The ability of Navy and Army to combine for an expanded amphibious capability has been put to the test throughout the ongoing bushfire emergency in south-east Australia this summer.
The success of a combined service effort has been particularly evident on HMAS Choules, where the embarked Amphibious Beach Team (ABT) from Army’s 35 Water Transport Squadron (35WTS) played a crucial role in the evacuation of about 1400 people from the Victorian coastal community of Mallacoota in January.
Commander of the team, Lieutenant Declan Michell, said the evacuations and the later resupply of essential fuel and medical needs during Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 had highlighted the capability benefits to both Navy and Army.
“Navy certainly increases our operational viability period because we have that ship back on the water, so we can be recovered, resupplied and rested prior to being redeployed,” Lieutenant Michell said.
“And for Navy, our ABT specifically provides that command and control connection between the ship and the land forces.
“Our entire purpose is to facilitate the coming and going of all personnel, vehicles and vessels in and out of the beach head, so we're that link between land force and Navy.”
The ABT comprises marine and cargo specialists who can facilitate the rapid beaching, unloading and turnaround of landing craft during amphibious operations.
As well as the personnel, 35WTS brings its own specialised equipment to Choules, such as its Landing Craft Mechanised Mark 8 (LCM8) and the squadron’s JD850 bulldozer and LX120 forklift. The LCM8 complements the ship's own smaller landing craft and Army’s two amphibious cargo vehicles.
“The LCM8 landing craft has its benefits in that it can do overnight and extended duration tasks, because it has kitchen facilities, it has beds, it has a large fuel range so it can go for up to seven days without support,” Lieutenant Michell said.
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 and similar operations such as VANUATU ASSIST and RENDER SAFE provide real-world challenges that enable the team to maintain their skill sets.
Lieutenant Michell said the evacuation at Mallacoota had been a textbook example where the two services combined to carry out a successful operation.
“I found Mallacoota worked phenomenally well when the Commanding Officer of Choules went ashore and notified his intent and allowed us to make it happen,” he said.
“We knew the capabilities, we knew the load capacities and then it was just a matter of getting people on those vessels.”
Commanding Officer Choules, Commander Scott Houlihan, praised 35WTS and his ship’s company, while also acknowledging the role of emergency services throughout the ongoing bushfire crisis.
“Operation Bushfire Assist has from the outset relied on the combined efforts of the tri-services working to support the firefighters, police and other emergency responders,” Commander Houlihan said.
“Having 35WTS as part of ship’s company has shown how the two services can come together within a very short time and each provide their unique skills at sea and on land. 35 WTS are an integral part of the Choules family,” Commander Houlihan said.
Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 19-20 imagery is available on the Defence Image Gallery: