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Maritime Security: Four Challenges, Four Responses

Published onFeb 09, 2023
Maritime Security: Four Challenges, Four Responses

Before we can identify how best to respond to the challenges of ensuring maritime security – or good order at sea- we need to identify what those challenges are. The likelihood that they will more than likely require different responses – and ones that might even compete, underlines the scale and complexity of the problem. It also highlights the importance of an integrated and holistic response to maintenance of good order at sea.

So first to the interconnected challenges:


1: Inherent Difficulties

The first is the inherent difficulties of the task. Many would agree with the likes of Ian Urbina that the various challenges to good order at sea are in many cases getting worse rather than better. This would certainly, appear to be the case as far as the marine environment is concerned. The fact that environmental degradation affects so many other things is also an early indicator of just how seamless maritime security is. Just as the sea is physically all joined up, so are the threats to it.

MARSEC is a spectrum which ranges from the safety of the ocean itself, ensuring safe navigation against accidents and pandemics, through maritime security against criminals of various sorts all the way up to the defence of national interests against hostile countries. Like any other coastal country, the UK has to cover the entire safety-security-defence spectrum. Worried about the health of the ocean, it is currently preoccupied with people smuggling, the need to defend coastal and seabed installations after the Nordstream II incident and of course the activities of the Russian navy.

States and the perpetrators of maritime crimes such as drug and people smugglers, pirates and so forth very often diversify their business plans crossing, in the process any number of jurisdictions, both domestic and international. In consequence such criminals often retain the initiative and are notably more agile than the lumbering enforcement agencies that have to deal with them. Almost always the forces of good order have to react and are constrained legally, by precedent and by established administrative procedure and interest. When as they nearly always do, solutions require international agreement the problems multiply.

2: Insufficient resources

Secondly, good order at sea is invariably a second order priority when compared to the demanding and expensive imperatives of good order on land. Because for many decision makers the sea is out of sight it is often out of mind as well, even though what happens (or does not happen) at sea can have very bad consequences ashore, as in the case of Somali piracy for example. The economic opportunity costs for many African states of their long inability to protect and sustainably exploit their marine resources are considerable but have at last persuaded them to try to do something about it. Inevitably the resources available will be much less than the task might objectively be thought to require. This is particularly obvious in the micro-states of the South Pacific. In many cases, because maritime crime can be highly lucrative, the enforcement agencies are less numerous and less well equipped than the criminals.

3: Insufficient Cooperation

Insufficient resources mandates cooperation between agencies and countries, so that resources can be pooled. As already remarked, this difficult enough domestically, because different agencies will always have different agendas, priorities, interests and ways of doing things. Siloed ocean governance is the norm even in countries which claim to have an oceans policy. When this third problem is extended to different countries, these issues are magnified by considerations of national sovereignty, even when jurisdictions are not in serious dispute. Thus in Southeast Asia, the successful operation of the Malacca Straits Patrol or the Trinational Sulu Sea agreement are both constrained by political sensitivities. When jurisdictions are in serious dispute as in the South China Sea, threats like over-fishing and environmental degradation become even more difficult to control.

4: An Adverse International Context

This brings us to the fourth problem, which may turn out to be the worst of all. This is a seriously deteriorating international context, marked by what looks like a gradual coalescence into competitive blocs with very different ideas about what a rules based order ought to be and a propensity to think of peace as merely the conduct of war by other means. So-called grey zone operations at sea such as the hacking of marine systems, the use of paramilitary forces at sea seem to be growing as part of this. We are at war said a strategist for the Iranian republican Guard , ‘but with the lights out.’ This makes progress in agreed responses to the threats against good order at sea much more difficult. It focuses attention and resources away from maritime security. Indeed because the sea is a common space and maritime forces can be in very close proximity with each other, and because the sea matters so much and is the subject of so much contested jurisdiction, what happens here often suggests broader trouble ahead. There is some truth in the conviction that MARSEC can only operate within the space allowed by the realities of international relations.

If these are the four main challenges to be faced, what might, even should, be the four responses, taking them in the same order ?

R1: Meeting Operational Requirements.

It is relatively easy in to identify in theory the operational requirements of MARSEC at the domestic, regional and global level. The problem and the wrongdoers need to be identified, apprehended, prosecuted, punished and hopefully deterred. This requires maritime domain awareness, the necessary assets and skill sets and a supportive body of law enforcement. Where necessary capacity needs to be built. Easy to say, much more difficult to do. Moreover, the detail of the response will depend on the nature of the threat, and the unique circumstances of individual countries and regions. Piracy for example takes different forms in the Straits of Malacca, the Gulf of Guinea and off Somalia. One size does not fit all.

R2: Ensuring Visibility

Maritime domain awareness (MDA) in a general sense cannot be taken for granted, even in countries which consider themselves to be maritime. It is necessary for all concerned to ‘sell the sea’ at every opportunity and in every way, so that the required human, equipment and administrative resources are more easily obtained. How this is done will vary from country to country, region to region and globally as well. It is hard to generalise. Given the economic, strategic and environmental importance of the seas, this should not be too hard, but often proves to be. One device often used is to encourage the development of a national Oceans Policy to identify a country or a region’s maritime objectives and a national strategy that focuses on the ways and means of achieving them. This provides guidance for all concerned. Often even the process of discussing such a policy helps things along. By extension, the same benefits accrue from sub-regional, regional and global ocean policies too.

In a more practical way, MDA depends on sufficient ocean surveillance in every sense of that word. Knowing what is going on at sea is a necessary first step to dealing with all manner of maritime threats but a very demanding one for all too many countries. This should incentivise capacity building and effective information (even intelligence) sharing.

A judicious mix of naval and coastguard assets and a legal infrastructure to support their enforcement activities is also required. Providing this takes time and continuous effort.

R3 Delivering Functional Cooperation

The seamlessness of maritime security demands a holistic and integrated approach to the task of protecting good order at sea. This means ensuring that all components of the spectrum work with each other rather than against. And indeed the notion of ‘integrated’ deterrence has currently a great deal of traction on both sides of the Atlantic. But how is this to be done ? Much will depend of course on the individual circumstances of each country, where they are, what particular threats they face and their resources. One approach would be to follow the example of Indonesia and set up a Coordinating Maritime Ministry to ensure the mutual support of the various government agencies where their activities touch upon the sea. A mega Maritime Ministry is another such response. Yet another pragmatic approach is to task one of the principal stakeholders, quite often the navy, not to be ‘in charge’ but more to act as a what NATO calls a ‘framework nation’ to facilitate cross silo cooperation, at the strategic, operational and tactical levels.

R4 Delivering the Necessary International Cooperation

Because so many of the problems are transnational, so must also be the responses. Because resources are always likely to be inadequate it makes sense to pool them with allies and partners. There are two main problems with this. The first is the wide variety of challenges and the likelihood that different stakeholders will have different agendas and priorities. Here the mini-lateral approach has something to offer. Countries in geographic proximity are more likely to have interests in common ( although that might mean interests in focused contention too). The MSP and the Sulu Sea agreement, and the various sub-regional arrangements in Europe and Africa show how this can work. The inability to agree almost anything substantive about the South China Sea despite a marked coincidence of national interests shows how difficult this can be.

The second issue is that of raised great power competition and the effects of this leaching into prospects for combined action against the multifarious threats to good order at sea. At the broadest level of generality any suggestion for improving the atmospherics of the international order would obviously help. But a narrower approach might be to identify areas of common interest and to focus on them while seeking to isolate them from a general atmosphere of suspicion and hostility. One European example of such successful isolation, until quite recently at any rate. has been in the Arctic where for years despite often acute strategic tensions the Norwegian and Russian coastguards have found it possible to work together professionally to monitor fishing activity and to provide maritime assistance where necessary. It is distressing to see how the current Ukraine war has undermined this calculated division. But even in the bitter Ukraine war it has been possible for the protagonists to agree prisoner exchanges and, most notably the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which shows that this can be done. Here the approach would be to find possible areas of agreement for the Indo-Pacific region, most likely at the lower end of the maritime safety-security-defence spectrum. There are common interests in combating the maritime effects of climate change, pandemics and large scale organised maritime crime for example. Success in a cooperative response to such issues would not only be beneficial in its own right but could also feed back and improve international relationships.

In both cases the approach would be to subdivide the problem of maritime security as a whole and to identify and isolate a particular issue or a particular set of countries, build consensus, develop trust and hopefully facilitate at least partial agreement. The ultimate and broader aim would be to start at the bottom and work upwards.


At sea everything is connected to everything else. Managing if not solving the manifold threats to good order at sea in the Indo-Pacific Region or anywhere else, seems to call for something of a vision of the importance of the issue and a set of policy objectives plus strategies to achieve them. The seamlessness of the safety-security-defence spectrum at sea demands a holistic and integrated approach reconciled with a pragmatic focus on specific issues between specific sets of countries as a first step in developing first regional and then global cooperation in dealing with what is undoubtedly one of the most serious threats that we all face.

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