Border security

 Good Operations and Bad Government Policy – Australia’s Border Protection Command

At some future time, a doctoral candidate may explore the impact poor government policy has on newly formed, highly professional and very effective maritime security agencies. Only in this way will the rather extraordinary story of Border Protection Command be told.


Australia has been conducting fisheries patrols for a century. The gunboat Gayundah, once the flagship of the Queensland Marine Defence Force, but then belonging to the Commonwealth Naval Forces (the RAN’s precursor), was sent in 1911 to patrol the northern pearling grounds. Finding two Japanese luggers within territorial limits she fired a shot across their bows and took them in tow for Broome, where they were confiscated.

The Japanese continued to operate in Australian waters until 1941. In 1939, the Commonwealth Government had built two patrol launches, the Larrakia and Kuru, specifically targeting illegal pearling operations conducted by Japanese vessels. By the 1960s coordinated patrols using ‘Attack’ class patrol boats were underway, supported by RAAF and RAN aircraft. These conducted fisheries protection inside the newly declared 12 nautical mile fishing zone.

By the 1970s a number of issues began to focus government’s attention on maritime surveillance. These included an increase in foreign fishing vessel activity (especially politically sensitive trochus fishing in northern waters and Taiwanese clam-collecting on the Great Barrier Reef), illegal immigration and people smuggling.

In August 1977, Australia announced its intention to declare a 200 nautical mile Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ). This demanded a coordinated civil-military surveillance effort. The Government made the Department of Transport responsible for coastal surveillance and increased the combined military and civil surveillance commitment to 27,000 hours annually.

Much of the surveillance was conducted by chartered civilian aircraft. However, the AFZ was also patrolled by RAN S2 Tracker and RAAF P3 Orion aircraft. Reviews over the next two decades saw many changes. These culminated in the 2004 Taskforce on Offshore Maritime Security report – the still-classified Tonkin Report.

The Multi-Agency Era

The Tonkin Report recommended the formation of something unique: not a Coast Guard, but a multi-agency entity which coordinated maritime security using task-assigned military and civil assets. This was a bold and innovative solution – and one which avoided the costs of setting up a Coast Guard – and the turf wars which would have resulted – from transferring assets from the RAN, RAAF, Customs, Police and other areas. The Joint Offshore Protection Command (JOPC) was created in 2005. One of the critically important things the Howard government did was to ensure that JOPC had unimpeded access to all maritime related information collected by Commonwealth agencies under Commonwealth Acts and regulations. This is what is so different about JOPC/BPC: it has unimpeded access to everything. The second critical act by the Howard government was to empower JOPC to build a secret-level (but multi-level secure) ocean surveillance system, now called AMIS, of which more below. This extraordinary system is perhaps the most successful major government IT project of all time.

In October 2006, JOPC was renamed Border Protection Command (BPC) to better reflect its maritime surveillance and response role. The Commander, BPC (COMBPC) is a Rear-Admiral also sworn as a Customs Officer. BPC itself is small, only a couple of hundred people. About 80% are seconded Customs staff; perhaps 15% seconded military staff, and the rest from Federal Police, Quarantine, Fisheries and other agencies. COMBPC is a stellar posting, and has had the Navy’s best and brightest in it, including Vice Admiral Russ Crane, Rear Admiral James Goldrick and Rear Admiral Allan du Toit. The present COMBPC is the highly regarded Rear Admiral Tim Barrett.

Structure and Reporting

COMBPC has a dual-track responsibility. He reports to both the Chief of Defence Force Air Marshall Angus Houston and to the CEO of Customs and Border Protection(C&BP), Marion Grant. He is supported by three major subordinates, the Director General Border Protection Operations (a C&BP officer) who is his Canberra-based Deputy Commander, the Director General Capability Development, (a C&BP officer) and the Commander Northern Command, an ADF one-star who is his Deputy ADF Commander, based in Darwin.

This dual reporting upwards and dual deputy system downwards is unique in Australia. There are problems inherent in a split headquarters, but a plan to correct this (called Plan Forge) was developed over 2009-2010 and approved by the C&BP CEO, CDF and reportedly by their respective Ministers. It would have involved increased centralisation in Canberra and a reduction in the ADF presence in Darwin by a small number (unconfirmed reporting indicates about 20). Plan Forge would have corrected some known deficiencies in the structure and led to more efficient and less costly operational activity. However, it was cancelled in 2010 by the then-PM Rudd, apparently for petty political reasons. This is just a recent example of how BPC’s ability to do its job has been degraded by poor public policy decisions since 24 November 2007.

Australian Maritime identification System (AMIS)

At the heart of BPC lies not the patrol boats of C&BP and the RAN, or the aircraft of the Coastwatch contract and the RAAF, but AMIS.

The creation of AMIS was one of the key recommendations of the Tonkin Report. It is a government IT project with a budget reported to be about $45 million and a delivery time frame of about eight years (about 2005-2012). AMIS was made an internal responsibility of BPC, and has been exceptionally successful. It is reported by industry sources to be ahead of schedule, delivering more than originally proposed, and to be slightly under budget.

AMIS is a multi-level secure, global ocean surveillance system which utilises an open-ended architecture. Suitable COTS programs are licensed, incorporated in to the system and utilised with minimal alteration. AMIS brings together all the data made available to all Commonwealth government agencies in relation to shipping operating in Australian waters. It also incorporates commercially available AIS and LRIT locational information (assisting AMSA with sea safety is a BPC responsibility as they have operational control of many national assets) as well as classified defence information. The result is a fourth-generation ocean surveillance and threat monitoring system which is attracting international attention.

The key to AMIS is its threat evaluation system – invented within BPC by a remarkable team led by a mid-ranking C&BP officer. Threats are assigned on the basis of known information and ‘rule sets’ established by BPC’s government (and industry) customers. A vessel lacking positive data is high threat by default (a unique feature of the system) and this is reduced as vessel, crew and cargo criteria are validated from information already collected by various government agencies. The result is an all-source surveillance picture which simultaneously allows effective threat assessment.

It is important to understand that AMIS is not a sensor system. It merely uses all available existing data including that from Defence and commercial sources like Lloyds. This enables BPC’s 24/7/365 watch floor analysts to access all information available on any vessel – ship identity, cargo, crew, history, ownership, characteristics and so forth. All of this data is available under the ‘track header’ on the system. Better, AMIS imposes no additional costs on industry as it uses information already supplied to various government agencies.

AMIS shifts from the traditional focus on ships going to and from Australian ports. This is due to the MV Pong Su incident in April 2003: she was bound for no Australian port. Australian agencies had all the data to hand to identify, track and apprehend this drug-smuggler well before she reached Victoria – but there was no maritime security agency in existence to put the data together and act on it.


The major achievement of JOPC and BPC between 2005 and 2008 was great success in preventing illegal fishing in Australia’s northern waters. The growing ability of JOPC/BPC over this period to use intelligence feeds and analysis of surveillance data saw illegal fishing reduced. This occurred because law enforcement surveillance and detection was reinforced by coordinated changes to legislation and legal penalty regimes whereby seized illegal fishing vessels were forfeited and destroyed, while their crews were quickly repatriated and did not spend lengthy periods in Australian gaols, where they received free medical and dental care, were supported lavishly by Indonesian civil standards and were even paid.

The result was that the illegal fisherman returned home quickly, without his boat, without his medical issues having been addressed, and without a lump sum: but retaining whatever debts he still owed on his destroyed fishing vessel. The overall consequence was one of institutionalised success in curbing illegal fishing.

As can be seen from the sighting displays above, BPC was able to literally ‘hold the line’, having a major beneficial impact by greatly reducing illegal fishing inside Australian waters. Simultaneously, BPC developed excellent relationships with their Indonesian counterparts. This was done for two reasons, firstly to educate Indonesian fishermen about what they could and could not do in Australian waters, but more importantly to help Indonesian authorities to better deal with illegal foreign fishing in their waters. Illegal fishing inside the Indonesian archipelago was a major factor in forcing some Indonesian fishermen into Australian waters.

Similar successes were achieved in the Southern Ocean fisheries. An agreement with France was developed, enabling deployment of properly empowered personnel to each other’s vessels, a coordinated patrol program and mutual patrols of each other’s fisheries.

So BPC over this period reflected the benefits obtainable by carefully considered and coordinated government policies implemented at the Commonwealth and State/territory level, and backed by an innovative and exceptional surveillance and threat appraisal system. As part of this, BPC also began an innovative strategic partnership development program with the offshore oil and gas sector and the shipping industry. This was in accordance with guidance from the government higher committee system, and aimed to increase maritime domain awareness through collaborative partnerships with industry.

This period was not to last.

Illegal Immigrants

This coordination of public policy was also a feature under the Howard government. That government came to the realisation during 2002 that people smugglers were businessmen ‘selling’ Australian residency and access to ‘the easy life’ of the Australian welfare system. This recognised that many were ‘economic illegal immigrants’ unable to meet normal entry criteria.

The Howard government worked out policies which destroyed the business case of people smugglers.

Intending immigrants could, of course, apply through the normal UNHCR and Australian processes. The seaborne people smuggling trade collapsed immediately – and with it the ever-rising death toll. The latter was stated to be an outcome sought by the Howard government, but the relentless criticism of the then-opposition ALP and media of each boat arrival, and the numbers held in detention also played roles in the Howard government’s anti-people smuggling policy.
The new ALP government retained policies such as mandatory detention (brought in by the Keating government in 1992), but dismantled many of the Howard government policies which had destroyed the business case of people smugglers. These included offshore detention on Nauru and temporary protection visas. Predictably, this automatically revived the people smuggling trade and arrivals have since risen to unprecedented levels. This imposes a severe operational strain on BPC, which was already fully stretched combating illegal fishing. The people smuggling trade the Rudd-Gillard governments revived from July 2008 includes a rising death toll, now at about 250, although government sources note that at least two vessels enroute Australia vanished in 2010. The number of dead may be a hundred higher.

Sources in C&BP noted that on 29 July 2009, when then-PM Rudd announced his softened policy, some staff at BPC opened a sweepstake on when the first boat would arrive. They now conduct sweepstakes on how many boats will arrive.

Impact on BPC

The great increase in boat arrivals during 2010 coincided with command turmoil. The tragic death of Rear Admiral Nigel Coates caused the then-COMBPC (Rear Admiral Allan du Toit) to be posted only half way into his tenure. Commodore Tim Barrett was promoted to replace him, just as BPC came under increasing operational strain from surging illegal immigrant arrivals by sea.

People smuggling is a high-profile issue and has exposed BPC to high levels of political interest. However, the poor government policy which caused the surge in people smuggling brought few additional resources to a BPC required to deal with its consequences. The result was serious distortion within BPC as staffs were strained to deal with workloads increased in some cases by over 100%. The organisation suffered, industry sources have vividly described the collapse of BPC’s Strategic Planning Directorate. They noted other impacts in 2010: some sources regarded certain senior ADF staff inside BPC as being of doubtful competence in the maritime security arena. There were also problems in Darwin, again with senior ADF personnel. Serious morale problems were reported in the Canberra HQ, including clashes between an ADF director and Customs staff. However, industry sources report that the responsible ADF personnel have since been replaced and that an effort to rebuild BPC’s strategic planning functions during 2011 is mooted. They also noted that procedures inside BPC relating to illegal immigrant vessel arrivals have become routine.

The unsuitability of some senior ADF staff for employment in a multi-agency law enforcement environment notwithstanding, BPC has been deriving lessons from its experiences of 2010. The first is that AMIS is a major force multiplier, allowing BPC to know what is normal, and to focus its slender resources on the unusual and suspicious. The second is that small, expensive coastal patrol craft like the Armidale and Bay types are not really suitable for extended operations deep out to sea. However, the government shows little willingness to face up to the resource implications of the situation its poor policy choices have created.

The Future

BPC’s continued development of AMIS will continue. It will be rolled out to other government agencies. During 2009-2010, studies by consultants indicated that Australia’s maritime security required a two-phase surface response and surveillance force. A small, fast patrol craft similar to but cheaper than the Armidales is required for patrol and response operations inside the 200nm limit.

But the southern fisheries, extended operations in the Indian Ocean involving illegal immigrants, and above all else the enormous development of the hydrocarbons industry in very remote waters off West Australia and the Northern territory demand larger, longer ranged and more weatherly ships. As Rolls-Royce have noted, a 270-ton, 56.8m aluminium Armidale with a big crew and a couple of weeks endurance costs nearly as much as an 1800 ton 92m Rolls-Royce designed UT527 (or a mature UT-512), which also delivers firefighting, emergency towage and pollution control capability and can hold up to 320 people from offshore cyclone evacuation, marine disaster – or illegal immigration. Such ships have an unrefuelled range of twenty thousand nautical miles at 16 knots, 12 man ship-crews, are large enough to land a medium-sized helicopter and have large RHIB and a docking well for them. They can remain at sea for up to three years continually if required, changing crew and being replenished at sea through the infrastructure being built in remote regions by the hydrocarbon industry. Keeping such ships at sea for a year is now routine in the North Sea and Barents Sea hydrocarbon industries.

It is this author’s view that BPC is unlikely to get such assets. The Federal government, with its consistent record of poor policy in the maritime security arena, does not seem to possess the capability to make such a decision.

BPC is under-resourced. Poor government policy choices have overstrained the organisation. It has experienced command turmoil and a major workload increase imposed by those poor government policy choices. It has a patrol fleet not really suited to the new requirements those poor government policies have created. Its efforts to build maritime security partnerships with the shipping and hydrocarbon industries, so promising in 2008 and early 2009, collapsed by mid-2010. Its strategic development functions collapsed in 2009. Its effort to remove inefficiencies via Plan Forge were scotched by the most senior level of government. Some senior ADF personnel have proven to be unsuited to its maritime security function. Yet, despite these issues, its achievements in securing Australia’s maritime security have been remarkable, and of great benefit to the nation. BPC is a success story, and the proof of what good public policy choices by government can achieve. The poor policy choices of the current Australian government have not been able to undo the good policy choices of its predecessor.


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