In a development aimed at enhancing maritime security and combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, the Australian-funded Guardian Class Patrol Boats (GCPB) of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) are now fully armed, with .50 calibre machine guns being installed on patrol boats Taro and Gizo.
This makes the Solomon Islands the first recipient of the Australian-supplied Guardian Class patrol boats to be equipped with such weapons. It also sees the machine guns (FN Herstal M2-QCB 12.7mm – 0.50 calibre) become the largest weapons in the RSIPF’s arsenal since the police force began to be rearmed in 2017, a process that allowed police to bear arms once again for the first time since 2023. Disarmament of the Solomon Islands police force 20 years ago was an initiative of the Australia-led Regional Assistance Mission Solomon Islands (RAMSI), with disarmament used to combat the actions of rogue police officers and militants in misusing RSIPF weapons during the ethnic unrest from 1998-2003.
With the increased threat of IUU fishing within the Western and Central Pacific Ocean (WCPO), the revamped capabilities of these vessels is seen as a way for the Solomon Islands Police Force to more effectively patrol and monitor its vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
Not all Pacific Island countries have armed their navy or maritime police force. For instance, Fijian navy patrol boats are armed with machine guns, while patrol boards use by Samoa and Papua New Guinea are not armed but have mounts for machine guns to be added.
Rearmament – An Australian-government funded program
The Australian Government, through the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Cooperation Program, supported the RSIPF with its capability development at key priority areas, with the rearmament of the patrol boats being one of them.
“This support from Australia comes at the request of the Solomon Islands Government and as part of the RSIPF rearmament capabilities to ensure our waters remain safe and secure from security threats,” says Mostyn Mangau, Commissioner of the RSIPF.
“Arming the RSIPF patrol boat will increase the capability to respond to maritime security threats and challenges including illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing and transnational crime. The patrol boats conduct maritime surveillance and enforcement operations and other border operations, thus it must be well equipped.” Commissioner Mangau adds.
At a recent ceremony in Honiara, Australia’s High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, Rod Hilton, and Defence Advisor Lieutenant Colonel Justin Bywater, handed over the weapons and other equipment to Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare.
In his remarks at the handing over event, Prime Minister Sogavare thanked the Australian Government for its continuous support to the Solomon Islands Security and the RSIPF and affirmed that Australia is “committed to this partnership”.
Before the new machine guns were formally handed over, training was offered around the use of force, rules of engagement, and weapons non-proliferation, delivered by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) including the Indo-Pacific Centre for Military Law (IPCML) and Royal Australian Navy (RAN) Sea Training Group (STG).
Improved safety for Solomon Islands police maritime officers
The Australian Government-led rearmament initiative has been met with great enthusiasm by the maritime officers of the RSIPF, who believe it will substantially improve security measures in their exclusive economic zone (EEZ), while ensuring their safety during operations.
Maritime officers in Solomon Islands expressed their excitement over the rearmament of the Guardian Class Patrol boats. According to one female maritime officer, their safety has always been a top priority, “The provision of advanced weaponry through the rearmament programme reinforces our confidence that we are well-equipped to tackle any unforeseen circumstances on the waters. It will offer us a crucial edge by ensuring we can effectively respond to potential violent encounters or incidents involving IUU fishing operators,” she told TunaPacific.
“This arms upgrade will enable us to respond swiftly and effectively to any potential threats, safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and protecting local fishers from unfair competition,” she added.
FFA: Rearmament will strengthen national capacity
While the rearmament of the patrol boats will not have any direct impact on collaboration and coordination with other partners in the maritime security space, it will strengthen national capability to respond to threats in the maritime domain and allows for great national control over Solomon Islands maritime jurisdiction.
Mr Allan Rahari, Director of the Fisheries Operations Division at the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) says the agency viewed the rearmament of the patrol boats as a “natonal decision” for the Solomon Islands.
“However, given the vastness of Solomon Islands EEZ and the various threats (transnational crime, IUU fishing, forced labor and modern slavery, trafficking of narcotics and illicit goods etc) that exist within the maritime domain, the rearmament programme will strengthen national capability to respond and address these threats and also ensures the safety of personnel on the Patrol Boats,” Rahari says.
He added that in the fisheries space, the move will strengthen the capability to ensure compliance with relevant national fisheries laws and conservation and management measures (CMM) adopted at a regional level.
“Tuna is a highly migratory species that does not recognise maritime boundaries, and so the need to ensure compliance with national laws and CMMs throughout its range, whether in EEZs or the high seas. Effective enforcement of these laws and CMM in EEZs and on the high seas contributes to sustainable fishing and marine resource protection, but also contributes to addressing other broader maritime security threats in the region,” Rahari adds.