Patrolling the border

The last two years has seen a significant rise in the number of migrants entering the UK from France, crossing the English Channel in small, often overloaded, inflatable boats.On 29 November 2020, £28m of funding was announced to increase police patrols of the beaches of northern France and additional surveillance. Will this make a difference? Or could the solution lie in a less costly, more effective ‘deter and detect’ strategy?

Words: James A Cowan MBE BA CF FRIN

Her Majesty’s Coastguard has two King Airs and two Piper Navajos, closest to the camera, based centrally at Doncaster for search and rescue duties. Photo: HM Coastguard

In December 2018, the then British Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, declared a ‘major incident’ following a significant rise in the number of migrants entering the UK, from France, who were crossing the English Channel in small, often overloaded, inflatable boats.

This new route for entering the UK illegally, by crossing the English Channel in a small boat, is, most probably, the result of enhanced security at the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk where migrants would secrete themselves in lorries boarding ferries bound for the UK, or board lorries driving onto the trains passing through the Channel Tunnel.

Despite the best efforts of the UK Border Force, supported by Her Majesty’s Coastguard and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), in 2019 the number of migrants arriving in the UK in small boats increased to 1835. A new Home Secretary, Priti Patel, was appointed in July 2019. On many occasions Ms Patel has expressed a determination to stop migrants risking their lives and the lives of their children by making the very dangerous cross-Channel route unviable. In August 2020 she appointed Dan O’Mahoney, a career civil servant and former Royal Marine, to the new position of Clandestine Channel Threat Commander to coordinate the UK response in cooperation with the French authorities.

Increasing numbers

The number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats has increased month on month up to and including September 2020, when almost 2000 migrants were rescued and detained in one month. By November the annual total had, despite the onset of adverse weather, increased to 8250.

Several migrants attempting the crossing are known to have lost their lives: on 27 October 2020 a migrant boat capsized near Dunkirk with the loss of four lives, a man, a woman and two children, aged six and nine years; a 15 month old infant, a member of the same family, together with another two adults were reported as missing. Out of a total of 22 there were 15 survivors. This brings the total number of lives reported to have been lost in recent months to 10. In November 2020 a further 733 migrants were rescued and detained.

The number of migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats has increased month on month up to and including September 2020, when almost 2000 migrants were rescued and detained in one month. By November the annual total had, despite the onset of adverse weather, increased to 8250.

A more recent initiative, agreed by the Home Secretary and the French Interior Minister, Gerald Darmanin, on 29 November 2020, is £28m of funding, which includes doubling the number of police officers patrolling the beaches of northern France. Other measures include additional surveillance with small, hand-launched drones, optronic binoculars, radar and fixed camera systems, ‘To makes sure that officers are at the right place at the right time.’

The UK’s main line of defence

At sea the main line of defence, to protect the UK against illegal immigration and illegal imports, is the Border Force. In the English Channel there are two cutters, HMC Seeker and HMC Vigilant, based at Dover and Ramsgate, together with three smaller coastal patrol vessels. These Border Force vessels are supported by the lifeboats of the RNLI, in particular the lifeboats based at Dover and at Ramsgate.

Coordination, for what has become the UK’s longest running peacetime search and rescue operation, is, to say the least, complicated. In addition to the joint Anglo-French Intelligence Centre at Calais and the Coastguard Operations Centre at Dover there are three other intelligence centres In the UK: the Border Force National Maritime Intelligence Bureau, the Joint Maritime Coordination Centre and the National Maritime Information Centre, all based in Portsmouth.

Air support

Although the shortest distance between France and the UK is not much more than 21 miles – between Calais and Dover – the sea area in a box with Dungeness, Ramsgate, Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer at each corner is some 1700 square miles, a very large area when searching for a small boat, particularly at night and in poor visibility. Air support with the proverbial ‘eye in the sky’ provides the crew of a surface vessel, as well as a foot patrol, with an enormous advantage. In this respect the UK Government is to be applauded for the number and range of aircraft that have been tasked to provide the Border Force, together with the lifeboats of the RNLI, with air support. The aircraft, to patrol the English Channel when the weather favours a crossing in a small boat, often large numbers of boats, are provided by the Ministry of Defence and HM Coastguard.

Those aircraft provided by the MoD have included the Boeing P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft and the Beechcraft Shadow R1 surveillance aircraft, all flown by the RAF, together with the Thales Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) which is flown by the British Army. Of these four, quite different, aircraft the P-8 Poseidon is, without doubt, the most capable, but with a quoted operating cost of £35,000 per flying hour it can be likened to using a hammer to crack a walnut and, moreover, it’s a very expensive hammer! The reported deployment of a very large transport aircraft, the Airbus A400M Atlas, to carry a pair of binoculars to conduct a visual search of the Channel for boats carrying migrants simply beggars belief!

Of the three manned aircraft, the Shadow R1 with its X-band surveillance radar and Wescam MX-15 electro-optical camera turret is probably the most suitable for the role, although it’s still a hammer being used to crack a walnut, albeit a somewhat less expensive hammer than the Boeing P-8 Poseidon sub-hunter.

In addition to those aircraft provided by the Ministry of Defence, HM Coastguard also has a small fleet of fixed-wing aircraft for search and rescue duties, based centrally at Doncaster. These aircraft, two Beechcraft King Airs and two Piper Navajoss will, on occasion, also complete a patrol of the English Channel.

As well as using manned aircraft to direct surface vessels to those migrants who have willingly placed themselves in danger and now need ‘rescuing’, the ongoing operation in the English Channel has proved to be an excellent opportunity to test the utility of two fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles (drones). On the UK side of the median line, half-way between England and France, the Border Force is supported by the Royal Artillery with a Thales Watchkeeper and a civil contractor also provides support with a Tekever AR5 drone, registration G-TEKV. Both aircraft are short-range and both are flown from Lydd from where the AR5 makes regular patrols of up to six hours, spotting small boats containing migrants and reporting their positions to a control room, also located at Lydd.

A typical day, in good weather, may see the RAF Shadow R1 arriving on task, over the Channel, early in the day to fly a barrier patrol. This aircraft may then be relieved by one of the Coastguard aircraft, to continue the patrol, before being relieved in turn by the Tekever AR5 drone. In the meantime, up to four UK Border Force vessels may be at sea, together with three RNLI lifeboats.

Command and control

All multi-agency operations require command and control (C2) and the ongoing operation in the English Channel is no exception. However, for two years, since 2018, the principal control has been the weather; migrants cross the Channel when an anti-cyclone (high pressure) is in charge of the weather with light winds and calm seas. Command comes from the criminal gangs who arrange the sailings with, according to a recent ITV investigation, payment made to an intermediary in London. The payment of thousands of pounds is held in an account in the UK until the journey has been completed, giving the whole operation an impression of legitimacy.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution has 5600 volunteer crew members.

After two years of illegal immigration, with numbers increasing year on year, the current UK strategy with ships at sea and aircraft in the air, all on the UK side of the median line, has proved to be futile! On one day in September, 394 migrants in 26 boats completed a successful crossing after being ‘rescued’ by the Border Force. Moreover, although there have been many reports of the French being complicit, permitting the migrants to leave the beaches of northern France, between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer, this isn’t always true. In one weekend in October there was a report of 550 migrants being detained by the French authorities, while a further 220 were ‘rescued’ by the UK Border Force and the RNLI on the same day.

Nevertheless, on 2 December 2020 the Home Office Minister, Chris Philp MP informed the Home Affairs Select Committee, chaired by the Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP, that the French policy was not to intercept migrants once they had embarked from the beaches of northern France. They, the French, would only intervene if a migrant boat was obviously in distress in French waters.

A new strategy

The significant increase in the number of migrants entering the UK in small boats in 2020 brings into question the current UK strategy of ‘rescuing’ the migrants at sea. If this highly dangerous route is to be closed down, then a new strategy will be required in 2021, after the anticipated winter weather respite. Many will agree that the answer lies on the beaches of northern France and not in the middle of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. In a recent report1 the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, David Bolt, stated, ‘The key to tackling the small boat threat is prevention: stopping the boats from setting off from the beaches and ports in northern France.’ The report also highlights the fact that, unlike larger vessels, the small boats used by the migrants do not carry transponders and are too small to register on radar. Moreover, as pointed out in the same report, ‘That whilst the South East was a ‘hot spot’ there should be a national approach to clandestine entry, except to add that in determining what this means for monitoring and protecting smaller ports and the coastline the focus should not be solely on migrants, since for the smugglers people are just another commodity.’

A further piece of advice is, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel. Better to ‘steal’ someone else’s wheel and paint it in your own colours’! In this case, part of the answer, the part that involves the provision of an aerial patrol, may be found on the other side of the Atlantic, in the USA. Formed in 1941, to mobilise the nation’s civilian aviation resources, the US Civil Air Patrol, now an auxiliary of the US Air Force, has a fleet of 550 light aircraft, mostly Cessna 172s and 182s, flown by volunteers. These aircraft, together with their volunteer crews, account for some 80 percent of all overland search and rescue missions on behalf of the USAF, as well as responding to major incidents in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A complementary organisation, also in the USA, is the US Coast Guard Auxiliary (Air) which also recruits volunteers, those with their own light aircraft, to fly Coast Guard and Homeland Security missions, on the coast and offshore between Florida and Cuba.

Compared to the deployment of ‘high tech’ aircraft such as the P-8 Poseidon and Shadow R1, together with those aircraft belonging to HM Coastguard, the alternative, a ‘low tech’ light observation aircraft will require some lateral thinking by the Clandestine Channel Threat Commander and his colleagues! Nevertheless, with the cooperation of the French Police Aux Frontieres, who already fly occasional coastal patrols with a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a joint operation to patrol of the beaches of northern France, between Dunkirk and Boulogne-sur-Mer, should prove to be just as effective as those similar patrols that take place in the USA. Patrols that are flown by the volunteers of the US Civil Air Patrol and the US Coast Guard Auxiliary (Air). Closer to home, Channel Islands Air Search operate a BN Islander aircraft, flown by volunteers, to provide the local RNLI lifeboats, in the Channel Islands, with an ‘eye in the sky’.

The strategy would be one of ‘deter and detect’ with overt air patrols. These patrols would deter those migrants who are gathering on secluded beaches while, at the same time, detecting those who are seen to be deploying inflatable boats. The light observation aircraft, flown by volunteers, would patrol during daylight hours, most probably using the same binoculars carried by the A400M Atlas transport aircraft! Drones, for example the Tekever AR5 with its thermal imager, would continue the patrol at night. This combination of a light observation aircraft flying during daylight hours, together with drone for night operations, would be extremely cost effective compared to the current multi-million pound strategy; a strategy which is known to have failed. Moreover, the airborne response would be proportional to the threat and ‘persistent’ patrolling would remain within budget.

An airborne auxiliary coastguard

If, in addition to the new joint Anglo-French initiative that was signed on 28 November 2020, light observation aircraft were also deployed to patrol the beaches of northern France then, if they proved their utility, the UK Government could, sensibly, follow the American example and form its own HM Coastguard Auxiliary (Air). A small number of pilots and observers could join the 3500 volunteers of the Coastguard Rescue Service, together with the 5600 volunteer crew members of the RNLI lifeboats, to patrol the UK’s 11,000 miles of coastline. This is an initiative that I believe, post Brexit, should be promoted at the earliest opportunity, and I’m sure many experienced general aviation pilots will agree. These same pilots have the right skills, fly the right aircraft and wish to support the government and their local communities as a volunteer, serving as an airborne auxiliary coastguard officer patrolling the UK’s extensive coastline.

The US Civil Air Patrol has a fleet of 550 light aircraft, mostly Cessna 172s and 182s flown by volunteers for SAR missions and to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency with aerial reconnaissance during national emergencies.

The structure of HM Coastguard, with 18 discrete areas within six larger regions, lends itself to support from local volunteers. As an example, Area 5 in Region 2, from the Scottish Border to Whitby in North Yorkshire, a distance of some 100 miles, could be patrolled very easily with privately owned aircraft based in County Durham and in Northumberland. This coastline, from Whitby to the Scottish Border, may be inspected from the air in just one hour. One of the important lessons to be learned from the migrant crisis in the English Channel is that aerial surveillance must be targeted, it must be affordable and, when necessary, it must be persistent. Moreover, the first three principles of ‘air power’, those which capture the utility of airborne surveillance, are speed, height and reach; principles that cannot be matched by sea or land patrols.

Reference: 1. Report – ‘An inspection of the Home Office’s response to in-country clandestine arrivals (lorry drops) and to irregular migrants arriving via small boats. May 2019 – December 2019.’ David Bolt, Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration. Published 11 November 2020. (ISBN 978-1-5286-1828-1)

About the author

James A Cowan MBE BA CF FRIN is a former RAF Nimrod captain who, with Crew 7, No 201 Squadron, flew the longest operational maritime patrol sortie of over 19 hours during the Falklands conflict. He was also the leader of RAF ‘Exercise Northern Venture’, which completed a circumnavigation of the Northern Hemisphere with two DHC1 Chipmunk light training aircraft, flying across Europe, Russia, North America and the North Atlantic, before returning to the UK. After retiring from the RAF he was employed as a police pilot with the North East Air Support Unit and also as an air ambulance pilot with the Scottish Air Ambulance Service, flying the ubiquitous BN Islander transport aircraft. Before joining the RAF he was a member of the crew of the RNLI inshore lifeboat at Hartlepool. He is also a qualified sport parachute pilot and holds an RYA Certificate of Competence as a Yachtmaster Offshore. Between 2009 and 2017 he was Chairman of the UK Civil Air Patrol, which encourages the owners of private aircraft to support the emergency services, including the NHS, together with their local communities, with air transport, air to ground photography and air search.