Swan Island is a 1.4 square-kilometre sand island near Queenscliff in Victoria. It is home to a golf course and a yacht club, but access to the island is restricted on account of the secret military base occupying 175 hectares of the central and north-eastern part of Swan Island. Access to the narrow vehicular bridge which connects the Island to the mainland, is restricted by “electronic boom gate, guard room, iron fences, barbed wire and security cameras.” Suggests the Herald Sun “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. It’s beyond top secret.”
The base or ‘training area’ is a “sort of intelligence resort with conference facilities.” According to Age journalist Brendan Nicholson, “less is known about what goes on at Swan Island than is known about Pine Gap” (Pine Gap is a US military base near Alice Springs). In a Commission of Inquiry Report in 2009, the Department of Defence states”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.”
Home for ASIS
In the late 1950s, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) acquired the property from the Navy. In their 1989 study of ASIS, Toohey & Pinwill describe the Swan Island facility as an “ultra-secret clandestine warfare centre“. According to the US-based Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, the Swan Island base 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) … The Swan Island facilities have been greatly expanded in recent years.”
Its uses are thought to include:
“various Army Reserve and commando camps and bivouacs are held there. Intended to be used primarily as a training facility for [ASIS's] 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’ … Finally, Swan Island serves as a communications centre with its own transmitters and receivers.” (Toohey & Pinwill, 1989 pp64-65)
According to the Herald Sun, “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.” Secret agents “returning from abroad are debriefed on the island,” according to The Age.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, “the island has become very busy,” reports the Herald Sun. “At any time, there are 5 to 10 senior SAS specialists on the base.” It is also “where special training is given to police counter-terrorism squads and those likely to face armed bikie gangs.”
Soldiers and spies posted to the base “usually go into nearby Queenscliff to relax, as the tiny Swan Island bar has limited supplies and very few customers.”
More details of Swan Island, including Hansard transcripts and aerial maps, can be found here.
Swan Island and the SAS
SAS troopers are among the most highly trained (and highly paid) soldiers in the Australian Defence Force. The SAS is headquartered in Perth, WA, but they do some of their training on the ASIS base at Swan Island in Victoria, where there would typically be “5 to 10″ SAS troops training at a time.
In 2007, the Herald Sun described the “main purpose” of the Swan Island military base as “train[ing] special forces soldiers in guerrilla 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. The waters around the island are used for specialised training. Operatives are dropped outside the Heads [of Port Phillip Bay] when the tide is coming in, and make the hazardous swim back to Queenscliff.”
The SAS is also said to offer “a special warfare school” at Swan Island to which “agents from Australia’s key intelligence agencies and special police units” come for training in the use of a “wide range of weapons and, in some cases, explosives.” (The Age 2007)
Swan Island – Home for SAS 4
The Fairfax press broke a story earlier this year revealing that Swan Island was home to a previously unknown fourth squadron of the SAS known as SAS 4.
Originally formed as bodyguards for ASIS operatives, who historically have not been able to carry weaponry, SAS4 have more recently been deployed in secret operations in African countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya, despite their dubious legal status in those places. This intelligence-collection role dovetails with ASIS’s work, which is why they are accommodated together on Swan Island.
Extensive development of the Swan Island base in the last few years is believed to have partly been done to accommodate the squadron.
Watch the video below to learn more.