The Royal Australian Navy and the PNGDF Maritime Element – Part 2

Part One of this account of the Navy in PNG in the last PNG Kundu traced the story through to Independence. This part takes up this story of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) Maritime Element (‘the PNG Navy’) from then until the present day.

Sam Bateman on the right with colleague, Dr Anthony Bergin, and the Commanding Officer of PNGS Tarangau on Lombrum wharf April 2017

My last posting to PNG ended in late 1974 but I have returned several times over the years mainly for projects related to Australian assistance for the PNGDF, particularly the Maritime Element. Most recently it was during 2017 to undertake a study for the Australian and PNG governments of border and maritime security in PNG.

The first major development post-Independence occurred in the 1980s when the five Attack-Class patrol boats were progressively replaced by four Pacific Patrol Boats (PPBs), members of a class of twenty-two patrol boats built by Australia and donated to twelve South Pacific countries. The Attack-class boats were progressively paid off—my old vessel Aitape was sunk as a dive site inside the reef south-east of Port Moresby, while rumour has it that sister-ship Samarai served for a period, ingloriously, after being paid off as a floating brothel in Port Moresby.

The PPBs were constructed between 1985 and 1997, although the four PNG boats were among the earlier ones to enter service and were all in service by 1989. With a length of 31.5 metres and a top speed of 20 knots, these vessels were slightly smaller and slower than the Attack-class vessels. This fact was the cause of some displeasure in the PNGDF which was looking for larger patrol boats and hoped that Australia would provide the Fremantle-class vessels then being built for the RAN as the replacements for its Attack-Class boats.

The PPBs are now being replaced largely on a one-for-one basis by the larger and more capable Guardian-class Patrol Boats (GPBs). These vessels are 39.5 metres in length and capable of speeds over 20 knots with a 3,000 nautical mile range at a speed of 12 knots. The first of these vessels, HMPNGS Ted Diro, named for the first indigenous commander of the PNGDF, was commissioned in February 2019. In October 2019, it was reported that Ted Diro’s engines had broken down, and she had to be towed back to Cairns for repairs. The later three GPBs for the PNGDF may not be delivered until 2022.

The provision of the new GPBs to PNG is part of Australia’s ­Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP). This also includes up to 1,400 hours of aerial surveillance each year across the central and western ­Pacific through two dedicated long-range aircraft based in the region.

The original two Landing Craft Heavy (LCHs—HMPNG Ships Buna and Salamaua) gifted by Australia are still in service. With the general paying off by the RAN of the Balikpapan-Class vessels, Australia gifted the LCH HMAS Labuan to PNG later commissioned as HMPNGS Lakekamu in December 2014. The Lakekamu is used as a training ship with a RAN commanding officer and chief of the boat as part of Australia’s assistance to the PNGDF. On 6 December 2017, Lakekamu conducted the first ever Freedom of Entry Ceremony in PNG history and sailed up the Lakekamu River in the Gulf Province with the Hon. Christopher Haiveta, Governor for Gulf Province, and Colonel Siale Diro, PNGDF Chief of Force Preparation, as the guests of honour.

The patrol boats and LCHs were active during the Bougainville crisis between 1988 and 1998 in supporting PNGDF operations in and around Bougainville. A PNGDF patrol boat was responsible for a diplomatic incident in June 1996 when it fired on the Solomon Island village of Liuliu on northern Choiseul. Then, in July 1996, there were media reports that a PNGDF patrol boat had attacked Solomon Islands National Reconnaissance and Surveillance Force (SINRSF) personnel at the Solomon Islands border post on Ovau Island.

PNG is an archipelagic nation with a large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and long and complicated borders with its neighbours. The EEZ measures about 2.5 million square kilometres (see map overleaf). However, despite being a large archipelagic country with extensive maritime interests, PNG appears to give low priority to these interests. Internal issues of law and order and infrastructure attract most political interest.

Some parts of the EEZ, including far-flung islands, are very remote. Surveillance and patrol of this large area to maintain sovereignty, protect resources and prevent illegal activity is a challenging task. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major problem across the EEZ. If its borders and waters aren’t secure, then illegal immigrants, drugs and other prohibited goods can readily move into the country. The situation is also worse because the PNGDF patrol boats are not operating in the large area of EEZ around Bougainville due to the PNGDF’s interpretation of the restrictions imposed by the Bougainville Peace Agreement (BPA) on operations by the PNGDF in and around Bougainville.

The Maritime Element remains the ‘silent service’ of the PNGDF, whose thinking and strategy are dominated by its Land Element. The PNGDF appears to allocate priority to implementing its plans for force expansion rather than the conduct of current operations. Existing and planned aircraft of the PNGDF Air Transport Wing are unsuitable for maritime surveillance. PNGDF patrol boats have insufficient resources to undertake extensive patrolling of PNG’s waters, and PNGDF units based in Kiunga and Vanimo, near the Indonesian border, lacked resources in 2017 for any worthwhile patrolling of the border area.

Australia’s Defence Co-operation Program (DCP) with PNG is currently worth $42.7 million. Much of this is directed towards Land Element training and exercises. Australia’s current maritime security assistance to PNG is largely focused on bringing the new patrol boats into service but Australia should also be concerned about how these vessels are employed.

Australia’s support for maritime security through the DCP distorts the way in which the PNGDF’s patrol boats are employed. Much of their effort is allocated to ‘naval’ activities, especially exercises with other navies, largely funded through DCP. The patrol boats had a particularly active year of operations in 2016, with a long deployment to Padang in Indonesia for exercises with the Indonesian Navy and successful participation in Exercise Kakadu off Darwin. They regularly participate in the Kakadu exercises as well as in other exercises with the Royal Australian Navy and PPBs from other Pacific countries. These exercises are beneficial but they take the patrol boats away from national priorities of sovereignty protection and maritime law enforcement.

PNG’s naval bases are severely run down. The Port Moresby base is being reclaimed for port development without a satisfactory alternative. The location of Australia’s Regional Processing Centre within the base area of PNGS Tarangau at Lombrum has had a deleterious impact on both the morale of PNGDF personnel at Tarangau, and the day-to-day functioning of the base.

Australia and the United States have agreed with PNG to redevelop the naval base at Lombrum. A refueling facility is a basic requirement. Re-development should also include the Momote airfield to allow Australian and American maritime patrol aircraft to be based there.

The PNG Defence White Paper released in 2013 set out an ambitious plan to increase the force to 5000 personnel by 2019 and by 2030 to have 10,000 personnel. It recommended an expanded, reorganised and better-equipped force, including a Reserve Force, and placed emphasis on the PNGDF’s role in supporting national development. Plans to expand the size of the force, particularly the Land Element, would seem unrealistic considering the costs involved. These plans also ignore the problems of 2001–02 when maintaining a larger force led to low morale and difficulties with maintaining discipline among under-employed soldiers.

PNG faces no external military threat. Arguments for expansion of the PNGDF Land Element, including the raising of a third infantry battalion and reserve battalions, revolve around its largely self-motivated involvement in civil emergency assistance and nation-building. The resources committed to preparing and expanding for these tasks might be re-directed to current operations, especially maritime security.

Map of PNG’s Maritime Jurisdiction from US State Department Limits in the Seas No. 138.

Despite all this, Australia appears to support PNGDF force expansion. This is largely due to the Australian Army being the dominant external military influence in PNG. The RAN has shown relatively less interest in PNG and the RAAF almost none at all. Australia could adopt a more balanced approach to its military influence in PNG, as well as encouraging PNG to act more strongly on its maritime and border security.

Consideration might also be given to whether PNG’s mari­time security would be best provided by splitting the Maritime Element from the PNGDF to form a PNG coast guard with its own command arrangements, priorities and policies.

This idea of a separate maritime force was actually floated by the Australian Department of Defence representative in Port Moresby during the establishment of the PNGDF. He was alert to the consequences of the Australian Army having most influence over the PNGDF but the idea was strongly opposed by the military establishments in Canberra and Port Moresby. Wider national factors, especially the importance of the country’s national maritime interests and the security of national borders, might also be considered.



Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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