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The customs marine fleet

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Background Paper 11 May 1998


Today’s announcement of the successful tenderer for a new Customs marine fleet is the latest chapter in the fleet’s long history.

Customs vessels have established a proud record since the Federal Government took responsibility for collecting customs revenue in 1901. The first vessel, HM Customs No 1, operated out of Sydney from around the turn of the century.

In Customs first 50 years some vessels were built specifically for the organisation, but many were existing vessels acquired and converted for special harbour and coastal tasks.

One of the most famous patrol boats was the 30 metre PV Vigilant, built for Customs in Sydney in 1938 and stationed in Townsville. With a crew of 10 she covered an area of thousands of kilometres around northern Australia until commandeered by the Royal Australian Navy in 1940 to run clandestine patrols between Darwin and Timor during World War II.

In the post-war years a number of specially-commissioned vessels were added to the fleet. These included the 13.9 metre J Class, operating up to 100 nautical miles (nm) from the coast; the 12.9 metre Comptroller-General Class, operating up to 30 nm from

a safe haven; the 6.99 metre Collector Class ‘trailerable’ vessels, operating up to 15 nm off the coast or 30 nm from a safe haven; and other small craft, less than 7 metres, for in-port and estuary operations.

Since the mid-1970s Customs has operated a fleet of sea-going vessels of various types and sizes which provide the ability to respond to actual or suspected breaches of Commonwealth laws relating to the management of the Australian coastline and offshore areas.

The 20 metre Minister Class vessels, the mainstay of the current fleet, can operate up to 200 nm off the coast. The two newest vessels, the 23 metre Delphinus and the 25 metre Wauri, both have a range of 1000 nm. There are currently six vessels in the sea­ going fleet.

The location of these vessels around the coast is determined by a range of factors including coastal demographics, international marine activity levels and past history of illegal activities, which are used to assess likely future risks. The fleet is located to provide quick response in areas of greatest risk to the border.

Role and functions

The role played by the marine fleet is to:

• Provide a surface capability to known or suspected breaches of the Australian border.

• Permit Customs to maintain a presence in areas of operational interest along the coastline.

• Operate as part of Customs strategic intelligence net, gathering information for use in assessing the risk rating of each section of the coastline.

The key functions performed by the fleet in support of its role are to:

• Assist in the establishment and maintenance of an effective compliance environment over people and vessels entering the coastal border.

• Support Customs and other Commonwealth and State client agencies in the enforcement of a range of legislation.

• Support the Customs Coastal Risk Management Program.

• Support Customs community participation programs.

Fleet management

The marine fleet works within the Coastwatch branch of Customs in providing an effective national surface civil surveillance response capability. The fleet operates around the 37 000 kilometres of the Australian coastline and out to the limits of the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Responsibility for the planning, tasking and deployment of the vessels rests with a central management group, the National Marine Unit (NMU) in Canberra. Tasks are allocated to individual vessels by the NMU based on bids submitted from a range of federal and state agencies. All bids for the strategic use of the sea-going vessels are approved through the Coastwatch civil surveillance planning process, which takes account of the needs of all client agencies.

Linkage to the Coastwatch planning machinery allows for a greater strategic and tactical approach to tasking and deployment. This uses the Customs marine fleet more effectively. Taskings are prepared taking into consideration the needs of

Customs and the various client agencies with an emphasis on multi-tasked patrols.