- A.N. Other
- RAN operations, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Sub Lieutenant R.E. Whitby, RAN
Rian Whitby was born in Bowen and spent his childhood in rural Queensland. There is a strong family tradition of service in the armed forces. He joined the Australian Air Force Cadets during high school where his interest blossomed. He began a Bachelor of Engineering at James Cook University in Townsville, later joining the RAN as a Defence university sponsored student and completing an Electrical and Electronics degree with honours in 2012. In 2013 he undertook the New Entry Officer Course and has been subsequently posted to HMAS Albatross as a Trainee Aerospace Engineering Officer.
Since the withdrawal of Australian forces from Vietnam in 1972 and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, a significant objective of the RAN has been focused on maintaining the security of the maritime region for which it is responsible. As this region – the Australian Maritime Domain (AMD) – is the third largest in the world, the task of maintaining a presence of law and order throughout this vast area is one that has required a precise application of our limited naval resources. Arguably the most important aspect of maintaining this presence, and subsequently protecting Australian interests, has been ensuring the integrity of traffic through our borders. Although the scope of RAN involvement in protecting maritime borders and resources falls well beyond this base aspect of border protection, this essay reduces the scope to concentrate principally on this segment of ADF operation. More specifically it provides a brief overview of only those operations which had, or continue to have, a major impact on this segment of operation – Irregular Maritime Arrivals.
The Evolution of Border and Resource Protection
In order to understand the role that the RAN has played in border protection since 1975, it is necessary to understand the eight primary roles of responsibility1 as viewed by the Border Protection Command (BPC):
- Illegal exploitation of natural resources;
- Illegal activity in protected areas;
- Irregular maritime arrivals;
- Prohibited imports/exports;
- Maritime terrorism;
- Piracy, robbery or violence at sea;
- Compromise to bio-security; and
- Maritime Pollution
The wide scope of these areas of responsibility has necessitated close military and civil interaction in the maritime environment since the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, BPC is the evolution of over forty years of partnership between the ADF and civil authorities. BPC itself was established in 2006 as the latest iteration of a government based law enforcement organisation within the AMD and consists primarily of assets from the Customs and Border Protection Service and the Department of Defence – most significantly the RAN.
Beginning in the 1960s, a number of significant legislation changes were implemented that required the Australian Government to form a structured agency to maintain good order at sea. Two of the main prompting elements were the Commonwealth Fisheries Act 1968 (CFA) and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). These elements combined to produce two outcomes:
- CFA initially established a 12 nm fishing zone around Australia; and
- UNCLOS expanded the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and subsequent area of responsibility to a 200 nm limit.
These changes individually prompted a significant change in civil surveillance policies. This began with the creation of the Defence – led Standing Inter-Departmental Committee in 1973, which was said to be the ‘genesis of multi-agency civil maritime security operations in Australia and has remained a cornerstone of Australia’s civil surveillance policy ever since’.2 In 1975, the responsibility for maintaining coastal civil surveillance shifted to the Department of Transport. This marked the establishment of a 24-hour Coastal Surveillance Centre (CSC) and the first year that ADF assets were utilised under the new maritime arrangements. The RAN provided Grumman Tracker aircraft.
In 1977, the first major wave of asylum seekers entering Australian waters marking the beginning of a constant and severe threat in monitoring illegal immigration in the form of Irregular Maritime Arrivals. However the EEZ legislation provided the existing CSC with the ability to meet potential threats earlier. Further changes became evident throughout the 1980s, with the RAN and Customs both deploying boats to the north western Australian coast. In addition to this, Customs acquired three radar equipped N22 Nomad Searchmaster aircraft for border protection and command operation.
The mid 1980s saw another shuffle of responsibility, with the Australian Federal Police Coastal Protection Unit (CPU) taking command of border protection. Poor funding and organisation meant that the CPU only maintained control until 1988 before responsibility was transferred to the Customs Service. Realising the importance maintaining strong maritime control, Customs prioritized the new Coastwatch service. This resulted in a significant improvement and efficiency in the operation of the service throughout the 1990s. Although Customs was working with increased organisation and efficiency, the volume and frequency of illegal immigration increased. While the primary area of vulnerability was the north western coastline, landings on the NSW and WA coastlines prompted the recommendation that a serving RAN senior officer assume command of civil surveillance. This prompted a new era of partnership between Customs and the RAN.
In December 2004, Coastwatch was redesignated Joint Offshore Protection Command (JOPC). This new unit was developed to bring together the resources and expertise of both Customs and the Department of Defence. At the end of 2005 JOPC restructured into Border Protection and Command, with an RAN Rear Admiral maintaining the command position. The Royal Australian Navy’s involvement in border protection can be separated into two primary areas:
- Direct involvement: the physical deployment of assets or personnel; and
- Indirect Involvement: the involvement by effect, which is overviewed as both peacekeeping and asset donation.
Direct RAN Involvement
As previously noted, 1975 marked the first year of the utilisation of RAN assets under the new legislation agreements. While this was initially a small portion of the border protection contingent, the RAN has slowly increased involvement in border protection over the last four decades. 1975 also marked the end of the Vietnam War and in the same year Indonesia invaded and annexed East Timor. Poor conditions in Vietnam together with increased conflict along its borders led to a wave of migration.3 The result became apparent on Australian shores in 1977, with the arrival of Vietnamese ‘boat people’.
Until 1979, this direct involvement in border protection was predominantly realized through the deployment of Attack class patrol boats. Twenty of these vessels were constructed throughout the 1960s, with fifteen utilized for patrols in Australian waters.4 In 1979, the commissioning of the first Fremantle class patrol boats marked an increase in ability for RAN Patrol Boats – taking a step closer to meeting the significant requirements of Border Protection.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, illegal immigration became a high priority for both Customs and the RAN, although little publicity was afforded to the issue until the Tampa Affair of 2001.5 Hundreds of vessels were apprehended by both military and civilian assets, with the majority of apprehensions executed by RAN crew’s onboard Fremantle class patrol boats. After the Tampa Affair, illegal immigration came to the forefront of public media and became a tool for political leverage. While public media places a large degree of focus on Suspected Illegal Entry Vessels (SIEVs) and asylum seeking vessels that anchor off mainland Australia, little coverage is provided to the apprehension of these vessels when off Australian shores. The surveillance of our waters and the apprehension of these vessels has been the primary objective of BPC and the Armidale class patrol boats (ACPBs) since 2005.
According to the DIC, as of 31 January 2013, over 95% of the people in immigration detention centres are apprehended irregular maritime arrivals. This percentage is an overwhelming increase from the previous financial year. During the 2011-12 financial year only 74.5% of the people detained in immigration centres had arrived by boat. This denotes an increase in volume of irregular maritime arrivals, but also specifically highlights the increased role played by RAN vessels in apprehending these asylum seekers in Australian waters.
Indirect RAN Involvement
While indirect RAN involvement is more difficult to specify, it has been categorized into two main elements with considerable positive flow on effects to border protection and stemming the flow of Irregular Maritime Arrivals. These elements are peacekeeping operation and asset donation and maintenance. Peacekeeping operations usually serve a number of diplomatic and military purposes, but the flow on effect of reducing the number of illegal entry vessels should not be overlooked. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the residents of Pacific coastal nations in conflict quickly realised that a viable means of escape from their unstable environment was attempted immigration to Australia. It wasn’t important whether a vessel was apprehended or not– conditions within Australian detention centres were usually safer and more comfortable than those they had left.
Two of the most significant operations with a notable indirect effect toward Irregular Maritime Arrivals were Inter-national Force for East Timor 1999 (INTERFET) and Operation ASTUTE 2006. Both operations were Australian military led, with a strong RAN presence. These operations were designed to maintain stability in East Timor, our closest neighbour and a launching point for many illegal entry vessels. Between 2006 and 2013, Operation ASTUTE consisted of one of the largest amphibious task force in the history of the RAN, including: HMA Ships Adelaide, Balikpapan, Kanimbla, Manoora, Success, Tarakan and Tobruk plus two ‘Sea King’ helicopters and one S-70B-2 ‘Seahawk’ helicopter.
As with peacekeeping operations, asset donation and maintenance usually meets a number of diplomatic and military goals, in addition to reducing the requirement for Australia to meet requests for constabulary assistance outside of the AMD. While the RAN has made numerous donations of obsolete or retired assets to neighbouring navies, the largest asset donation and maintenance project undertaken by the RAN has been the Pacific class patrol boat (PCPB) program. The PCPB Program began in the 1970s with the formation of the UNCLOS. Following the development of this legislation, many pacific coastal nations experienced great difficulty in maintaining their maritime responsibilities. This was due to an increase in their area of responsibility extending from 12 nm to 200 nm in most cases.
The resultant support offered by the Australian Government and the RAN was the PCPB Program. This program consisted of the procurement of twenty-two patrol boats that were donated to twelve pacific nations to operate as a part of their military, police force or coast guard. This extensive project had an initial cost of over $150 million. Ongoing financial support was reported as $249 million in 1998, with a further $350 million pledged to the project from 2002-2027.7
Although the primary aim of this project was predominantly diplomatic, the flow-on effect for military operations on the border protection front is immeasurable. In allowing these coastal nations to cast a wider ‘net’ around their own maritime domains, it has reduced the threat to Australia with respect to permitted passage through these waters. In addition, it has reduced the political requirement for Australian ships to respond to humanitarian and constabulary requests in these areas. This is due to increasing the ability for these coastal nations to maintain security in their maritime domain.
Since 1975, the Royal Australian Navy has taken part in almost every operation implemented by the ADF. These operations have contained elements such as humanitarian assistance, goods and personnel transportation, amphibious demonstrations of power and many other aspects. The most consistent and arguably the most important involvement by the RAN has been its commitment to border protection in the Australian Maritime Domain. Currently, ongoing support is offered primarily by those resources allocated to Operation RESOLUTE.8
At any given time, at least seven ACPBs and up to 500 ADF personnel are allocated to border and resource protection within RESOLUTE. The shift in government led law enforcement within the Australian Maritime Domain since the 1970s has seen a growth from individual RAN assets as required to the current level of full time Defence – led operation. While BPC indentifies eight separate threats within the AMD that they monitor for, the primary ongoing function of BPC and the Royal Australian Navy is providing significant assistance in maintaining the integrity of our borders from incursions by Irregular Maritime Arrivals.
1 Maritime Security Threats, Border Protection Command (2013).
2 100 Years of the Royal Australian Navy, ADF (2011): 156.
3 Epsey Farrell, The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Law of the Sea: An Analysis of Vietnamese
Behaviour within the Emerging International Oceans Regime, Kluwer Law International (1998).
4 Blackman (ed.), Jane’s Fighting Ships (1968-69).
5 Peter Shadbolt, Australians bar ship laden with Afghan refugees, in The Telegraph (UK), Retrieved 23 March 2013.
6 Chiara Pazzano, Asylum seekers: Where Australia stands, in SBS Online World News Australia, Retrieved 23 March 2013.
7 Pacific Patrol Boat Program, Nautilus Institute (2009).
8 Operation RESOLUTE, Department of Defence (2013).