[X-URL: http://www.crikey.com.au/whistleblower/sievxconspiracy.html - published 6 August 2002]
Not all conspiracy theories pushed by Labor staffers hang true
A defence insider who cannot be identifed has shot a few holes in the SIEX X conspiracy theory being pushed by Tony Kevin, the former diplomat now working for Labor Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd.
I am a P3 Orion crewmember. As a result a lot of my time is spent searching for SIEVS. I may have even been in the area north of Christmas Island around the time of the infamous SIEV X. I followed the link to the SIEVX website in one of your recent sealed sections. There are plenty of issues raised there which sound like the work of a fertile imagination with a view to conspiracy theories, however most of these go to levels far above my head. One area of conspiracy theory I can rebut however, is the slanted questions raised about the "suspicious" activities of the P3s. I don't wish to add directly to that site, but since you guys lead me there, and you've been pushing the whole issue, I thought you might like to hear the other side of that part of the story at least.
The SIEVX site asks:
"Why is the path of the first P3C flight on 19 October (the day SIEVX sank) so much shorter than those of the other flights? Although the Orion was reportedly 'on task' for five and a quarter hours that morning, it covered far less territory than the other surveillance flights. The flight on the 18th was about 45 minutes shorter but covered about twice as much ground, as did the flight on the 20th. Might the discrepancy be because they looked for and found (or looked for and did not find) SIEVX but now not want to admit to this?"
The answer - most likely a combination of track spacing, weather and contact density. Our radar is fairly old, and fairly crap. It is not optimised for picking up wooden boats, which aren't ideal radar reflectors. It is very much affected by sea state, and is dependant on operator competency and experience - operating it is an art, not a science. As a result, we must figure out our likely detection range, and adjust our track spacing to get the most coverage of the area we require. If the sea on the 18th or 20th a bit rougher than previously, detection range would be down, and the tracks would have to be closer together. Another reason for closer track spacing would be poor visibility - we rely a lot on the mark I eyeball to find small contacts. If the track spacing is reduced, it means that for the same number of "air miles" flown, there is less area covered.
Basically if the weather's good, the track spacing can go up, which is what looks like happened on the 19th. If the weather's good, the fishermen come out too. If the contact density is high, our speed of advance (SOA) along the track is slower, since we have to fly past and photograph every contact.
We do everything we can to get a secure search of the area we're assigned, we shut down one, sometimes two engines, and go to great lengths to ensure our search is as secure as we can make it. It's not easy at that time of year. Also keep in mind that at that stage of op relex we were reporting for work at about 1am after sleeping in fairly crap on base accomodation, doing a few hours of preflight, then doing the transit to christmas so that we arrive at first light. Rather fatigue inducing , isn't it? That surely has an effect on such a mandraulic operation.
"Note how on 18 October the Orions were detecting vessels up to 20 miles outside the limits of the NW surveillance zone, going up towards and into the Sunda Strait. But not on 19 or 20 October. Were there really fewer boats around in these locations on 19 and 20 than on 18 (hard to see why), or weren't they looking so far outside their zone boundary on these two days? If so, why not? (Questions 2 and 3 suggested by Tony Kevin)"
One obvious reason would be that there was no boats there. Some days there will be a flotilla of fishers out, other days there will be none to hardly any. I don't know why, probably the weather, maybe cultural or religious reasons, I really don't care to be honest. They seem to operate in herds. The other variable is radar performance, influenced by the weather, as previously outlined.
Basically if a contact is outside the area, it's a "nice to report", not a "must report". The radar operator is not concentrating out there, s/he's concentrating inside the area. The count of contacts outside the area is not something you can compare from day to day.
Elsewhere in the site there's much made of conjecture about whether the boat sunk in "international waters", which means outside 12nm from the Indonesian baseline. It seems like it was pretty close to 12nm, hence the conjecture. It's implied that we or the navy could have done something about it if it was in international waters. Well unless it was significantly in international waters, not bloody likely! While 12 miles is the limit, we apply a buffer to that. The Indonesians would surely get a little nervous if australian military aircraft or ships are barrelling in right up to their territorial limit - it's rather conducive to an international incident, or misunderstanding. Something we have procedures in place to avoid. From within our area, we would be lucky to even detect a boat at or within 12 miles from indon territory, and we would certainly have no way of ascertaining it's condition.
So that's our point of view. It was nice to get that off my chest, and I hope you can at least use a little of it to present our point of view.