Watch: High-speed stealth boat used to tackle Channel migrant crisis

Neptune Border Force vessel
Neptune Border Force vessel

A high-speed stealth boat capable of launching drones has been deployed by Border Force to spot migrants and prosecute smugglers.

Neptune, a jet-driven speedboat, which can reach 60 knots or 70mph on open water, is the latest specialist surveillance craft to help track migrants as they cross the Channel.

The four-seater boat carries a pilot and navigator with a drone operator who can instantly put up aerial surveillance over any stretch of sea in the Channel. A Border Force officer takes the fourth seat enabling the Blue Ensign to be flown.

It will be a “first responder” to rescue migrants as well as using its surveillance and airborne cameras to identify and help prosecute the smuggler pilots of the dinghies. New laws mean they face life imprisonment if it can be proved they piloted a migrant boat.

The four-seater boat has space for a drone operator who can instantly put up aerial surveillance over any stretch of sea in the Channel
The four-seater boat has space for a drone operator who can instantly put up aerial surveillance over any stretch of sea in the Channel - STEVE FINN

Neptune is part of a new rapid-response squadron of fast vessels designed to safeguard migrant lives at sea and close gaps to prevent any migrants reaching shore before being intercepted.

The squadron includes two Sea-Doo jet skis, which can reach up to 70mph on calm water, and two new rigid inflatable boats which can hit 20mph.

A source with knowledge of the new high-tech equipment said: “With Neptune, you have both a boat and a drone. It provides aerial and maritime cover whereas before you had to use a boat and helicopter which was extremely expensive and not as flexible.”

The new seaborne force comes as record numbers of migrants are crossing the Channel and across wider stretches than in previous years.

Some 711 small boat migrants reached the UK on Wednesday, the highest number on a single day so far this year.

The arrivals brought the total for this year to 8,278, which is 34 per cent higher than the 6,192 at the same point last year and 19 per cent higher than the 6,945 at the same stage in 2022. One small boat, with 66 migrants on board, left shore near Dieppe where the Channel is 65 miles wide.

Record numbers of migrants are crossing the Channel
Record numbers of migrants are crossing the Channel - Gareth Fuller/PA

The costs for the new squadron are unknown but it is dwarfed by the £490 million agreement with France over three years to put an extra 500 officers on northern French beaches, increase intelligence sharing and surveillance, and construct a new detention centre.

It comes on top of £36 million being spent over three years to pay for a fleet of five privately owned catamarans which are contracted by the Home Office to transport migrants from their dinghies to shore.

The five commercial transfer vessels – Defender, Hurricane, Ranger, Typhoon and Volunteer – were previously used to carry technicians and other workers to offshore windfarms on a daily basis.

They have replaced Border Force cutters and coastal patrol vessels which have been deemed unsuitable for rescues and deployed to other duties.

There are also three fixed-wing aircraft, which are used for round-the-clock surveillance of the Channel alongside two high-tech drones.

The Tekever AR5 fixed wing drone – the most advanced of the two – can cruise at 60mph at heights of hundreds of metres with cameras and radar.

The final line of defence is a high-powered telescopic camera, with thermal imagers, posted on the coast at Dover to “stare” out to sea to help spot migrant boats.

Two years ago, Border Force trialled an unmanned drone boat with state-of-the-art surveillance camera and a top speed of 40mph. The vessel, known as Madfox, has also been tested by the Royal Navy.

In recent years, the Home Office has contemplated wave machines to push back migrant boats and geo-fencing to block their passage but both were rejected as impractical and potentially dangerous.