Building Maritime Domain Awareness as an Essential Element of the Global Maritime Fulcrum: Challenges and Prospects for Indonesia’s Maritime Security

Since 2014, President Joko Widodo proposed Indonesia as being a centre of maritime and economic activity in the Indo-Pacific due to its lucrative geostrategic position in global maritime trade. At the 9th East Asia Summit, Joko Widodo iterated the five pillars of the Global Maritime Fulcrum (GMF), which includes maritime culture, economy, infrastructure, diplomacy, and defence. In the 2017 Indonesian Ocean Policy document, the initial five pillars have been reiterated and expanded to include (1) marine and human resources development, (2) maritime security, law enforcement, and safety at sea, (3) ocean governance and institutions, (4) maritime economy development, (5) sea space management and marine protection, (6) maritime culture, and (7) maritime diplomacy. An additional six principles on which the Ocean Policy will be carried out on, which includes (1) Wawasan Nusantara (Archipelagic Outlook), (2) sustainable development, (3) blue economy, (4) integrated and transparent management, (5) participation, and (6) equality and equitability (Indonesian Ocean Policy (Presidential Decree of the Republic of Indonesia no. 16/2017), 2017).

The overall goals of the GMF are strategic and economic in nature (Agastia and Perwita, 2015).

Jokowi’s GMF envisions the Indonesian Navy (TNI-AL) as being a regional green-water navy capable of handling security threats within and beyond Indonesian territorial waters. Upholding maritime security is an essential prerequisite for the fulfilment of the latter pillars, which are largely economic. The economic goals work at both the domestic and international level. These ambitions are reflected in Joko Widodo’s ambitions in creating a ‘sea highway’ (tol laut), which comprises of large vessels capable of transporting large amounts of cargo and people. The end goal at the domestic level is to accelerate and ensure equal economic development across the archipelago by increasing inter-island connectivity. At the regional level, accelerating development of domestic maritime infrastructure is expected to better link Indonesian ports and harbours with international maritime trade routes and sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), particularly those spanning the Indo-Pacific.

Seeing these ambitions, there is an urgency for Indonesia to improve its maritime domain awareness (MDA) capabilities. For the purposes of this paper, the concept of MDA generally refers to having a comprehensive understanding of the maritime environment, which encompasses the physical/material and immaterial aspects such as (but not limited to) maritime traffic, geography, legal jurisdictions, and extent of maritime territory. From that understanding, maritime stakeholders allow the formulation of tactical/technical, operational, and strategic decisions as a means to further the national interest. Without proper MDA, it would be difficult for stakeholders to prioritise and allocate maritime resources to the key areas of concern of the GMF. As an illustration, constructing a sustainable maritime economy through fisheries would be difficult if those fisheries are not monitored adequately. The stakeholders would need to be able to monitor for potential violations – e.g. illegal fishing, use of prohibited fishing methods, etc. – and ensure adequate enforcement. These activities require extensive MDA capabilities which Indonesia continues to lack.

Marsetio has emphasised the importance of developing Indonesia’s MDA capabilities due to Indonesia’s geopolitical position (Marsetio, 2014, pp. 55-57). Indonesia is situated between the Indian and Pacific Ocean which hosts some of the world’s most important maritime trade routes. Some areas of interest in Indonesia’s vicinity include the Malacca Strait, a crowded and narrow maritime sea lane of communication that is prone to piracy and armed robbery; the contested South China Sea, which over the years has seen simmering tensions between China and claimant states; and the Sulu Sea, which has recently seen an increase in piracy incidents (Connelly, 2015; E. A. Laksmana, 2011).

Better MDA capabilities would allow Indonesia to formulate better maritime policy. Official documents tend to emphasise the end objectives of the GMF instead of the means for achieving the GMF. In the 2015 Defence White Paper, there are expectations to build a maritime surveillance system using ‘satellites and drones’; however, further elaboration on the specific details of implementation remain unclear (Defence Ministry of the Republic of Indonesia, 2015). The 2017 Indonesian Ocean Policy document also fails to elaborate the implementation of a possible maritime surveillance network that is necessary for building MDA capabilities. There is little mention of how the government intends on funding such a network, yet it emphasises the importance of being aware of the maritime domain. Furthermore, the document tells little of how Indonesia is expected to direct the thirteen agencies share varying degrees of authority in maritime security governance (Salim, 2015). While there seems to be consensus that Indonesia needs to increase its MDA capabilities as a requisite for fulfilling its maritime ambitions, a comprehensive framework or roadmap that combines analyses at the strategic, operational, and technical levels of MDA remains to be seen.

Thus, this paper argues that Indonesia’s naval development requires a comprehensive understanding of MDA to achieve its fullest potential. While physical development is indeed necessary for Indonesia to become a regional maritime power, MDA – which is a fundamental strategic concept in maritime development – also need to be developed. The importance of developing MDA lies in its guiding and directive power over physical maritime assets. Without building proper MDA, maritime development risks progressing based on political whims rather than proper understanding of the maritime domain. In this paper, we propose a framework of building MDA. It seeks to illustrate the actors and objects in the MDA-building process at the technical, operational, and strategic level. Using the framework, it is then possible to (1) identify the limitations in the MDA-building process in Indonesia, and (2) provide recommendations to address these limitations in the MDA-building process.



As with the term ‘maritime security’, maritime domain awareness continues to spark debate over its exact definition (Bueger, 2015b). The differences in defining MDA usually stem from the context of its usage. Generally, there are three levels at which MDA

is understood. In the technical domain, MDA originates from the practice of identifying and targeting the naval opposition. ‘Awareness’ is often limited to a vessel’s immediate surroundings or ‘maritime situational awareness’ (Watts, 2006). Moving up to the operational level, MDA includes ‘sufficient capacity for sufficient surveillance and awareness across particular sea areas.’ At the higher strategic level, MDA can be generally understood as the capacity for policy-makers to understand the maritime environment and its traditional and non-traditional security dynamics which may affect the state either directly or indirectly. As stated in the National Security Presidential Directive 41 (NSPD-41), MDA is ‘…the effective understanding of anything associated with the global Maritime Domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of the United States.’ (National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-41/Homeland Security Presidential Directive HSPD-13, December 2004)

Based on these interpretations, MDA is essentially an enabler for the formulation and implementation of maritime policy. Having MDA means having the capability to understand the geostrategic benefits of the sea for the benefit of the state. This includes awareness and understanding of the utilisation of strategic maritime resources, such as (but not limited to) fisheries, domestic and regional maritime trade routes, and offshore energy resources. This knowledge will be the basis of maritime policy. In implementing maritime policy, MDA requires the capacity to exploit the sea for maximum utility. This means that maritime agencies ought to be capable of building awareness through information gathering and surveillance and then acting upon that intelligence. They are also required to be able to share that intelligence with fellow agencies (horizontal sharing) and with policymaking agencies (vertical sharing) to ensure an appropriate response can be formulated. This is especially important in states where there are many maritime security agencies operate simultaneously, such as Indonesia. Equipped with intelligence gained at the operational and technical levels, policymakers will be able to know how to use the sea and how to direct and guide the physical element – i.e. naval forces and their auxiliaries – to achieve maximum utility of the sea in both domestic and foreign policy.

Possessing sufficient MDA entails three important benefits. Firstly, policymakers will be able to allocate appropriate maritime resources to key areas of maritime security. If intelligence at the operational and technical levels suggests a spike in pirate activities in a vital area, swift policy changes ought to be made as a response. The implementation of such decision may take form in the mobilisation of more naval or coast guard vessels, increased surveillance, or requesting assistance to an existing multilateral network. Second, sufficient MDA also means that policymakers know the limits of their naval capabilities, thus allowing them to not implement policies that are beyond their reach. It also allows policymakers to prioritise. If intelligence at the lower levels suggest a shortage in naval vessels and surveillance capabilities at the border areas, policymakers would then should not embark on policies that could leave maritime security compromised and instead consider options of fleet modernisation. Third, the policymakers will be able to understand trends and patterns in the maritime domain and adjust their policies to anticipate future trends to the best of their capacity.


In this section, we propose a comprehensive framework that shows how MDA can enable the formulation and implementation of a state’s maritime policy. Some terms used in the framework ought to be elaborated. The ‘maritime domain’ is understood as a three-dimensional maritime space, including the ‘areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway’ along with its both material and immaterial features. Material features include, but are not limited to, features of maritime topography (particularly undersea and sea-level features), the presence of maritime vessels or infrastructure (offshore platforms, ports, harbours, etc.), and movement of maritime vessels within the maritime domain. This has been illustrated aptly in Boraz’s interpretation of MDA as,

…finding the ships and submarines of friends and foes, understanding the entire supply chain of cargoes, identifying people aboard vessels, understanding the infrastructures within or astride the maritime domain, and identifying anomalies and potential threats in all these areas (Boraz, 2009, p. 141).

Yet, Boraz’s definition remains incomplete as it does not fully regard the political aspect of the maritime domain. The states need to increasingly take heed of existing political and/or legal instruments which could be used to legitimise their utilisation of the maritime domain. Such instruments include the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, COLREGS, the ISPS Code, or the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement. As such, this framework adds an immaterial layer to the maritime domain which includes the political-legal aspects that permeates the maritime domain which influences the way a state may decide to adjust their maritime strategy. These may include (but not limited to) acknowledgement and implementation (or lack thereof) of the international law of the sea within a particular maritime domain, a state’s maritime boundaries and probable contestations, and the imposition of restricted zones in a specific maritime domain.

At the lowest technical level, the MDA-building process is concerned mostly with maritime situational awareness, or gathering information on the material elements of the maritime domain. Should the need arise, the agency in question may act to counter the identified threat. The MDA process at this level is simply being aware of one’s maritime surroundings and acting based on that awareness. This level is mostly limited to the individual agency, such as the naval patrol vessel out at sea or coastal surveillance stations.

Moving up to the operational level or the middle rung of the ladder, the process of MDA-building becomes significantly more complex. The functions carried out at this level, in some ways, are similar to the technical level with an added layer of coordination and processing. Agencies at the operational level (henceforth, operational agencies) are concerned not only with the identification of threats, but also prioritisation (‘Does this threat matter?’) and information gathering. To do this, operational agencies have to consult the priorities set at the strategic level, until then deciding whether to act upon that threat through the available means. At this level, operational agencies need to be capable of understanding the extent of which the material and immaterial elements of the maritime domain may influence a particular decision.

One important task in MDA-building process at the operational level is the processing and compiling of information. As ships (both naval and civilian) at sea travel, operational agencies monitor their routes and receive reports and updates as they travel along their respective routes. At this level, the broad term ‘information’ becomes significant. ‘Information’ can be differentiated into three broad types: incidents, movements, and sensitive data such as naval intelligence or criminal investigations (Bueger, 2015a). Incidents at sea encompasses many instances, such as actual or attempted piracy, ship collisions, and transnational crimes. Information on movements allow the state to monitor its waterways and measure the volume of traffic. Sensitive data may be used to further pinpoint potential maritime threats. Combined together, this allows the operational agencies to construct a rudimentary ‘maritime image’ that incorporates trends and patterns drawn from information on movements and incidents of maritime vessels within the specified maritime domain. One example includes results from MDA information-sharing centres such as the ReCAAP ISP Annual Report, which reports on piracy incidents in Southeast Asia.

However, this ‘maritime image’ is not enough. Amidst the cacophony of incident reports, movements, and sensitive information, operational agencies also need to fulfil a coordination and aggregation role. The collection of information on the maritime domain can hardly be conducted by a single agency; instead, many agencies – both military and civilian, government and non-government, national and international – are involved. The operational agencies are the ones who will coordinate these agencies so information-gathering activities at the technical level are directed towards a predefined agenda set at the strategic level. Sifting through these often complex networks and piecing together meaningful information into a coherent ‘maritime image’ is perhaps the most important task conducted at the operational level.

The ‘maritime image’ constructed at the operational level can further be refined and utilised at the strategic level. Policymaking requires the knowledge of the maritime domain gathered at the operational level, added with strategic analyses. Three core aspects of strategic MDA require understanding and knowledge of (1) the state’s own maritime capabilities, (2) the strategic utility of the maritime domain, and (3) the trends and patterns occurring in the maritime domain. Based on this knowledge, the strategic level then outlines the priorities for the state’s maritime strategy. For example, if the trends show an increase in activities related to piracy that have a direct impact on a state’s maritime trade, at the strategic level, piracy ought to be prioritised in maritime strategy. In informing maritime policy, policymakers ought to engage routinely with informed advisers (Till, 2015). The task of establishing maritime governance is yet another important task at the strategic level. This includes creating a structure that ensures coordination and cooperation among the many agencies involved in building MDA, such as the navy, coast guard, and other civilian institutions. The end goal is to ensure that the MDA-building process operates smoothly without any hindrances at any levels.

Author : I Gusti Bagus Dharma Agastia; Anak Agung Banyu Perwita