This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The United Kingdom’s definition of “maritime security”

The United Kingdom’s 2014 “National Strategy for Maritime Security” (NSMS) defines maritime security as “the advancement and protection of the UK’s national interests, at home and abroad, through the active management of risks and opportunities in and from the maritime domain, in order to strengthen and extend the UK’s prosperity, security and resilience and to help shape a stable world”.[1]

The United Kingdom is currently refreshing the NSMS, with an updated document anticipated before the latter half of 2022 that is expected to change the definition. However, the refined definition is unlikely to change how the United Kingdom conceptualizes maritime security. Continuity is expected due to the breadth and coherence of the above definition. Consensus around the current term remains persistent as has been demonstrated in 2019’s “Maritime 2050”[2] and 2021’s “The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” (IR).[3] In these, references to maritime security are linked to a broad array of issue areas and interests, including ocean resilience and prosperity, just as they are in the NSMS definition.

The United Kingdom’s key documents for defining and understanding maritime security

The key document is the NSMS. It highlights the importance of the maritime domain to the United Kingdom and explains UK understandings of this domain as constituting a broad array of inter-linked and transnational issues. It elaborates five core objectives – to better understand the maritime domain; to influence it; to prevent maritime security concerns; to protect UK interests; and to respond when necessary. The document focuses on a whole-of-government response required to meet these objectives. It has a global outlook, with a particular focus on global trade and British Overseas Territories.

In 2019, the Department for Transport, who is leading the NSMS refresh, released “Maritime 2050: Navigating the Future.”[4] This extensive (338 page) document places maritime security into the United Kingdom’s broader maritime outlook. It discusses maritime security in relation to resilience, specifically “providing business continuity free from interference and disruption.” It recognizes that maritime insecurities present “additional challenges compared to those on land” and that they are “constantly evolving.” It also links maritime security more closely with industry partners to remain responsive to this changeable domain.

These elements are put into the wider strategic context in the 2021 IR.[5] While explicit references to the term maritime security are sparse, the document does discuss the concept as an important area for the United Kingdom to project global influence, particularly concerning the Indo-Pacific “tilt”. The IR echoes the need for integration and coordination. The IR expresses the need for work on maritime security to be combined with work on the environment and trade. A more defense-led focus is provided in the supplementary “Defence in a Competitive Age,” where traditional elements of maritime security such as state-based power projection are discussed.[6]

Finally, some thinking around maritime security can be gleaned from the Ministry of Defence’s 2017 “National Shipbuilding Strategy: The Future of Naval Shipbuilding in the UK” (NSbS),[7] the 2017 “UK Maritime Power,”[8] and the Houses of Commons Defence Committee’s 2021 “We’re Going to Need a Bigger Navy”.[9] These discuss the maritime security role of the Royal Navy. The documents detail the separation of “war-fighting,” “defence engagement” and “maritime security.” While the documents primarily focus on traditional “war-fighting,” roles of the Royal Navy, maritime security is discussed in reference to the Navy’s constabulary role and safeguarding national prosperity.

Elements of the United Kingdom’s approach to maritime security. Environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence?

Per the NSMS, all should be considered elements of maritime security by the United Kingdom. When the 2014 NSMS was released, the main priorities were stated to be “terrorism…; Disruption to vital maritime trade routes as a result of war, criminality, piracy or changes in international norms; Attack on UK maritime infrastructure or shipping, including cyber-attack; the transportation of illegal items by sea…; People smuggling and human trafficking.”[10] These elements all feature in more recent documents.

It should be noted that not all government documents are completely in line with this approach.  For example, documents produced by the Ministry of Defence contrast maritime security as something different from military operations such as maritime combat. While some naval operations such as freedom of navigation are closely linked to maritime security by the United Kingdom, deterrence is more ambiguous. The NSMS does discuss deterrence in the context of lowering risk at global maritime chokepoints, as well as deterrence of unlawful activity. The Ministry of Defence, however, separates deterrence from maritime security, with their documents primarily discussing deterrence in reference to their war-fighting role.

The Fishery Protection Squadron is the Royal Navy’s oldest squadron, highlighting how fisheries management has long featured as a British maritime security issue. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU and the renewed requirement to manage national fisheries further elevated the issue in UK maritime security discourse. The IR, Maritime 2050, and the Government’s “A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment” all refer to increasing linkages between fisheries management, environmental protection, and maritime security.[11] Overfishing is an economic threat that exacerbates other forms of maritime criminality and threatens ocean resilience. Climate change is also recognized as part of maritime security, particularly more frequent severe weather events and its potential to create conditions conducive to criminal activity.[12]

Another element gaining more strategic attention is subsea infrastructure protection. The IR attaches significant importance to cyber security and the UK digital economy, both of which rely on submarine data cables.[13] In practice, more is being done to deter, detect, and disrupt potential attacks on the cable network by hostile actors.[14] This is therefore becoming an important part of UK maritime security, despite not yet featuring strongly in its strategies.

Evolution in the United Kingdom’s usage of the term “maritime security”

The United Kingdom’s usage of maritime security has evolved significantly over the last 20 years. Traditionally the United Kingdom considered maritime security as a primarily naval affair, focusing on the protection of shipping and fisheries. Post-9/11, the threat of non-state actors to both shipping and port areas began to take greater prominence. In 2008, for example, the Department for Transport stated the aim of maritime security was to “detect and deter security threats and take preventative measures against security incidents affecting ships or port facilities and to protect from harm passengers, crews, ships and their cargoes, port facilities and the people who work and live in port areas”.[15]

The 2014 NSMS definition demonstrated a significant evolution in the United Kingdom’s usage. It recognized a greater array of threats than ever before, including piracy and various forms of illicit activities, as well as the whole-of-government response required to respond. As mentioned above, in more recent UK documents the definition has since broadened further to implicitly link maritime security with environmental damage, calling for environmental protection to ensure biodiversity and ocean resilience. This trajectory will likely continue, and environmental protection will feature heavily in the updated NSMS. This is the same for subsea cable protection. As a result, the United Kingdom’s definition has progressively moved from being relatively narrow and focused on the Navy, to one that implicates a whole host of issues and actors.

Additional context for the United Kingdom

Ongoing innovation of the United Kingdom’s understanding of maritime security can be linked to the way the maritime security sector governance is organized. The United Kingdom has no law enforcement coastguard and relies on 22 different agencies and departments working together. With the withdrawal from the EU, as well as the need to reorganize governance in the face of a changing maritime domain, the Joint Maritime Security Centre was created in 2020. This incorporated the National Maritime Information Centre and the Joint Maritime Operations Coordination Centre as an umbrella organization tasked with coordinating relevant agencies. The United Kingdom’s maritime security governance is therefore increasingly cohered, but it continues to be innovative. The input of these agencies and departments, each of whom has different priorities, leads to a flexible and negotiated understanding of maritime security. This is also reflected in the current drafting of the NSMS which is being produced by a group of more than 50 specialists from different UK departments and agencies.[16]

[1] Her Majesty’s Government (2014) The UK National Strategy for Maritime Security [Online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[2] Department for Transport (2019) Maritime 2050: navigating the future [Online] (accessed 16th February 2022)

[3] Her Majesty’s Government (2021) Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy [Online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[4] Department for Transport (2019) Maritime 2050: navigating the future

[5] Her Majesty’s Government (2021) Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

[6] Ministry of Defence (2021) Defence in a Competitive Age [online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[7] Ministry of Defence (2017) National Shipbuilding Strategy: The Future of Naval Shipbuilding in the UK [online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[8] Ministry of Defence (2017) Maritime Power [online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[9] UK Parliament Defence Committee (2021) We’re Going to Need a Bigger Navy [online] (accessed 16th February 2022)

[10] Her Majesty’s Government (2014) The UK National Strategy for Maritime Security

[11] Her Majesty’s Government (2018) A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment [online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[12] Her Majesty’s Government (2019) Maritime 2050: navigating the future

[13] Her Majesty’s Government (2021) Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy

[14] Bueger, C., Edmunds, T., and Edwards, S., (2021) Innovation and New Strategic Choices: Refreshing the UK’s National Strategy for Maritime Security, RUSI Journal, Vol. 166(4): 66-75

[15]Department for Transport (2018) Brief overview of the UK national maritime security programme [Online] (Accessed 16th February 2022)

[16] Bueger, Edmunds, & Edwards (2021) Innovation and New Strategic Choices: Refreshing the UK’s National Strategy for Maritime Security

Photo: Brian Burnell

About Scott Edwards

Dr. Scott Edwards is a research associate on the Transnational Organised Crime at Sea project at the University of Bristol's School of Sociology, Politics, and International Studies. His research interests include maritime security, inter-state cooperative mechanisms for countering maritime security issues, the international relations of Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Malaysian politics, and Indonesian politics.