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Pacific fusion needed to build data web on a need-to-share basis

By Anthony Bergin and David Brewster

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has returned home from her first Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru. The centrepiece of the regional leaders’ meeting was the signing of the Boe Regional Security Declaration.

The declaration restates the region’s determination to resist foreign interference and sets out what is calls an “expanded concept of security” including humanitarian assistance, environmental security, natural disaster resilience and climate change. But the biggest practical win for regional security was Australia’s commitment to establish a Pacific fusion centre within a year.

The centre will bring together information from government agencies across the region, dealing with illegal fishing, people trafficking, drugs smuggling and maritime safety.

Fusing information and making sense of it is the key for decision-makers to identify and respond to threats. It’s part of a process called maritime domain awareness: gaining an understanding of the position and intention of actors in the maritime environment, an essential foundation of maritime security.

Understanding the position and intention of maritime actors has always been a big concern of navies. But advances in sensor and computing technology now make it possible to create a shared real-time picture of developments in the maritime domain.

Australia has developed a national maritime domain awareness system that’s one of the most sophisticated in the world. It brings together all information available to military and civil agencies with maritime responsibilities, as well as commercially available information.

It’s been a successful tool in helping to police our maritime borders and one reason why until recently there’s been no arrivals of asylum-seeker boats in Australia for several years. But as was demonstrated last month, the appearance of a boatload of Vietnamese asylum-seekers north of Cairns shows national surveillance systems, operating alone, have real limitations.

Australia needs to work with partners to help build their capacity to understand and police their own maritime jurisdictions and share that information with partners. Australia has been working here with our island neighbours for many years through the Pacific Patrol Boat Program that’s helped the island states to help themselves in policing their offshore estates. It’s now badged the Pacific Maritime Security Program and will see Australia donating 21 new patrol craft to island recipients over the next five years.

This year Australia announced we would support an expanded aerial surveillance package in the region. And at the weekend the new Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Mike Noonan, flagged a greater Australian naval presence in the South Pacific. It’s possible we may see some of the RAN’s 12 new offshore patrol vessels based in the Pacific.

We have long contributed to a fisheries surveillance centre in Honiara, Solomon Islands. This does great work in policing illegal fishing — but it doesn’t have well developed information-sharing arrangements with regional customs, police, maritime safety and immigration agencies.

Creating a functioning regional maritime domain awareness system is a lot easier said than done. Even longstanding allies such as our Five Eyes partners find it difficult in practice to build a shared maritime picture. One of the biggest challenges will be getting different island government agencies and regional bodies to share information with each other and with agencies from other countries.

Australia has been able to build a whole-of-government approach in our national system. If we don’t use that experience in working with our Pacific partners, then we’ll just end up with a hole-of-government approach, buck-passing between agencies.

What’s needed is a web of practical maritime and law-enforcement information-sharing arrangements right across the region. It’s about working on a “need-to-share” principle not a “need-to-know” basis. This isn’t just about collecting information. It’s about putting it together and then making sense of it. This can only be done by regional partners working co-operatively to build a shared understanding of the maritime domain.

To build the maritime picture in our vast oceanic region. we will need to develop realistic goals with the Pacific island nations and other regional powers such as France, New Zealand and the US. Building regional maritime security and protecting sovereignty of the island states will be about building trust just as much as building computers.

A pacific fusion centre could be a game changer in supporting law and order at sea in the vast blue Pacific.

Originally published by: The Australian on 10 Sep 2018