Five weeks, three ships, 2000 uniforms and civilians, four dogs and a sheep! Task Group Operations are always challenging. Commanding Officer HMAS Canberra, Captain Ash Papp answered a few questions for us, during Exercise SEA EXPLORER off the North Queensland coast.
What was HMAS Canberra’s role in Exercise SEA EXPLORER?
HMAS Canberra, along with HMAS Choules, acted as the sea base and sea manoeuvre elements of the Amphibious Ready Element; a standing ADF capability comprising Navy, Army and RAAF combat and support capabilities. HMAS Newcastle provided prodigious maritime Force Protection, along with RAAF in the skies and Army on the ground. Fusing these capabilities, and the hundreds of sailors, soldiers and airmen embarked and their DFAT and AFP partners, enabled the Australian Amphibious Task Group to deliver record breaking quantities of combat troops by air and sea into the littoral approaches to the fictional country of Tetta, to restore security, bring Australians to a safe base afloat, and help the Australian Government re-establish order with their Tettan neighbours.
How important is the Sea Series in to the ADF’s amphibious capability?
Plan Pelorus is about generating Task Groups (TG); for the two fundamental premises of a Navy's raison d’etre - force projection and sea control. The Ocean Series hones our Sea Control TG, and the Sea Series emphasises our force projection TG preparedness. Being ready for Government to deploy a standing amphibious TG anywhere in the region brings confidence to our neighbours and partners we are willing and able to assist, and confidence to our own nation that Australians stand ready and able to help others, protect those who need our help, and if needed, re-establish order and security.
What has been the greatest challenge for your ship’s company?
SEA EXPLORER and SEA RAIDER were a tremendous test for Navy, and the ADF. For Navy in particular, sustaining more than 2000 people afloat in three ships requires replenishment of a scale not seen in decades. Canberra reached more than 1250 souls on board at times; not yet full, but living with more than a thousand of your new best friends takes temperance and resilience. Even the LHD water making capacity was put to the test, and storing 80 pallets of food via Chinook amplifies the scale required to meet a demand of more than a tonne of food per meal.
Eleven landing craft were embarked across the two 'L-ships', not including two dozen Zodiacs and RHIBs. Six Army MRH90 and CH47 helicopters joined 808 Squadron's MRH90, a record-breaking Air Combat Element afloat. Partnership between the force elements was a feature of the exercises, proving our common attributes and values, and our common tactical focus. Of note, Adelaide was concurrently at sea in her separate but powerful TG with Success, Toowoomba and Melbourne for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2018 (IPE18) through the South West Pacific; not bad for a Navy of 14,000 sailors!
What sort of cultural change needs to occur to maintain an effective Task Group?
Working as a Task Group means thinking outside our own ship. The collective flexibility and ability of the combined resources of a Task Group is far more powerful and sustainable than working as individual units. Problems are shared, and so to solutions are shared. From people to spare parts, including Choules with an embarked 3D printer, the Task Group mentality is taking hold through OCEAN EXPLORER in February-March and into SEA EXPLORER and SEA RAIDER, and building on the back of IPE18.
On a lighter note – you have been hosting several animals. Can you elaborate?
The benefits of sharing your ship with a thousand new best friends includes the opportunity to explore ADF capabilities unfamiliar to sailors and their seagoing soldier shipmates; from Australian Light Armoured Vehicles to Micro-Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Four military working dogs played a starring role in the ARU afloat, not just for their prowess protecting soldiers; the forecastle is now known as the 'dog deck'. For military discipline, these dogs are awesome, though you don't want to mess with them. Able Seaman Marine Technician Benjamin Jack was one of several shipmates who put their body on the line as a target for the dogs' daily practice protection regime. Although his actual words at the time cannot be repeated here, he did say afterward "it was one of the scariest things I've done, and the suit does nothing, but I've incredible respect for these amazing military dogs".
Not aboard physically, though on-board in spirit, was the mascot of the embarked Ground Combat Element of 8/9 RAR based in Sydney; an enormous merino ram. Though a novelty on the wharf in Brisbane farewelling its troops, even the LHD would have struggled to accommodate a sheep for five weeks straight!