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Ex-navy officer stunned ships strayed into Indonesian waters

HMAS Parramatta, a Royal Australian Navy ANZAC-class frigate.

HMAS Parramatta, a Royal Australian Navy ANZAC-class frigate. Photo: Reuters

The ''inadvertent'' and repeated entry of Australian vessels into Indonesian territory defied comprehension, with the precise co-ordinates of the island nation's maritime boundary typically programmed into the navy's electronic navigation systems, a former border protection commander has said.

The comments from Barry Learoyd, recently retired after a 43-year navy career that included commanding vessels that interdicted asylum seeker boats, comes after a review of the incidents made the extraordinary revelation that the vessels had not been given information about where Indonesia's sea border was situated.

''It's really difficult to understand,'' said Lieutenant-Commander (rtd) Learoyd. ''The Indonesian archipelago and the archipelagic baseline [the formal name for Indonesia's maritime boundary] is well known to the Australian navy and well known to commanders and senior officers. It's part of the training we all get.''

Moreover, Commander Learoyd said the co-ordinates of the boundary - which extends beyond the standard 12 nautical miles from Indonesia's land mass at times - were usually in the electronic charting systems installed on navy vessels operating in the area.

Customs and navy released a heavily redacted version of its review of the incidents on February 19, describing each of the incursions as ''inadvertent'' and the ''result of miscalculation of Indonesian maritime boundaries by Australian crews''.

But it also said that neither the vessels charged with turning back boats to the very edge of Indonesia's sea border, nor the headquarters overseeing the operations, were provided with information about where the boundary was actually situated.

''Indonesian maritime boundaries constituted important operational information that should have been provided by the headquarters to the commanders of vessels assigned to Operation Sovereign Borders,'' it said.

Commander Learoyd said the finding was ''very surprising''.

Even so, the review blamed the crews for the breaches, and navy and Customs commanders are facing disciplinary action, including possible demotion.

Operation Sovereign Borders is not run by the military but Customs and Border Protection. Its overall commander is Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, a three star army general on secondment.

General Campbell was not present in headquarters when the highly delicate and difficult tow-back operations took place, Senate estimates heard last week. Despite this, and the failure to provide vessels with the co-ordinates of Indonesia's maritime boundary, he has not been censured.

A Customs spokeswoman declined to say if navy and Customs vessels had electronic navigation systems capable of being programmed with Indonesia's borders. She also declined to confirm or deny, as reported by asylum seekers, that the vessels turned off lights as they approached Indonesian territory to avoid detection.

Asylum seekers have claimed their own GPS systems indicated they were brought to within 7.5 nautical miles of Indonesia's land.

It is understood that three of the incursions were by two navy frigates HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Stuart. The other three were by at least one Customs vessel.

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