Australia’s border patrol navy creaking at seams because of boat people

Cameron Stewart in The Australian, 10 Augsut 2012, under the title “Asylum demands breaking navy fleet as patrol boats crack up

AUSTRALIA’S navy patrol boats are literally cracking up under the strain of intercepting the surge in asylum-seeker vessels, with one boat now banned from operations and structural cracks discovered in at least two others.Defence has ordered an urgent investigation into its overworked 14-boat fleet amid concerns that the problem could threaten the navy’s long-term ability to patrol Australia’s northern approaches.

The discovery of the structural cracks in the Armidale-class boats could not come at a worse time for the navy, which is being forced to intercept a growing number of asylum-seeker boats further out from shore. This trend has been reinforced by some people-smugglers employing bogus distress calls to secure naval assistance shortly after leaving Indonesia.

The demands on the fleet were starkly illustrated yesterday with the dramatic rescue of 211 asylum-seekers in rough seas by HMAS Ararat and HMAS Larrakia. It was the biggest boat to be intercepted in five years under Labor. More than 100 asylum-seeker boats carrying a total of 7000 people have arrived so far this year, many of which have required naval escorts.

The navy learned of the problem recently when large structural internal cracks were discovered near the engine room of the oldest patrol boat, HMAS Armidale. The issue was so serious that the boat has since been taken off active operations and is restricted to training duties.

It is not allowed to sail in seas of more than 2.5m – less than half its design capability.

“HMAS Armidale currently has an operating limitation of Sea State 4 (up to 2.5m),” a Defence spokesman said. “The limitation was placed on the boat following identification of cracking in the vicinity of the engine room.”

Immigration Minister Chris Bowen today confirmed surging asylum boat arrivals had contributed to accelerated wear on patrol boats.

“There is always a range of circumstances, and of course there has been an increase in operational tempo in the north, due to an increase in asylum seekers,” he told ABC radio.

“Of course that’s the case. That would have been one of the things that has increased the operational tempo of these vessels.”

The navy claims the loss of the Armidale will not affect its ability to intercept asylum-seeker boats but the reality is that it now has one less boat available for operations.This comes at a time when the navy is already one patrol boat short because of an overhaul of maintenance procedures ordered by navy chief Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs in March, to deal with a raft of technical problems.

The navy has also recently discovered cracks near the engine room on two other patrol boats and is waiting to assess two boats that are still at sea. “Two other boats have similar but more minor cracking in the same area as HMAS Armidale,” a spokesperson said.

“A detailed structural engineering analysis is under way to finalise a design solution and permanent repair plan for (HMAS) Armidale.” It is unclear whether the cracks have been caused by the high operational tempo of the boats caused by the influx of asylum-seeker boats or whether they relate to a design fault. The Armidale fleet is relatively new, having been built in Western Australia between 2004 and 2007 by shipbuilder Austal.

Austal chief executive Andrew Bellamy said yesterday the company was working closely with Defence to determine the cause of the cracking, but he noted that the fleet was being worked harder than anyone had anticipated because of the influx of asylum-seeker boats.

“The Armidale-class patrol boats have been a tremendously successful vessel, working much harder in demanding circumstances than anybody would have anticipated when they were being built in the mid-2000s,” Mr Bellamy told The Australian. “Any vessel in distress at sea has the right to expect that another vessel will come to its aid. We have designed the patrol boats within certain operational limitations but navy doesn’t get to choose the conditions in which an emergency might occur.”

Defence said it expected that “a fully designed repair solution” for the patrol boats would be provided by October but did not say how long it would take to carry out the repairs on HMAS Armidale. “Until that repair is completed, HMAS Armidale will be utilised for training and certification of operational crews,” a Defence spokesman said.

The navy aims to provide seven of its 14 patrol boats to the joint Customs-Defence border protection force known as Operation Resolute. But with at least two boats always undergoing manufacturer-related repairs, it is no longer able to guarantee that all seven boats will be available for operations on any given day.

Before the recent discovery of structural cracks, the patrol boat fleet was already being stretched to the limit by a spate of unexpected technical faults, as well as a shortage of crew and qualified maintenance staff at fleet bases in Darwin and Cairns. In an attempt to keep the patrol boats at sea, three crews are assigned to two boats, allowing a quick turnaround for the vessels.

Insiders say this approach means basic repairs on the boats are being neglected, and some allege that urgent defects are being overlooked because of the pressure on the navy to intercept asylum-seekers. The navy denies these allegations. Patrol boat availability to meet operational duties has slumped from 98 per cent last year to less than 80 per cent this year.

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