$124M Thrown Into Fight Against Illegals

By Steve Creedy
The Australian
7 Oct 1999

ACOUSTIC sensors, satellites and tethered balloons could soon form part of Australia's defence against the rising and increasingly sophisticated tide of illegal immigration.

New Coastwatch director-general Russ Shalders sees new technology, improved communications and better use of military and other information as key tools in policing Australia's 37,000km of coastline.

Rear-Admiral Shalders, a 32-year Royal Australian Navy veteran, was seconded to lead Coastwatch in July as part of a $124 million, four-year revamp of the surveillance agency, prompted by record numbers of illegal arrivals.

The new Coastwatch director-general concedes the job will not be easy. Organisers of immigration rackets are becoming increasingly savvy, using purpose-built boats with hidden compartments, sprucing up rusting hulks and changing the way they land their cargo to avoid detection.

There has also been a surge this year in attempted landings. Coastwatch aircraft have detected 45 illegal boat arrivals involving more than 1200 people. About 600 of those have arrived since June, including 24 in a vessel spotted off the north-west by Coastwatch observers and intercepted on Tuesday by a patrol boat.

Rear-Admiral Shalders said yesterday that there was an estimated $7 million a year trade in illegal immigrants.

Nonetheless, Rear-Admiral Shalders believes the revamp, recommended by the Prime Minister's Coastal Surveillance Taskforce, has given Coastwatch 'a pretty fair plan'.

The expansion means Coastwatch gets two more DASH-8 aircraft for surveillance on the east coast and an electronics-packed twin-engined helicopter will start covering the Torres Strait from January.

A $20 million national surveillance unit will be built in Canberra -- complete with intelligence analysts -- which Rear-Admiral Shalders expects to be a linchpin in the new operation. He said Coastwatch was moving to take better advantage of defence intelligence.

He was also keen to feed into the centre information from an array of vessel monitoring systems, such as the Australian Fisheries Management Authority's database on fishing vessels.

Other technologies in the Rear-Admiral's sights include imaging and radar satellites, airships, tethered balloons, acoustic sensors on the seabed and new forms of radar, including the Jindalee Operational Radar Network.

'If we think about the whole problem as being one of defence in depth, then each of those fences, stepping back into our coastline, can make it as difficult as possible for people to commit illegal acts, whether fishing, quarantine, immigration, environmental or anything else,' he said.

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