The government’s zeal to turn back asylum seekers is pushing our patrol boats beyond their limits. Six of seven are out of action. By John Birmingham.

Border fleet forced out of action

Armidale-class patrol boats leave Darwin Harbour in formation.
Armidale-class patrol boats leave Darwin Harbour in formation.
Credit: Commonwealth of Australia 2014/Department of Defence

From April to October, warm water from the Pacific flows east to west through the Indonesian archipelago, through the straits between Lombok and Bali, and the shallower gap between Timor and Australia and down into the colder depths of the southern Indian Ocean. If you could capture all the energy transferred as heat you could light up the entire continent. Not just the towns and cities, but every square metre of Gondwanaland, with its own hugely wasteful, old-fashioned 100-watt light bulb. The energy transfer lowers the sea surface temperature to our north, drying out the air, and draining the animal spirits of the weather. The seas are calm, clouds rarely form into storms, and the boats come. Between April and November, while the good weather holds, the people smugglers ramp up their business, trying to squeeze as many people as possible through the blockade maintained by the Australian military and customs service.

As the end of the year looms, however, the flow from the Pacific slows, and sometimes ceases or even reverses. The Australian summer sun beats on the great deserts of the Red Centre, and the waters through which the smugglers ply their trade grow sluggish and warm. As temperatures in the dead heart of the continent soar they create a heat low, which sucks in all the moist air now hanging over the smugglers’ routes and the islands and reefs towards which they are bent. The monsoons ride in hard on the heels of summer.

The boats stop, or they don’t, and if they don’t they risk being smashed by some of the fiercest storms and ugliest seas in the world. The boat that broke up on the rocks off Christmas Island in December 2010 chanced a monsoon passage and perished along with about 50 asylum seekers.

In spite of the slowing pace of people-smuggling over spring and summer – a period coinciding neatly with the Abbott government’s claim of having deterred all arrivals over the past 100 days – there is no slowing down for the ships and personnel of Operation Sovereign Borders. Abbott and Border Protection Minister Scott Morrison’s blockade maintains its watch, even as the titanic engine of the planet’s heat exchange mechanism pours vast amounts of energy into the sea and sky, building and violently erupting in the form of cyclones and monsoonal storms.

“In previous monsoon seasons we have still sailed quite actively,” Mike Pezzullo, CEO of the customs service, told the parliamentary inquiry into the recent breach of Indonesia’s territorial waters. “Smugglers will still attempt to get through clear-weather windows. So you do not withdraw your assets.”

Those assets can range from the small, older and verging-on-obsolete patrol boats operated by customs, to their new larger purpose-built vessels. But the big dog is the military. It can and does put major warships into the blockade, as well as surveillance aircraft, and the navy’s own Armidale-class patrol boats. These are a lot heavier than their customs counterparts, and are much more robustly armed. They do the heavy lifting for Morrison. If your leaky, failing, overcrowded scow is going to be intercepted and turned back by an Australian vessel, it will probably be an Armidale.

Or it would have been until recently. In early March, six of the seven Armidale-class patrol boats  assigned to Sovereign Borders tied up at the wharves in Darwin, cut their engines and settled in for a long stay. Serious structural cracks near the engine rooms rendered them unfit to put out to sea again, and those boats without the worst cracks were still restricted to operating in mild sea states – exactly the sort of operational environment you cannot expect in the monsoon season. In all, 12 of the navy’s 14 boats were affected.

Morrison tried to lay the blame solely at the feet of the Rudd and Gillard governments, claiming that their using the boats for so many years as “water taxis for people smugglers” had stressed them beyond their design parameters.

1 . Original specifications

Normally, when the navy commissions a new class of warship, it orders a certain number of ships built to very particular specifications. This type of engine, that number of guns. With the Armidales, Defence tried a new approach, simply putting out a fixed-price tender for a “patrol boat system” that would deliver coverage for “3000 sea days” a year, with the capacity for up to another 600 days.

The successful bid was split between Austal, a defence shipping subcontractor that laid down the boats’ frames, and Defence Maritime Services, which got the lion’s share of the work designing, constructing and fitting out the vessels and providing 15 years of support, maintenance and crew-training.

They weren’t building true warships. The patrol boats were explicitly designed to assist civilian authorities such as in fisheries, customs or quarantine and were expected to spend most of their operational lives within the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zone, extending only 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the coast. The massively hardened design common to military-grade equipment was not thought necessary for these boats.

In 2008, the CEO of Defence Maritime Services, Greg Hodge, told Jane’s Navy International: “This is not a destroyer built to military specifications, this is a cost-effective patrol boat based on combined commercial and naval standards that will patrol the EEZ and specifically the northern approaches of Australia.”

Hodge told Jane’s that both the navy and the Defence Department applied a lot of pressure to over-engineer the patrol boats but the contractor resisted. The hulls would be aluminium, not steel, for example. Locked into a fixed-price deal meant to avoid the cost blowouts of previous procurement scandals, Austal and DMS were motivated to rein in any “feature creep”. While the boats, limited specifications and the constraints placed on the contractors might look ill conceived now, they were a thoughtful and even street-smart response to decades of systemic failure in weapons procurement, of cost overruns, schedule slippages and wasted billions.

“[The] navy needed the patrol capability,” Hodge said in 2008, “and they’ve actually sought it in a very cost-effective and sensible manner. We must maintain the cost-effectiveness of these vessels and the ease of support.”

The boats were built quickly and, compared with many complex military hardware programs, they weren’t initially crippled by faults. That’s not to say there were none. In 2006 and 2007, the first Armidale-class patrol boats were tied up when water contaminated the engine fuel systems, and, in another incident, untreated sewage gassed four sailors on HMAS Maitland. As serious as these incidents were, however, they did not affect the patrol fleet as badly as the discovery of the deep structural cracks.

Government and opposition have hurried to shift the blame for the boats’ failure. The ALP sent a hospital pass the contractors’ way, blaming design faults and poor engineering. The government, with Morrison jabbering the loudest, insists that somehow the increased operational tempo of the Labor Party’s water taxi business was much worse for the boats than the increased operational tempo of the LNP’s fetish for militarising migration control policies.

There is no mystery, though. Both governments put small, fragile, thin-skinned boats into some of the cruellest seas in the world. They committed boats, and the crews they ordered to sail in them, to voyages of a length, difficulty and hazard for which the vessels were never designed. They did this not just once or twice, but every day for all the years that politics and rhetoric demanded a ring of steel to protect us from any who might seek asylum here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 12, 2014 as "The boats that really stopped".

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John Birmingham worked as a researcher for the Department of Defence before leaving to write books.

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