"Missile closing starboard side, time on top one minute, disperse to port!" blares over the main broadcast speaker system. Fortunately for the Captain and ship's company of HMAS Melbourne, this is just a combat survivability training incident.
Although the Australian guided missile frigate is in the final stages of her Middle East Area of Operations deployment, the ship and her crew are still being put through their paces regularly in order to maintain the high level of professionalism and proficiency that is expected while on operational deployment.
The 56th vessel to rotate on Operation SLIPPER, the Australian Defence Force commitment to the international coalition against terrorism, Melbourne is patrolling off the Horn of Africa under control of Combined Task Force 150, the counter terrorism task force with the Combined Maritime Forces.
The ship is locked down to condition ‘Zulu’, the highest condition to maintain watertight integrity, as well as that of smoke and gas boundaries with the ship. The ship's company, having donned anti-flash gloves and hoods are at ‘action stations’, manning repair bases, poised to deal with any damage control incidents.
The electronics technicians are maintaining their electronics casualty control positions, and are dispersed in key locations to keep weapons, sensors and communications systems online; as is the marine engineering branch with their vital systems.
The on-watch operations crew are fighting the war in the operations room, dealing with any threats with an array of defensive countermeasures and prosecuting those threats in order to eliminate them, all under direct control of the Commanding Officer.
Boatswains on the gun direction platform man the 12.7mm Browning machine guns, eagerly anticipating their role in defending the ship against a close-in threat, as well as loading chaff, an anti-missile countermeasure.
The bridge is manned by an officer of the watch, helmsman, quartermaster and tactical communications sailors. They are still required to get the ship to its next point in accordance with the navigation plan, as well as manoeuvre the ship in reaction to commands from the operations room, who will posture the ship for both defensive and offensive requirements.
The Executive Officer roves the ship and has entire below decks visibility of the action stations state.
"Missile continues to close. Brace, Brace, Brace!"
All personnel adopt the position that has been practiced since their first exposure to damage control in recruit training, and wait with apprehension, knowing that in seconds their world is about to be thrown into chaos...
"BANG! Hit Alpha! Stand to, check for damage!"
Designated personnel begin their well practiced spiralling search routes and the calls start being made over UHF radio, sound powered communications, main broadcast, and via runners. To the observer unaccustomed to this scene, it would appear chaotic, but there is an underlying order and almost perfunctory nature to these events. Experienced hands go through all the motions that they have been practicing since the first day of systems qualification trials nine months ago.
On this occasion the ship experienced two simultaneous fires, a flood and multiple casualties. The ‘injured’ are assessed by members of the ship's medical emergency team, under supervision of medical staff and prioritised according to the nature of their injury.
At the same time, attacks are being made on the fires and floods. With one smaller fire extinguished and the flooding being dealt with, the larger fire in the machinery space begins to intensify. Personal in fire fighting rig are beaten back by smoke, boundary cooling is established on top and all sides to contain the heat to the affected compartment, personnel on breathing apparatus are beaten back by heat. Preparations are being made for the release of halon, an inert gas used to suppress fire.
After the successful release of halon, confirmation of significant drops in temperature are noted by the ships crew. Casualties have been stabilised. The minor fire has been overhauled and permanent shoring is in place at the site of the flooding. During all this, the operations room are still postured to deal with any threat that may be present and the bridge team are still driving the ship. The ship’s company has met the “command priorities”.
This time round, the release of halon saved the compartment and ship, although attack parties in full fire fighting rig were standing by to make an entry and fight the fire, as they have done many times over the deployment. Maybe the damage control instructors, who oversee, referee and critique all aspects of the incident, decide to go a little easy on the ship’s company this time.
Assessed overall as a 'standard achieved' the crew can, for now, rest easy that they have once again used all their training and experience to combat the incident thrown at them in order to save the ship. Until next time.
Imagery is available on the Australian Defence Image Library at http://images.defence.gov.au/S20140288.