Swan Island Training Area

Swan Island Training Area

Introduction

The Swan Island Training Area is located on the eastern part of Swan Island, near Queenscliff in Victoria. The Australian Secret Intelligence Service acquired the 175 hectare property in the late 1950s from the Navy. In their 1989 study of ASIS, Toohey and Pinwill describe the Swan Island ASIS facility as an ” ultra-secret clandestine warfare centre”. It is used primarily for the training of ASIS agents, and also is the location of a substantial ASIS communications facility and a special operations storage site. In addition to its ASIS role, the Swan Island Training Area is also used by ADF special forces, especially from the Special Air Service Regiment, under the rubric of the Swan Island Army detachment (SIAD). Three SASR soldiers with extensive service in Iraq and Afghanistan died in a car accident at the Swan Island bridge in 2007. They had been involved in a month-long SIAD training course.

On March 31, 2010, four peace activists swam across the fast moving strip of water separating Queenscliff from Swan Island, and entered the unlocked Swan Island Training Area. The members of the Boenhoffer Peace Collective remained in the facility for several hours to protest against Australian involvement in the war in Afghanistan. Before they were discovered and arrested they closed down several pieces of electrical equipment, including one marked “emergency satellite shutdown”. The parabolic satellite antenna shown below measures approximately 7 metres in diameter. (See Swan Island, 31 March 2010 Incursion.) In June 2010 all charges were dismissed by a Victorian magistrate.

Reflecting the very large budgetary expansion of both ASIS and the ADF special forces as a whole in the years following 2001, the Swan Island facilities have been greatly expanded in recent years. The Google Earth image below, taken in 2005, is now quite outdated. (Google Earth appears to have removed a 2009 image, replacing it with the earlier image.) However, a 2009 aerial photo from a Victorian Government Department of Planning & Community Development site shows much more extensive construction.

Maps

Google Earth placemark: Swan Island Training Area

Swan Island - Googe Earth (2005)

xSwan Island - main Commonwealth property x

Swan Island – main Commonwealth property, [For large PDF image, click here.] Source: Department of Planning & Community Development, Victoria. http://services.land.vic.gov.au/maps/

Swan Island (Australia Maps)

 

Government sources

Swan Island COI Report, [Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deaths of SGT Craig Martyn Linacre, CPL Michael Anthony McAvoy, and CPL David Graham O’Neil, Department of Defence,  3 September 2008.

1.7 Security issues are specifically addressed in the Terms of reference, in particular as follows: “Sensitive capabilities. Commonwealth activities at Swan island are very sensitive in nature and directly related to national security. The need to protect these national security interests is imperative.”

2.1 SGT Linacre, CPL O’Neil and CPL McAvoy were all members of SASR and were participants in a course conducted at the Swan island Army Detachment (“SIAD”) on Swan Island near Queenscliff, Victoria in March and April 2007. Soldier 2 was Commanding officer SIAD. There were about 12 course members and they flew into Melbourne on 11 March 2007. The course was scheduled to conclude on 15 April 2007.

Swan Island Training Area, Question 3733, Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates, House Of Representatives, Questions In Writing,Monday, 27 November 2006

Mr Melham (Banks) asked the Minister for Defence, in writing, on 20 June 2006:

(1) How many (a) Australian Defence Force and (b) Defence civilian personnel are currently stationed or employed at the Swan Island Training Area.

(2) How many other Australian Government or other personnel are currently stationed or employed at the Swan Island Training Area.

(3) What Australian Defence Force training activities are carried out at the Swan Island Training Area.

(4) Since March 1996, have any Federal or State Members of Parliament (a) visited the Swan Island Training Area and (b) received classified briefings on activities undertaken at Swan Island; if so, which Members and when did the visits and briefings take place.

Dr Nelson (Bradfield—Minister for Defence)—The answer to the honourable member’s question is as follows:

(1) (a), (b) and (2) Defence maintains appropriate records in relation to personnel stationed or employed at the Swan Island Training Area. For security reasons, it would be inappropriate to divulge these figures.

(3) Swan Island is a Military Exercise Area. It provides a venue for naval training in the use of radar flares, facilities for Army Reserve training and a small demolitions range for Army use. While Defence maintains appropriate records in relation to its training exercises at this facility, some activities are classified.

(4) (a) and (b) Specific details concerning visits to Swan Island Training Area and classified briefings provided to visitors on activities are not appropriate for disclosure.

Government contracts

Defence Materiel Organisation Contracts Listing for 1/1/2009 to 31/12/2009, Senate Order on Departmental and Agency Contracts

IDCR No: 39010
Contractor Name: Hewlett Packard Australia
Subject Matter: Swan Island Anchor Node Server & Software Installation
Amount: $493,830
Commencement Date: 29/04/2009
Expected Duration in Days: 62

Department of Defence Contracts listing for 01/01/2007 to 31/12/2007, Senate Order on Departmental and Agency Contracts

IDCR No: 14244
Contractor Name:  Securitec Risk Management
Subject Matter: To provide security at Swan Island
Amount: $833,157
Commencement Date: 1/08/2004
Expected Duration in Days: 1460

Contracts Gazetted from 4 February 2003 – 30 June 2003, Valued at $100,000 and Above

Supplier Name: Securitec Risk Management
Defence Ref. Number: 4500059564
Date: 15/08/01
Value: $110,000.00
Contract Description: Security services of checkpoint 1 at Swan Island for 2000-01

Contracts Gazetted from 1 July 2001, Valued at $100,000 and Above

Supplier Name: A.G.O.W.A. NO 1
Defence Ref. Number: 4500048015
Date: 26/06/01
Value: $774,900.00
Contract Description:Sewerage Upgrade Stage 1 - Swan Island

Analysis

Swan Island (Victoria), Wikipedia

Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Brian Toohey & William Pinwill, Heinemann 1989.

Under his stewardship (August 1957 to April 1960), the shattered service gained new self-esteem. [Ralph] Harry won approval for three new facilities that survive to this day. The most secret of these is the ultra-secret clandestine warfare centre on Swan island in Port Phillip Bay near Melbourne, which ASIS acquired from the Navy. Parts of the island are occupied by a yacht club and golf club, and ASIS obtained an area of 175 hectares under Army cover. To help preserve this cover story, various Army Reserve and commando camps and bivouacs are held there. Intended to be used primarily as a training facility for its own covert action purposes, from time to time ASIS lends Swan Island to ASIO for special training courses when physical isolation is necessary for security reasons. Members of the former Narcotics Bureau and their successors in the Australian Federal Police are given training in aspects of clandestine work, and anti-terrorist exercises are held with troops from the SAS. Seminars on intelligence are conducted on the island  for officials from departments such as Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s, where the more gung-ho among the Canberra bureaucrats are given a taste of frontline service by being allowed to fire machine guns. It is also a useful clandestine training area for some of ASIS/ more sensitively placed agents from abroad, and at least one secret course has been carried out for Malaysian government spooks. It serves as a storage depot for ‘special stores’ (things that go bang in the night), much of them supplied and updated by MI6 under contingency plans for joint Special Operations. The British give ASID access to research and development in specialised equipment and share current experience and training in SO techniques. Finally, Swan Island serves as a communications centre with its own transmitters and receivers, and a control point for any Special Operations that may be launched, as well as a site for more mundane training in intelligence-gathering methods. (pp. 64-65)

Oversight of Australia’s Intelligence Services, Geoffrey R.Weller, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, 12: 4, 484 — 503, (1999)

ASIS reportedly maintains about ten overseas stations, all but one in Asia, staffed by one to three officers. It has four facilities in Australia in addition to the headquarters: a training facility on Swan Island; a station in Sydney; a radio station (Kowandi) near Darwin; and a special communications laboratory in an unidentified location. p.486

Gruelling curriculum at spy school, Deborah Snow, SMH,  November 16, 2004

ASIS has its secret training facility at Swan Island in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria. Few accounts have been given of what occurs there. But intelligence whistleblower Andrew Wilkie wrote in his book Axis of Deceit recently that ASIS trainees are taught to cope “if things turn nasty … by spending sessions at the firing range or by enduring long hours of none-too-gentle interrogation training”. One former ASIS agent told the Herald role-playing sometimes got so enthusiastic trainees would find themselves beaten up during the exercises. The intelligence ombudsman, Ian Carnell, says he sat in on early stages of an ASIS course and found the emphasis to be more on “emotional intelligence”. However, this year ASIS agents regained the right to train in, and use, firearms for the first time in 20 years.

Mystery island for our spies, Ian McPhedran and Mark Buttler, Herald-Sun, April 10, 2007

Swan Island is one of the most mysterious chunks of taxpayer-owned real estate in Australia. The island, next to Queenscliff, is the training ground for the special forces and for our overseas spy agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. The 140ha island has tidal flats on one side and open beaches on the other. It is also home to the Queenscliff Golf Club.A narrow bridge and causeway connect it to the mainland. In the late 1800s it had a fort on it. In World War I the navy used it as a depot for sea mines. It has been shrouded in mystery for years. Entry to the area is restricted by an electronic boom gate, guard room, iron fences, barbed wire and security cameras. The only way in after-hours is with a security swipe card. “Go for a toddle in your boat and get into that restricted area and see what happens. There’ll be a green boat there very soon,” a source said. “It’s beyond top secret.” The island’s main purpose is to train special forces soldiers in guerilla war and ASIS spies. They are trained in clandestine operations and the use of small firearms. Joint exercises are held by the two top-secret groups. “It looks more like a museum than a military base,” one ex-SAS soldier said. The waters around the island are used for specialised training. Operatives are dropped outside the Heads when the tide is coming in, and make the hazardous swim back to Queenscliff. Other government agencies, such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments, also use the island’s ageing single-storey buildings for training seminars and briefings. Since the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, the island has become very busy. “It is more like a finishing school or a centre of learning for the non-gun stuff,” a former instructor said. At any time, there are 5-10 senior SAS specialists on the base. Soldiers and operatives posted there usually go into nearby Queenscliff to relax, as the tiny Swan Island bar has limited supplies and very few customers.

Swan Island: top secret training area for agents, Brendan Nicholson, The Age, April 10, 2007

It’s officially known as the Swan Island training area, but the nondescript island in Port Phillip Bay is one of the most secret intelligence facilities in Australia. It is home to a special warfare school where agents from Australia’s key intelligence agencies and special police units are trained by SAS specialists to use a wide range of weapons and, in some cases, explosives. About three years ago, ASIS agents were given the right to carry weapons on operations abroad. That move was considered essential in a world where they would be prized targets of terrorist organisations. It also meant they could be directly involved with agents from allied countries in dangerous operations abroad. ASIS agents and others returning from abroad are debriefed on the island, and it is also where special training is given to police counter-terrorism squads and those likely to face armed bikie gangs. “Less is known about what goes on at Swan Island than is known about Pine Gap,” a source told The Age. “It’s a sort of intelligence resort with conference facilities for secret meetings involving Australian and foreign police and security personnel. With only one entrance, across the causeway, it’s easily guarded.”

“Code Name Mantra”, Reporter: Ross Coulthart, Producer: Mark Corcoran, Four Corners, ABC Television, 21 February, 1994

FILM – SWAN ISLAND

ROSS COULTHART: Unlike Officer One, Officer Two was trained here at Swan Island in Melbourne s Port Phillip Bay. It is here where ASIS officers do much of their paramilitary training – mastering the Service’s complex coding and filing systems which are identical to those in the British Secret Service,
how to survive an interrogation,  how to disable or kill an enemy.

FILM – INTERVIEW WITH OFFICER # 2 IN SILHOUETTE: Frankly you never experience conditions as bad as you do on training.  The idea is to make you make all the mistakes in training that you could ever possibly make so that you know then hopefully what not to do overseas.  Um …. the training course is very good.  I think the … one exercise alone requires the assistance of something like three hundred and eighty people. It’s an immensely  complicated exercise.  Bearing in mind ASIS is a very small organisation and it probably only trains four … four to six officers a year and the training costs would probably exceed four or five million dollars.

Satellite dish, Swan Island, 2010

Source: Bonhoeffer Four charged after entering Swan Island Base, by Flowerpower, IndyMedia Australia, 31 Mar 2010

Parabolic antenna, Swan Island

Aerial photo of antenna switched off by Boenhoffer Four demonstrators, 2009. Diameter is approximately 7 metres.
Source: Department of Planning & Community Development, Victoria.

See also

Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
Updated: 21 October 2014