Australian Coastal Defense Infringing?
In December, the Australian government announced a package of maritime security measures to be coordinated by a new Joint Offshore Protection Command headed by the current director of Customs Coastwatch, Rear Admiral Russ Crane. The package envisions an Australian maritime information zone (AMIZ) becoming effective in March. Like all other countries, Australia already has a 200 mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Because the country claims sovereignty over small islands well offshore, the EEZ covers an area greater than Australia itself. Within this area the joint command is to identify all vessels, other than pleasure craft, and gather information about crew, cargo, location, and ports of call. The new AMlZ is to extend 1,000 nautical miles offshore. As so defined, the AMIZ extends beyond several regional states, such as New Zealand and Indonesia. In addition to the zones and the surveillance requirements, the new package includes improved protection for the oil and gas facilities of the North-West Shelf off Western Australia and in the Timor Sea.
Several countries in the region attacked the AMIZ idea on the ground that it infringed on their sovereignty. Australian legal scholars pointed out that Australian territorial waters continue to extend no more than 12 miles offshore. In fact, AMIZ is analogous to the practices the United States has adopted since 11 September 2001. The U.S. Coast Guard tries to identify ships and their cargoes at least three days from landfall in the United States, which at 20 knots suggests a zone about 1,500 miles wide. It sifts this data to identify vessels of interest, which are boarded and searched before they are allowed to proceed. The United States tries to maintain an offshore maritime information zone that is justified by some serious threats.
One threat is that terrorists will use a ship to carry a large volume of assault material into a port. Osama bin Laden is thought to own a string of merchant ships. Sea power matters because ships are the best way to transport large volumes of material. It also may be the case that a legitimate ship is the target of plotters, who hope to cause an explosion. Keeping a ship from entering a port may frustrate such plots.
One reason to seek information as far from shore as possible is because so much about the identity and registry of most merchant ships is murky. When news of Osama's ships surfaced, many asked why they were not instantly identified as such. They were told that most ships-not only his-are owned by layers of companies that are, often intentionally, extremely difficult to disentangle.
A second threat is that terrorists will use ships to transport containers carrying either men or weapons. Currently, a container is sealed when it is filled, and it is opened only at its destination. Unfortunately, this is a recipe for abuse, since it takes a massive investment (e.g., in a huge X-ray device) to see inside the container while it is sealed. Containers fitted out as al Qaeda cabins already have been found, their inhabitants having fled (or reached their destinations). Precisely because the bulk of world trade moves by sea, the number of containers is astronomical. It is impractical to examine each of them before delivery. The more time authorities have between knowing that a ship is inbound, the better the chance of at least tracing the origins of the containers she is carrying. In the Australian case, the political opposition argued that the new security package was a way to evade criticism over the failure of a container-inspection program. In December 2004, the Australian National Audit Office announced that because of a lack of resources Customs had canceled 5-6% of container inspections at Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Fremantle.
A third threat is that an enemy will use a merchant ship to launch cruise or even ballistic missiles. Defense against seabased missiles is very difficult, because the shooter can choose to fire from so broad an area. In theory, deterrence is difficult because knowing the launch position does not automatically identify the country that fired the weapon-unless the ship involved can clearly and automatically be identified. Such identification would be inherent in any identification zone scheme. Although the shooting ship probably would avoid identifying herself, if all known ships were being tracked, she could easily be singled out for attention. The existing 12-mile limit can be traced to the historical fact that at one time the direct maritime threat to any country was naval shellfire, which had to be delivered from shorter ranges. If a country could always keep warships at least 12 miles out, they could not possibly hit shore targets. That has not really been the case for decades.
Given sovereignty issues, it seems likely there will be an attempt to develop the new identification zones into a system not too different from current international air traffic identification and control. The key technology most likely will be the new Automatic Identification System (AIS), which the International Maritime Organization now requires on all ships of 500 tons or more. AIS is a radio linked to the ship's GPS and to her automatic plotting radar, transmitting the ship's identification, course, and speed. It is sometimes described as a maritime safety aid because it provides ships with notice of all traffic they must avoid. At present, AIS uses standard maritime VHF radio. Unless a country uses airborne relays to pick up and retransmit the signals, AIS provides ship identifications only within a few miles of a coast. Ship owners, moreover, have argued that AIS may endanger them, because it may well become pirates' preferred means of finding their prey. Given how serious the piracy threat is in places such as the Malacca Strait and the waters west of Africa, that is no idle point. AIS may shift to satellite radio with various national agencies having sole access to the world picture maintaining their own plots of world shipping and broadcasting the local shipping picture only for the areas directly off their ports. That would still leave open the possibility that some of those with access to the world picture would be working with terrorists, but all international traffic schemes have that vulnerability.
All of this has implications for navies. In the past, they have enjoyed sanctuary at sea. It took an enormous investment to : maintain any open-ocean coverage, and the sheer number of ships at sea at any one time made it difficult to sort the warships from the merchant ships. Telling the two apart is complicated by the fact that modern merchant ships cruise at about the same speeds as warships.
Now AIS promises to identify the mass of ships offshore. Warships will almost certainly be exempted. However, anyone doing radar surveillance will be able to use an AIS picture to eliminate the vast bulk of offshore shipping from that picture. Surely what is left will be warships. The likeliest way out would be a degree of stealth sufficient to make a substantial warship look, to a surveillance system, like a trawler or pleasure boat that would not be required to carry an AIS transmitter. It would not have to be invisible to the radar-far better for the warship to merge into the mass of coastal shipping. Note that no Third World countries seem to have invested in the sort of area surveillance systems that would make AIS a meaningful issue. The question is really one for the future, and it may become relevant only after AIS makes area surveillance much more worthwhile.
Antony Preston died on Christmas Day. Readers will remember him for his annual reviews of the world's navies or for his numerous books, many of which the Naval Institute copublished, most recently The World's Worst Warships and the latest edition of the annual Warship. In addition to his own writing, he helped ensure that some major historical works, such as N. J. M. Campbell's compendium of World War II naval weapons, were published. Preston was both a naval historian and a prolific naval journalist. He was the first editor of Warship, the magazine that gave way to the annual volumes he edited. With the late Desmond Wettern, he created NAVINT, an invaluable newsletter. At times he edited Navy International and Naval Forces, and for a time he was naval editor of Jane's Defence Weekly. Many in the naval world will remember him not only as a valued and helpful friend and advisor, but also as a great raconteur. Many naval writers, the present one included, will remember his generosity to those entering the field.
Preston began his career in naval history as one of a group of professionals and amateurs who began to coalesce around the British National Maritime Museum in Greenwich in the 1960s. They included the late David Lyon, as well as Alan Raven, John Roberts, and John Lambert. All became interested in the way naval technology had developed, and in Preston's case, an understanding of past technology naturally complemented an interest in modern warships.
Thanks to his background in the history of warships, Preston was always aware of the gap between what naval officers and naval planners want and what can be accomplished. His last book was primarily about the way in which navies try to decide what they want, and so often learn that they cannot have, either because of the laws of physics or because of financial reality.
I met Preston in 1973 on my first visit to the museum's Draught Room. Looking back on that and later experiences, I have always been struck by how much of the 19- and 20-century history of the Royal Navy he and his group understood but unfortunately never wrote down. Preston was always very glad to share his knowledge, and he also was a witty and personable speaker. Many readers may fondly remember his entertaining after-dinner talks. His many friends will remember Preston for his warmth, his wonderful sense of humor, and his happy personality.