recognising this provides a solid opportunity for Australia and for Navy’s warfighting community to get back on track. Focussed work in certain quarters is again acknowledging the importance of maritime trade as a fundamental national security issue. As part a renewed interest in military mobilisation, there is also renewed interest in the role of Navy in being able to address this issue and the ability and preparedness of the warfighter to protect merchant shipping and SLOC.

Defence Mobilisation Working Group. A VCDF-sponsored Defence Mobilisation Working Group continues to revisit ADF mobilisation planning. This body of work is in response to a rapidly changing strategic environment and the realisation that recent times has seen little effort or research into working out how the “ADF would mobilise to defend maritime trade, be it in near or distant seas, or even in Australia’s ports.”[13]

As part of this three-year project, it is understood the group will include a review of the dimensions characterising Australia’s maritime trade. This will hopefully seek informed thinking regarding lessons learned, SLOC criticalities and vulnerabilities, and the myriad issues surrounding the ability, and potential requirement for, the requisition of commercial platforms for military purposes. In undertaking this task there probably needs to be a level of maritime trade risk analysis (in terms of where Australia’s trade goes to and where it comes from), one that could possibly consider the potential costs associated with mobilisation that in turn, might then inform Navy’s future force structure. This project is a significant undertaking. However, it is one that affords the opportunity to develop overarching strategic direction and guidance that reconnects with past policies in as much as the outcome from this working group might well end up reviving the concept and philosophy of the original CWB.

A contemporary CWB would in itself, be advantageous. It could again become a capstone document reflecting a national war mobilisation planning resource not only for Defence but for other lead agencies in developing respective operational/action plans. Specifically for Navy, an up-to-date Chapter 3 of the CWB could easily provide the template for the required maritime trade strategy.

Maritime Trade Protection - Current Navy Direction and Guidance


Navy’s ‘maritime trade operations’ capability is captured in extant doctrine as part of Australian Maritime Operations 2017 (AMO). This philosophical approach however, only provides an outline of the strategic and capability picture as it relates to civilian-military interaction and the preservation of shipping in an operational area. Broader operating environment planning is still required to specifically address the ‘how to’ piece of the maritime trade protection equation. Unfortunately, “how the RAN conducts maritime battlespace management or contributions to joint maritime operations is not well articulated.”[14] This gap is particularly evident in the joint space where the lack of guidance continues to hamper Navy’s ability to implement the kinetic effects and naval measures required to give effect to any overarching maritime trade protection-related operational (or strategic) intent.

The blueprint governing Navy’s evolution over the next twenty years, Plan Mercator (Navy Strategy 2036), clearly links Navy with its trade protection role. Unfortunately, this appears the only tangible reference to trade protection. While this long-term strategy is due an update this year (along with Plan Pelorus), the current stated aim in Mercator in having Navy ‘set the conditions for trade’ is unfortunately not reflected in Navy’s complementary direction covering the next four years under the current Plan Pelorus (Navy Strategy 2022). While stating that the maritime domain remains central to the security and prosperity of the nation, and while emphasising the need for Navy to be able to respond to the full spectrum of conflict, at present there is no specific reference in Navy Strategy 2022 regarding Navy’s core maritime trade protection role. Nor does the plan make any reference to the aforementioned ‘how’; that is, the means by which Navy might prepare for and be positioned to execute and then sustain, the trade protection role as part of the Navy mission.

For many in the audience at last year’s Goldrick seminar there were few if any, indications suggesting whether the ‘how’ had been thought through or indeed, afforded much attention at all. This observation would support renewed arguments for a greater school of thought to be added to the warfighting agenda so that the challenges surrounding the issue of trade protection can start to be addressed.

So Is Maritime Trade Protection a Warfare Priority? Navy’s operationally-focussed planning would suggest not. The updated Navy Warfighting Strategy 2022 also makes no reference to maritime trade or to the issue of sea supply protection, either as an implied task, as an enabling line of effort, or as part of a Warfighting Line of Operation (LOO). In terms of enabling contributions to the generation and certification of Fleet’s warfighting capability, frustratingly this omission is compounded by the fact that trade protection is also not afforded any attention in either the Fleet Warfighting Strategy 2022 or the Fleet Warfighting Plan 2022 in any form that clearly correlates to a particular ‘milestone’ or ‘stepping stone’ in supporting the Sea Control LOO in the complimentary Warfighting Campaign Plan.

Not surprisingly therefore, current levels of awareness and understanding (and acceptance) within Navy’s warfighting community of one of Navy’s core warfare responsibilities is inconsistent with the future warfare workforce requirement under Navy’s Warfare Mastery Program that is underpinned by three key strategic drivers; being able to maintain speed or relevance, embracing complexity of capability and being willing to adopt a unified approach appropriate to the future fight.

It becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile this lack of shared understanding of capability and ‘general war planning’ direction and guidance, with Navy’s ‘fight and win at sea’ mission, the success of which is predicated on the ability to understand and exploit the joint maritime battlespace across the entire spectrum of conflict.

Raise, Train, Sustain - Maritime Trade Protection Mastery


This lack of alignment and connectivity throughout Navy’s cascading planning guidance regarding maritime trade protection has any number of second and third order effects that impact the current state of warfare training. Some key exercises within Navy’s Force Generation (FORGEN) programme and within the Joint Warfighting Series do include serialised input from Navy’s Maritime Trade Operations (MTO) capability. However, not since the 1990s through the TASMANEX activity has any mainstream warfare exercise probably practiced tin any meaningful way Navy’s maritime trade protection role or included Fleet units actually exercising trade protection operations.[15]

Upskilling Warfare Training. Current FORGEN exercise LOOs, along with broader joint collective training, are increasingly focussing on skills and knowledge relating to offensive and manoeuvre joint/maritime warfare and warfighting lethality. There is a view that our own platforms need to be defended as a priority so we are then in the best position to defeat an adversary in order to gain sea control for our own operational and tactical purposes (such as enabling the safe transit of vital shipping). Some commentators however, subscribe to the idea of “sea control [being] increasingly out of reach of modern navies”.[16] It is conceivable then of instances where sea control might never be realised or where sea control ends up being contested over a protracted period. Maritime forces could just as easily be called on to protect shipping and guard the movement of trade in a hostile and contested environment before sea control (or sea denial) can actually be achieved.

Navy’s warfare training needs to acknowledge the importance of trade protection as part of a unified concept of warfighting that embraces discipline-specific capabilities commensurate with the Warfare Community Workforce Capability Statement. Understanding how key doctrinal principles can be applied to the full spectrum of conflict will greatly assist the generation and maintenance of Navy’s low and high-end warfighting capability (and workforce). However, the application of doctrinal ‘fitness’ needs to factor in the trade protection role as one that in the future, will require levels of naval intervention and end-to-end operations regardless of the operational state of play. Accordingly, the warfighter should be upskilled in trade protection tactics, techniques and procedures and for such skills and knowledge to then be routinely exercised with industry to ensure currency, competency, and professional mastery. Only then can the ‘how’ start to be mastered. For its part, maritime trade operations specialists must be able to contribute to enhancing their own profession in the operational, doctrinal, policy and training spaces.

Unfortunately, no exercise affords Navy the opportunity to engage industry in a way that comes close to achieving the levels of trade protection interoperability required during a contingency. There is little if any opportunity in the exercise space for the warfighter to utilise trade protection proficiencies to help enable full exploitation of the environment, exploitation that uses every applicable capability and measure at the warfighter’s disposal.

Exercising With Industry


In recognising the importance of the merchant navy’s role in future theatres of operation, there is clear evidence of the need for increased maritime industry and merchant marine shipping participation in large-scale military exercises. The US Navy’s Military Sealift Command Atlantic has recognised this more-so over the last five years. The Oil Companies International Marine Forum now routinely participates with the US Navy as part of the International Maritime Exercise (IMX). The IMX aims to promote interoperability and demonstrate resolve in maintaining regional security and stability (which includes protecting maritime trade and assuring the free flow of commerce). IMX 2019 was conducted in the Middle East Region and included naval vessels and military personnel from over fifty nations and importantly, seven international maritime industry organisations.[17]

Further, prior to COVID-19 re-shaping the NATO-sponsored Exercise DEFENDER - EUROPE 2020, the US Navy originally planned to exercise cross-Atlantic convoy operations for the first time since the Cold War. By involving Military Sealift Command’s organic assets together with contracted commercial vessels, the intent was to improve civil-military communication and so understand “where are the gaps, what systems can we look at for the future, and how we can better [command and control] these convoys.”[18]

The RAN might have embraced a similar shared understanding of this need in the past. However, the intent of such industry interaction no longer feature as a planning consideration. Trade protection-related warfare skills and knowledge as part of Navy’s applied approach to integrated warfare have atrophied as a result.

It would be prudent to revisit the past and once again, look to explore periodic industry engagement as part of joint collective training or as part of the FORGEN exercise suite in Navy’s focus on delivering the Warfighting Campaign Plan. The intent here would be to develop competencies, identify the challenges, learn lessons and test the veracity and effectiveness of operational planning. The Fleet Certification Period for example, might prove an appropriate activity for such engagements to re-introduce, develop and progressively enhance the warfighter’s tactical proficiency through serials designed around specific Fleet units exercising delaying and non-delaying maritime trade protection measures in-company with one or more merchant vessels.

Planning exercises along such interoperability lines would undoubtedly present challenges. However, these are not insurmountable. Obstacles to interoperability should not be seen as reasons for not trying. Past lessons need to be learnt and acted upon. The idea of exercising with industry now, to build competencies to be better prepared for the future operating environment, has clear parallels with the past. Recognising these parallels and understanding the time required to develop the civilian-military relationship should alone, be sufficient to warn us against continued indifference, complacency and ‘strategic inattention.’[19]

Benefits of Interoperability. Apart from the obvious preparedness issues, there are any number of benefits to be gained by exercising with industry. Engagements would engender a greater understanding in terms of interoperability and help build a stronger relationship. Any effective partnership requires a solid appreciation of how each other operates, communicates and is likely to react when faced with certain circumstances. Periodic engagements would enhance the maritime sector’s expectations of Navy and reassure industry as to Navy’s ability to undertake and commitment to, maritime trade protection.

...interoperability is based on the clarity of the goal and shared attachment to a common purpose...

VADM Tim Barrett, RAN, The Navy and the Nation

By practicing interoperability, Navy and industry would progressively become more comfortable in their respective preparations to be able to confidently work together, initially in a simulated exercise environment. Through periodic trade protection exercises, the relevant operational and tactical skills and knowledge could be developed by and then refined both by the warfighter and the merchant mariner, to prepare each for a future ‘global shock’ that might jeopardise Australia’s dependence on international trade. The outcomes of such engagements would undoubtedly prove invaluable to inform current and future trade protection-related operations, such as those undertaken during last year’s deployment of HMAS Toowoomba in supporting Operation SENTINEL and the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) initiative.

Embracing opportunities for civilian-military interoperability would also enhance Australia’s international standing through demonstrable military measures, such as support for the IMSC, aimed at ensuring the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waters.

A Maritime Trade Strategy - Some Underlying Considerations


In addition to other inputs and considerations, outcomes from exercising with industry would help contribute to the development of a maritime trade strategy. It is not proposed in this article to outline what this strategy might look like, whether this is a contemporary CWB chapter(s), a product comparable to the intent of the original CWB, or something completely different. Rather, what is emphasised at this point is the need to adhere to some fundamental principles that should in turn, inform the debate and help shape round table discussions surrounding the strategy’s development:

  • The protection of maritime trade is and will remain, an abiding mission for Navy
  • Because trade protection will need to be considered in various contingency situations, a range of naval actions and measures will be required to counter the scalable nature of trade disruption that now manifests as a concerning ‘grey zone’ activity
  • It is unlikely that Navy will have the Fleet units and assets at its disposal to protect all merchant shipping, all the time, in all circumstances – the strategy will need to understand what constitutes ‘essential trade’ and consider the prioritisation of key trade route
  • Exercising effective trade protection will require the warfighter to possess a range of additional warfare skills and knowledge as they relate to industry and the concept of trade protection
  • The effectiveness of trade protection measures, along with the currency of associated skills and knowledge, will again deteriorate if not routinely exercised through meaningful opportunities for interoperability.

A maritime trade strategy that can complement a national (maritime-based) security strategy might also consider leveraging Navy’s existing procedural-level maritime trade operations doctrine.[20] Further, such a strategy should probably be considered as part of the broader warfare effort such that the trade protection intent finds its way into Navy’s warfighting direction and operational planning.

The crafting of a maritime trade strategy will need to consider what actual measures might be called upon in the event of a contingency. Such measures include the number and type of platforms that would likely be required to protect shipping, and any modifications to current warfare training envisaged under the Warfare Mastery Program. For example, will there again be a role for the Navy Reserve in contributing to harbour defence and port protection measures or as convoy liaison officers? To what extent should warfare training have an increased focus on the trade protection task and what this might involve? While the notion of convoy operations for example, might be an anathema to some and be seen as something incompatible with warfare training in the modern strategic environment, in certain circumstances its employment might be the only effective trade protection measure available commensurate with the operational situation.[21] One only has to look at what was originally planned for Exercise DEFENDER - EUROPE 2020, and the emergent need to implement at short notice rudimentary convoy operations to maintain sea supply operations during Exercise TALISMAN SABRE 19, to appreciate how the planning mindset might well be changing to again accommodate past and proven measures.

Cognisant of the above and the desire to ensure appropriate buy-in at all levels, a bottom-up approach in developing a maritime trade strategy would seem appropriate, particularly if answers are to be found to some key questions. Answers to these and related queries would then help inform a complementary ‘naval measures’ operational plan that can start to address the ‘how’:

  • Trade Analysis - what trade routes and associated shipping need to be considered essential to protect in supporting both Australia’s national interests and in denying any potential adversary?
  • Tactics - what tactical measures (along with what proportion of measures/specialisations) should Navy be prepared to deploy to protect shipping, both in terms of procedures and warfare capabilities?
  • Resources - how will Fleet units be prioritised and assigned to protect shipping?
  • Technology - might there be a role for new and emerging technologies in protecting maritime trade?
  • Training - what changes might be needed in the conventional warfighting training continuum to upskill the warfighter to confidently and competently implement specific trade protection measures?
  • MTO Capability - notwithstanding the Navy Reserve nature of the organisation, is there an enhanced role for MTOT1 in helping train, prepare, and support Navy in undertaking the full suite of trade protection operations?
  • Force Structure - what might the implications be for Navy’s future force structure in terms of platform types and numbers?
  • Industry - what might industry’s expectations be of Navy in the former’s assumption that shipping will be appropriately protected in the event of a contingency?
  • Exercises - to avoid any degradation of skills, how might opportunities for periodic trade protection interoperability be incorporated into the raise, train, sustain and joint collective training space?



The 2020 Defence Strategic Update is a timely reminder of how Australia’s military capability edge is being increasingly challenged in a time of reducing confidence in the rules-based global order, represented by a rising trend in assertive and coercive grey-zone conflict. This rapidly changing environment will do little to ease increasing concerns over Australia’s strategic vulnerabilities in the maritime trade space. Recent events in the Middle East Region highlight the relative ease in which economic warfare can now be waged. Any miscalculation in waterways such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Bab al-Mandeb or in regions that include the South China Sea, is likely to have major SLOC implications in terms of Australia’s dependence on key commodities and a continued reliance on an open, free and secure maritime trading system.

Maritime trade operations that focus on the protection of trade, will remain a key role for the Royal Australian Navy. This responsibility will become even more abiding given the likely nature and duration of future maritime military operations, particularly those fought in congested, information-denied, contested, and high-threat environments. Prosecuting such operations will increasingly see more interactions with maritime industry not less. A change in both Navy’s warfighting mentality and the military planning mindset is warranted, one that takes into account a more modern and integrated operational context. This shift needs to reflect not only Navy’s capacity for self-preservation while exercising lethality but also a concurrent ability to be able to reach out and effectively protect shipping.

If Navy is to fulfil its trade protection raison d'être it needs to be guided by a pragmatic maritime trade protection strategy that will contribute to making Australia more resilient to global shock in the future. This strategy should clearly articulate who in a conflict is going to protect Australia’s SLOC and sea supply, how this might actually be achieved and importantly, under what circumstances. It should also have sufficient substance and clarity to be able to value-add to the warfighter’s understanding of the ‘how’ through appropriate priorities and measures that focus on interoperability and through procedures and actions that can be periodically tested through meaningful civilian-military engagements. History demonstrates the value of naval forces and merchant vessels working closely to an effective operational plan.

Navy needs to plan for the future in the event we are called upon to protect Australia’s SLOC and maritime trade during a real-world operation. The continued absence of trade protection direction and guidance will in all likelihood, perpetuate a mindset that only focuses on warfighting lethality. It is only through recourse to a maritime trade strategy that the often overlooked economic warfare component of the warfare continuum can be fully and successfully prosecuted by a Navy prepared with a contemporary warfighting mentality that aligns with the vision of an integrated warfare community.

About the Author


CAPT Michael Beard is the Director Maritime Trade Operations Team 1.


  1. The notion of ‘maritime trade’ comprises two elements; a ‘sea supply’ component which reflects the resources critical to national security (e.g. fuel, fertilisers) and a monetary component associated with imports and exports. The latter is fundamental to a nation’s economic prosperity (e.g. the economic value associated with revenue generated from trade- related imports and exports). For the purpose of this article, the terms ‘maritime trade’ and ‘sea supply’ are used interchangeably.
  2. Australian Government, Department of Home Affairs, Profiling Australia’s Vulnerability: the interconnected causes and cascading effects of systemic disaster risk, Commonwealth of Australia, 2018, https://www.aidr.org.au/media/6682/national-resilience-taskforce-profiling-australias-vulnerability.pdf, (accessed 6 January 2020). The low national tolerance of any disruption to critical SLOC is perhaps best highlighted by the heightened risk to Australia’s energy security, notably domestic liquid fuel supplies. The very fact that Australia’s economy remains reliant on liquid fuel prompted the 2019 Liquid Fuel Security Review. It was also a key reason for convening the inaugural Liquid Fuel Security Conference in Canberra in late March 2020.
  3. P. Jones, Protecting Australian Maritime Trade: Proceedings of the 2019 Goldrick Seminar, Canberra, Australian Naval Institute and Naval Studies Group (UNSW) 19 March 2020, pp. 3 and 6. While some estimates suggest a much higher crude export figure through the Strait of Hormuz (in the order of 34 percent), Maritime Industry Australia Limited assess this tanker trade to be approximately 15 percent.
  4. Ibid, p. 10
  5. Ibid, p. 16
  6. Ibid, p. 16
  7. ‘Maritime trade operations’ is Navy’s capability that provides the interface between military operations and the commercial maritime industry. It is defined as the coordination of ADF resources specific to the protection of maritime trade and merchant shipping. Trade protection responsibilities in an operational area form a key component in realising effective maritime trade operations as part of the overall Navy mission.
  8. T. Barrett, The Navy and the Nation; Australia’s Maritime Power in the 21st Century, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2017, p. 26
  9. Ibid, p. 35
  10. Information pertaining to the Commonwealth War Book has been drawn from the excellent research work undertaken by Dr Mark Bailey, PhD (LCDR, RAN) in supporting the Defence Mobilisation Working Group. This information is captured in his undated summary paper ‘Introduction to the Australian Commonwealth War Book’.
  11.  The suite of mobilisation plans and subordinate lead agency policies and procedures contained in the CWB also helped inform private sector planning and preparations. Importantly, the CWB provided the means by which these whole-of- government mobilisation arrangements could be integrated.
  12.  P. Jones, op cit, p. 16
  13.  Ibid, p. 7
  14.  F. Ewington, An Approach to Incorporate Complementary Warfare Capabilities Into Joint Maritime Operational Doctrine, TacTalks, Issue 9, Australian Maritime Warfare Centre, Department of Defence (Navy), December 2018, p. 37
  15.  The last time the concept of maritime trade operations featured in a major naval exercise was in the mid to late 1990s during the TASMANEX series when the RAN’s Naval Control of Shipping organisation was routinely exercised as part of serialised injects designed to exercise the control and protection of allied shipping. TASMANEX 95 is a case in point.
  16. T. Barrett, op cit, p. 22
  17. As a command post exercise, IMX19 was the largest regional exercise to date and the second largest maritime exercise in the world.
  18. M. Eckstein, Navy Drills Atlantic Convoy Ops for First Time Since Cold War in DEFENDER - EUROPE 20, https://news.usni.org/2020/02/28/navy-drills-atlantic-convoy-ops-for-first-time-since-cold-war-in-defender-europe-20 (accessed 9 March 2020). Exercise DEFENDER - EUROPE 20 aims to “test the ability of...US forces and their allies to deploy forces and equipment from the United States and transfer them to their theatre of operations within Europe.”
  19. T. Barrett, op cit, p. 25
  20. P. Jones, op cit, p. 13
  21.  The military measures currently being undertaken in the Middle East Region, including the Persian Gulf, as part of the maritime security escort and overwatch tasks under CTF 151/152 and within the International Maritime Security Construct, do not represent true convoy-like operations.