There must be days when the Chief of the Defence Force and Secretary of Defence pine for the creation of an Australian Coast Guard, just so they can prise the Australian Defence Force away from the toxic debate on Australia's asylum seeker policy. Labor's PNG solution will rely on the ADF to expand refugee operations on Manus Island and will tie up the Navy's only operational amphibious ship for some time. The Coalition's plan, Operation Sovereign Borders, will see one of the ADF's six already busy three-star officers lead a distinctly military-themed policy response.

But for all the centrality of the ADF in this debate, we know little about the operational details of the military's role in border protection, known as Operation Resolute. In defence budgets and white papers of the past decade there's only scant reference to the military's contribution to interdicting asylum seekers who come by boat. Over the past five years the government has supplemented the defence budget by approximately $10 million per year to cover the additional costs incurred from running Operation Resolute. In 2011 parliament asked Defence to estimate the full cost of Operation Resolute and was told: 'Defence does not estimate the full cost of operations as this would not enhance budget processes'.

So in the absence of official figures, in this post I present my best estimate of the true cost of the military dimension of Australia's asylum seeker policy.

I've costed Op Resolute based on the force structure and operational tempo outlined in the ADF Force Posture Review. This data shows that for the year starting October 2010, Defence assigned the following military assets to Op Resolute:

  • 3 x RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (2520 hours).
  • 7 x Navy Armidale Patrol boats (2707 days).
  • 3 x Army Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSU; 208 patrol days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Heavy (61 days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Medium (106 days).
  • RAAF C-130 Hercules (two sorties).
  • RAN Transit Security Element (36 personnel for 244 days).
  • Embarked communications specialists (272 days).

From other information presented to parliament we know that half the current patrol boat force (Armidale class patrol boat pictured above) is permanently assigned to Op Resolute and an additional two boats can be called on for surge tasking. A major fleet unit (normally one of the five operational ANZAC frigates) is constantly assigned as back-up for more complicated transit tasks. And in 2011, the Navy's Leeuwin class hydrographic ships spent 80.5% of their 317 days at sea on Op Resolute tasking. I've taken cost data for naval vessels from this information provided by Defence, and operating costs for RAAF assets are derived from ASPI's Cost of Defence figures.

We know that the 78 Defence staff at HQ Northcom spend an average of 67.5% of their time on Operation Resolute, and 20 Defence staff seconded to Border Protection Command work on Op Resolute full time. I've assumed each RFSU patrol day involves six patrolling personnel and five supporting HQ personnel and that each embarked communications team has five personnel. I haven't accounted for personnel working on Op Resolute issues elsewhere – for example in DIO, Defence Legal, or HQJOC. I haven't accounted for one-off deployments such as the deployment of the RAAF's Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron to activate the airbase at RAAF Learmonth in December 2008, or for domestic travel positioning defence staff for their Op Resolute deployments.

That last cost could be substantial. RAAF personnel assigned to support Op Resolute conduct two-week deployments to RAAF Darwin and RAAF Learmonth from their home base in South Australia. In 2012, there were more than 2000 (presumably commercial) flight movements for RAAF personnel assigned to Op Resolute (see the lift-out in the RAAF News of 17th September 2012). In many cases these personnel are accommodated in Darwin hotels during their deployments.

So what does Operation Resolute actually cost Defence? My estimate, based on putting together this tricky data, is that it's at least $262 million per year. Given Customs is budgeting $342 million for its own civil maritime surveillance and response operations this year, my estimate is likely to be conservative. But it is clear that Defence is absorbing at least a quarter of a billion dollars annually to run Operation Resolute.

You could argue that Defence assets would be conducting border protection tasking anyway, regardless of Australia's policy approach to stopping the boats. But every frigate loitering off Christmas Island is one not conducting counter-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean or regional engagement visits in South East Asia.

Operation Resolute has been running for seven years. It is a major military campaign, yet because of its extreme political sensitivity it has never been assessed as a military campaign. There are more detailed questions to be answered about what running this operation has truly cost the Australian Defence Force.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.