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Australia knew gifted Pacific patrol boats were defective

There is something wrong with the Guardian class patrol boats that have been given to Pacific nations by Australia, and it is alleged that the former Australian government was aware of the defects when these boats were provided.

Australia’s defence ministry has said that they recently advised the government of an issue affecting the Guardian class patrol boats that were delivered through the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP).

The issue involves a potential fault in the exhaust system.

Other issues have emerged over the past 16 months with remediation plans in place. These include cracking in the coupling between the engine and the gearbox, and ventilation in the sick bays.

Austal and defence representatives soon will travel to Pacific island nations to assess all vessels and work with countries on temporary rectification measures ahead of a longer-term solution.

The patrol boats were provided to strengthen regional security which includes patrolling exclusive economic zones, as part of Australia’s commitment to Pacific nations. Last month, the Cook Islands sailed away with one of these boats from Australia.

One has been promised to Samoa while Fiji has one with another two in the pipeline.

Fiji’s guardian class boat patrolling. Picture: Fiji Navy

Under the AU$2.1 billion program, Australian ship maker Austal will deliver 22 of the 39-metre boats by 2023 to 12 Pacific island nations, including Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji and Timor-Leste, to combat illegal fishing and transnational crime.

Significant design flaws have emerged: in February 2021, cracked coupling was discovered between the engine and the gearbox; and in May 2021, the ships’ sick bays proved to have poor ventilation.

At the end of May this year, cracks were discovered in the exhaust, allowing carbon monoxide to enter a compartment that is usually, but not always, uncrewed. This appears to be the most serious of the issue.

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While the manufacturer will be sending representatives to check on the ships it is unclear if they will remain in operation or asked to stay berthed.

Australia’s Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Pat Conroy, told the Pacific Advocate that this was the latest example of how the former Liberal Government was all announcement and no follow through when it came to important defence projects.

“Former Defence Minister Peter Dutton talked a big game on national security but has left yet another mess in defence capabilities for the new Government to clean up,” he said.

“We understand how important these vessels are for Australia and our partners in the Pacific. The Guardian class patrol boats play a critical role in maritime surveillance activities, as well as detecting and deterring illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

“The safety of our Pacific partners is of utmost importance and we are committed to working through all challenges together to make sure these boats are safe and operational.”

The Guardian-class patrol boats are a class of small patrol vessels designed and built in Australia and provided to small South Pacific Ocean countries.

The RFNS Savenaca, Fiji Navy’s Guardian class patrol boat given by Australia. Picture: Fiji Navy

The class is designed to be updated replacements for the Pacific Forum-class patrol boats provided to its allies from 1987 to 1997.

Australia provided 22 Pacific Forum vessels to 12 nations. They were designed to use commercial off the shelf components, to make them easier to maintain for the small nations that would operate them.

Australia stood ready to help with training and maintenance during the duration of the program, because Australia’s external security issues were eased if it could count on its sovereign neighbours having resources to police their own external security.

Austal was commissioned to build 19 Guardian-class boats in 2016. Austal’s contract allows it to market the design to additional customers. Subsequently, an additional two vessels were ordered for Timor-Leste, scheduled for delivery in late 2023.

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