The Pacific Patrol Boat Program

The Central Pacific has some of the greatest swaths of empty ocean in the world. But in the Western Pacific, there are a great number of islands and archipelagoes, many of them independent nation states. Each of these nations has an EEZ, or Exclusive Economic Zone. While their territorial sovereignty only extends 12 nautical miles from the shore, the EEZ extends 200 nautical miles. Within that zone, these nation states have rights to fishing, drilling and virtually all other economically productive activities. If Tuvula doesn’t want you fishing in their waters, that is their right to deny you. Conversely, Tuvula can, if it wishes, grant you a license to fish in their EEZ, and charge you a tidy fee, adding nicely to their national coffers. The problem is, Tuvula, with an area of about 10 square miles, has an EEZ of about 126,000 square miles to patrol. And with a population of about 10,000, it doesn’t really have the tax base and industry to buy much of a coast guard.

Enter Australia. The concept of the EEZ is a relatively new one, first codified by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea in 1982. Australia has long operated its own fleet of small patrol boats to enforce its EEZ and perform other similar maritime security and presence missions.  Australia also quickly realized that helping the large number of small nations to their north perform similar missions would help Australia perform its own. That is, time not spend dealing with problems to the north could be spent on dealing with local issues.

And so in the late 1980s through most of the 1990s, Australia built a fleet of 22 patrol boats, each just over 100’ in length, and get this… they gave them away, free of charge. Even better, they operate a schoolhouse in Australia to train the sailors from the countries that received these gifts. Australia also set aside money for overhauling and upgrading the boats over time.

The Pacific class patrol boat has been quite a successful design.

File:RAN-IFR 2013 D3 71.JPG

Photographs taken during day 3 of the Royal Australian Navy International Fleet Review 2013. Papua New Guinean patrol boat Dreger underway on Sydney Harbour.

At about 103’, and displacing 162 tons, they have a top speed of about 20 knots, and a steaming range of about 2500 nautical miles at an efficient cruising speed of 12 knots.  They have an endurance of about 10 days.  Not all are armed (many are operated by police forces, as opposed to a navy or coast guard) but they can be fitted for machine guns and even 20mm cannon.

The Pacifics were built to commercial standards, both to keep construction and maintenance costs down, and for ease of maintenance by the relatively poor nations that operate them.

The Pacifics are beginning to reach the end of their expected service lives. And Australia has a bit of a slump in its current shipbuilding plans. And so:

MARCH 6, 2015 — Australia’s Minister of Defence, Kevin Andrews, today, issued a statement announcing the Request for Tender (RFT) for up to 21 replacement – Australian-made – Pacific Patrol Boats under the Pacific Maritime Security Program, Project SEA3036 Phase 1.
Under that program, Australia provides patrol boats to Pacific island countries to enable them take an active part in securing their own extensive Exclusive Economic Zones

The project announced today is seen as a lifeline for Australian shipbuilding. According to the minister, it represents “a significant investment in Australian defense industry,” with the Australian-made patrol boats worth Australian $594 million (about US$ 462 million) with through life sustainment and personnel costs adding an estimated at A$1.38 billion (about US$ 1.07 billion over 30 years.

It would probably be fair to say this is more corporate welfare for Australia than it is self interested charity to its neighbors. Australia’s neighbors will benefit, of course. But in the interim, Australia will also be able to keep its shipbuilding capacity ticking over pending some future major programs for domestic consumption.

The new patrol boats are expected to be somewhat larger than the Pacific class, at about 40 meters (roughly 125 feet) and a bit faster, with a top speed of 25 knots. Endurance should be similar. Again, the ships will be built to commercial standards. They won’t be fitted with armament, but will be fitted for it if the receiving nation wishes to add it.

10 thoughts on “The Pacific Patrol Boat Program”

  1. I wonder if the Australian government could do the same thing with helicopters. Build some medium-lift helos to stimulate that part of their aerospace market, then give the birds to neighboring islands for security operations. I know that the U.S. has given plenty of UH-60s to nations around the world and kept Sikorsky busy during the lean times (Plan Colombia provided at least 70 Blackhawks and Hueys to that nation during the 1990s.) The training piece can take a while to produce results, though (it took a decade to get the Colombians to the point where they could safely train aircrew without U.S. assistance.)

    1. A lot of the smaller nations are struggling to afford operations of the PPBs, so the much higher operating costs of a helicopter would probably price them right out.

    2. We did that with our UH-1Hs in 90s. Gave PNG a few. Fuel costs hit them hard. Long periods of little or no flight. Lots of retraining.

  2. Sorry old boy, this isn’t a case of corporate welfare by dick togs Abbott for the Ozzie ship builders for their cockup in new ships for the senior service.
    The South Pacific Boat program started way back in1983 when those little Pacific nations ask for help in policing their 200 mile EEZ’s during a South Pacific forum meeting. The two great legendary leaders of Australia and New Zealand, the great Bob Hawke and the late Sir Rod of NZ said yes. With a 70/30 split between Oz and NZ (I’m not sure if the old country was involved but may have in the early stages.)
    In 1985 the first of many little ships were launch not only for the South Pacific nations but many other nations as well such as Kuwait, marine police in honkers, Royal Canadian Navy and many others.
    Each Pacific nation has a Navy LO from Oz or Nz to help out with training, misson planning, co-ord with the Fish Heads from the RAAF 92wing or No5 SQN from RNZAF or the maritime forces of those two nations that do routine pratols / Ex’s in the area among other duties they do on their 2-3 yr posting.
    The bulk of the training and refits are in Fiji also there is a multi nation HQ but since the coup back in 06 it was done Oz and NZ. Also there is a multi nation HQ in Fiji that does all the co-ord and alot of other HQ stuff.

    1. Not sure exactly what it was you said there … but “corporate welfare” isn’t necessarily the term I’d have used.

      It’s in the national interest – no matter what maritime nation you’re from – to have a robust capability in the area of shipbuilding. If that comes at the expense of occasionally buying something you don’t need, in order to keep your shipyards busy and fully staffed with trained folks, that’s not a bad thing.

    2. Everything I read about the replacement program has been fairly open about the timing of the contracts being used to maintain workforces in the boatyards and shipyards pending further planned programs for the Australian Navy in a couple of years. While I’m generally against corporate welfare, LT Rusty’s point about this being in Australia’s general interests is right.

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