Largely in an attempt to deter people smugglers and their cargoes of boat people from entering Australian territory, the Royal Australian Navy presently has seven of its nine major surface combatants on active duty, five of these being specifically required to patrol the waters between Indonesia and Australia.
Even with a further two ANZAC frigates due to be commissioned between December 2001 and February 2002, this new task of patrolling international waters is going to stretch the RAN’s resources to breaking point.
Nor is the wisdom of using half-billion-dollar warships, such as our FFG frigates with their expensive weapons systems and 186 crew members, for the task of border patrol readily apparent. It is rather that the Government has no other option. Unfortunately for the Government its problem of tasking suitable vessels to long-range border patrol is due to the decision of previous Government’s to purchase a dinky toy class patrol boat for the RAN in a misplaced attempt to save money.
Quite apart from their lack of any useful war fighting capability, Australia’s 15 Fremantle Class patrol boats are severely limited by their size, their lack of range and their lack of a helicopter for reconnaissance. If confronted with a leaky boat filled with 200 or 400 illegal immigrants, their size simply prevents them from taking these people on board.
What makes the problem of Australia’s patrol boat fleet even worse is that the Federal Government recently issued tenders for their replacement, with a set of specifications that effectively eliminates the most suitable types of vessel from being tendered.
What Australia desperately needs to perform the tasks of patrolling its sea borders and exclusive economic zone is not a new Coastguard bureaucracy but a high speed, long range patrol boat which is larger than the Fremantle Class yet smaller and considerably less expensive than a half billion-dollar FFG frigate. It should have the capacity to carry the new V-22 tiltrotor Osprey (a hybrid helicopter/proprotor aircraft) for SAS special operations and more generally a helicopter for use in reconnaissance, rescue and anti-submarine warfare.
A prime contender ought to be a catamaran-hulled boat, such as a modified version of the former HMAS Jervis Bay, which was previously deployed to East Timor.
The Tasmanian builder of catamaran hulled boats, Incat, has designed an impressive 98-metre vessel which incorporates a helicopter deck and hangar, a stern boat loading ramp, a bow loading ramp for troops and equipment and has the sealift capability of carrying 363 persons, military vehicles and equipment over 1110 nautical miles at speeds in excess of 40 knots. All of this with a crew of 20 to 24 which is comparable to the Fremantle Class patrol boat’s crew.
Additionally, its size would allow it to carry torpedoes, anti-ship and short range surface to air missiles as well as the usual small calibre deck guns. With the Incat 98-metre design being large enough to accommodate the new V-22 Osprey, which will come into service with the US Air Force and Marines from 2003, our SAS and other Army units would have the capability of performing long range troop insertion and extraction missions.
Although larger and more expensive than a 42-metre Fremantle Class patrol boat, the sealift capabilities of the Incat design would provide additional economies by allowing the retirement of the navy’s six 30-year old Heavy Landing Craft and the transfer of their 78 crew members to the new ANZAC frigates, as well as relieving the RAN’s major surface combatants of the task of border patrol.
When recently chartering one of Incat’s 96-metre catamarans for testing by the US military, the Director of the Maritime Battle Centre at the US Navy Warfare Development Command, Captain Pat Denny, described it as “an awesome ship” adding “we don’t build ships like this in the United States”.
But unless the Federal Government is prepared to re-examine the Navy’s patrol boat requirements, Australia will end up acquiring yet another dinky toy patrol boat, built to suit a budget rather than the nation’s defence needs.