Planned counter-terror shooting range near Canberra in the firing line

Plans are under way to build a national live fire centre between Canberra and Goulburn that would train police in lethal force and counter-terrorism operations.

The specialised shooting range, which will span about 5000 hectares of bushland near Collector, has been proposed by the Australian Defence Force's main provider of live fire shooting facilities, Australian Target Systems, to address a "key market need" in the wake of the Lindt cafe siege.

Army veteran Paul Burns now runs and owns Australian Target Systems, an Albury based company dating back to the 1950s. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Army veteran Paul Burns now runs and owns Australian Target Systems, an Albury based company dating back to the 1950s. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Neighbours fiercely oppose the plan, claiming the "loud and alarming" gunshots will shatter the peace of the rural community, impact on local business and livestock, and even trigger the post-traumatic stress of ex-soldiers living just a few kilometres away.

In a development application submitted to the Queanbeyan-Palerang Regional Council in December, but not yet approved, the company describes the range as a "unique" and "significant opportunity to contribute to Australia's national security".

Neighbouring farmer John Reardon said the community supported more police training and were not against development but live fire in thick scrub could have disastrous bushfire consequences. He had yet to see a proper risk assessment, he said.

Other locals say plans are "shrouded in secrecy", with minimal consultation. Gary Poile of the Collector Community Association said his attempts to view masterplans for the future of the "National Combatant Centre" were denied due to commercial and national security interests.

While Fairfax Media was also denied access to the plans, Australian Target Systems took The Canberra Times on a tour of the site.

Targets at the site present authorities with the difficult task of identifying threats.  Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Targets at the site present authorities with the difficult task of identifying threats. Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Known as Samuel's Run, the $450,000 development will offer a range of shooting exercises, including sniper training and orienteering, and house more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition. A "sound-proof" shipping container designed by the company will also allow live fire during immersive on-screen simulations. 

The NSW firearms registry has approved the range, pending council consent.

As Australia's defence industry ramps up, chief executive Paul Burns said the property would also allow testing of products before export.

"Samuels' Run will give us a place to test our ideas and innovate... to rehearse... let them come in and feel their palms getting sweaty and their heart rates go up," Mr Burns said.

"There is nothing like these [facilities] for police anywhere else in Australia. I'm ex-military and I've lost men in combat and [police] need this kind of cognitive training, to help them decide when to shoot or not shoot."

Chief operating officer Lee Bath said, while the range would be confronting for some people, "this kind of training is what prevents PTSD".

"Strategically this is where the heads of counter-terrorism live in Canberra, we're less than an hour down the road.

"I get the community might not have known anything but our intention is for police to train here, it's not something we really want to advertise."

In August, Samuels' Run hosted two week-long live-fire events for NSW Police and a visit from Deputy Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police Ramzi Jabbour, who has thrown his support behind the project.

As part of recommendations from the Lindt siege inquest, NSW police are ramping up their long-range firearm capabilities, but there are no other ranges in the state that can accommodate active shooter training of this kind. Police must instead book time on Defence ranges, which is subject to military priorities.

During the training weeks, residents said the sound of gunfire had ripped through Collector, more than four kilometres away.

"We thought it was World War III, it was that loud," Mr Poile said.

Lawyers from the Environmental Defender's Office in NSW intervened on behalf of the residents to stop three more training sessions last year.

Neera Stephenson, the closest neighbour and about 600 metres from the site, said she was dreading any more drills after her three young daughters became "alarmed" by the gunshots.

"We could hear them shouting 'Get down, rapid fire!' and it was going all day," she said.

Charley Starford Smith settled in the quiet town to manage post-traumatic stress disorder after years in the Defence Force, and says her plan to create a pet resort for "distressed" animals would be "in shreds" if the range was approved.

"I have been in floods of tears about this whole thing," she said.

An art retreat for former Defence personnel dealing with PTSD just 2.3 kilometres away and a planned meditation retreat would also be "severely impacted", locals said.

The range is seeking approval to operate five days a week, with some weekend and night shooting, but Mr Burns said it was unlikely shots would be fired all day long as training would depend on demand.

An environmental noise assessment in 2017 found gunshot noises were "barely audible" from nearby properties, including Ms Stephenson's.

The report also found there was no "direct line of sight" to any nearby residence, but noted "the type of training, number of personnel and the demand for usage of the range are not yet known".

Tim Duck, who teaches sound production at the Canberra Institute of Technology, said that meant the assessment could not test a "worse case scenario", as per EPA guidelines. He is calling for another "less vague" noise assessment.

In September last year, the council raised concerns that future plans, including the possibility of expanding tactical training drills to include helicopters, had not been considered in noise assessments.

Ms Bath said while helicopters could be used in training down the line, they would never be circling the site 24 hours a day.

Mr Burns informed immediate neighbours of his plans to build the range when he and his family bought the property in July 2017.

In a letter of support for the range, AFP Deputy Commissioner Jabbour said the proposal offered "an innovative and leading-edge approach to meeting the emerging needs of law enforcement".

The range could also help boost the local economy, Ms Bath said, as police and government agencies in town for training looked for a hot meal and a bed.

"This is a chance for Collector to become a strategic piece of dirt so to speak in Australia broader counter-terrorism planning," she said.

Andre De Bruin, who runs an engineering business in Collector, agreed the range would be a "good thing for the town" and said not all locals were against the idea.

Ahead of talks with Australian Target Systems, Mr Poile said Collector's annual pumpkin festival was already growing the town's profile.

"Whatever happens, the range will be a game-changer, it could completely change the direction of the town."

Submissions are open until March 5.