Defence chiefs forced to reduce anti-terror operations to pick up Border Force slack
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Defence chiefs forced to reduce anti-terror operations to pick up Border Force slack

Defence was forced to reduce counter-terrorism ocean patrols with the Philippines, cancel a maritime operation with key Pacific neighbours and cancel an air surveillance exercise with Indonesia because it was picking up slack left by deficiencies in the Australian Border Force, according to leaked documents.

Minutes of a high-level Department of Defence meeting reveal senior brass discussed how the shortfalls of the ABF were affecting the military and could force it to restructure.

The Morrison government is running hard on border protection in the lead up to the May election and has repeatedly hosed down suggestions of problems with the ABF, which was established under Malcolm Turnbull and is headed by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

The military’s operations chief, Air Marshal Mel Hupfeld, told the meeting that “the ABF risks have been realised and transferred to Defence”, according to the minutes from the October meeting.

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This had resulted in “cancellation of an AP-3C exercise with Indonesia, a reduction in patrol boats supporting Operation Augury-Philippines, and cancellation of surface fleet support to Forum Fisheries Agency Operation Kuru Kuru”.

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The operations and exercises mentioned in the meeting are all highly significant. The cancellation of the Pacific fisheries operation is at odds with the government’s declared determination to “step up” its relationships with island neighbours in the South Pacific amid concerns about the rising strategic influence of China.

The acting Chief of the Defence Force at the time of the meeting, Vice Admiral David Johnston, said according to the minutes that “Defence needs to work with ABF to build their capacity, particularly in the short-term through Christmas and to the federal election”.

Defence needed to talk more to the Department of Home Affairs - under which the ABF sits - to establish what its own fleet of ships and boats could achieve, he said.

“In the medium-to-long term, Defence may need to restructure to support the ABF,” the minutes summarise Vice Admiral Johnston as saying.

He noted that Operation Resolute, which is the military contribution to border protection, was Defence’s top priority.

He added: “Defence needs to better articulate the impact of this support.”

On Wednesday, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age reported that the ABF had been falling short of its sea patrol target by 20 percent, largely because it had too few crew personnel, also according to leaked documents. The documents cited budget cuts.

A spokeswoman for the ABF said on Thursday there had been no funding cuts to the force, but "the increasing cost of fuel, wages and maintenance continue to impact budget considerations".

She said the government had increased the force's budget by $58.6 million this financial year.

"There is not, nor has there been, any weakening in our border protection capabilities," she said.

She said the force had hired 50 people in the past six months.

While it is not unusual for the ADF to move assets around to meet changing priorities, the latest revelations from the Defence meeting appear to underscore the impact that the ABF’s shortfalls are having on key issues of terrorism, the South Pacific and co-operation with Australia’s largest neighbour, Indonesia.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have confirmed that Australia did not send any surface vessels to the Pacific fisheries operation.

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It is unclear what impact on operations the other cancellations and reductions had. Operation Augury, in which Defence is helping the Philippine military combat Islamist terrorism in the wake of the devastating siege upon the city of Marawi in the southern archipelago, includes a maritime component.

Royal Australian Navy patrol boats have been helping enforce the Philippines’ porous maritime border with Indonesia and Malaysia in the Sulu Sea, through which terrorists and weapons are smuggled.

It is understood that patrols with the Filipinos on Operation Augury have still gone ahead.

Australia held an exercise with Indonesia involving AP-3C aircraft in February.

A source said that reprioritisation of military assets could be more complicated than simple cancellation of exercises.

A series of questions put to Defence on the nature and reasons for any cancellations or reductions in operations were not answered by Thursday night.

ABF commissioner Michael Outram said during a visit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the newly reopened Christmas Island detention centre on Wednesday that the force's total days spent patrolling the seas had increased every financial year since 2014.

The force's spokeswoman said there had been 2164 patrolling days in 2014-15; 2576 days in 2015-16; 2628 in 2016-17 and 2668 in 2017-18. All of these are however well below the actual targets for the fleet.

It is understood that four of the eight Cape Class patrol boats, which are the workhorses of the force's fleet, are currently docked. The ABF spokeswoman said issues with their maintenance were being resolved with manufacturer Austal in Western Australia.

"A solution has been identified and any required works will be undertaken during scheduled maintenance windows in a way which ensures our strong maritime presence is maintained."

David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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