Forging ties in Tonga

This article has photo gallery Published on SGT Dave Morley (author and photographer)

Location(s): Tonga

Topic(s): Defence Cooperation Program

Chief Petty Officer Marine Technician Adam Davies and WO1 Semisi Pohahai in VOEA Neiafu alongside Masefield Navy Base, Nuku’Alofa. (photo: SGT Dave Morley)
Chief Petty Officer Marine Technician Adam Davies and WO1 Semisi Pohahai in VOEA Neiafu alongside Masefield Navy Base, Nuku’Alofa.

Since the 1960s, Australia has undertaken a range of capacity-building and engagement activities in the South Pacific and South East Asia under the Defence Cooperation Program.

The centrepiece of Australia’s defence engagement in the South Pacific is the Pacific Patrol Boat Program.

Lieutenant Commander Paul Ryan has been presiding over significant improvements in Tonga’s Masefield Navy Base, As well as carrying out his usual duties as a maritime surveillance adviser.

Lieutenant Commander Ryan, who has been in Tonga for eight months, said the improvements were being carried out to support the arrival of Tonga’s two new Guardian-class patrol boats, which are due in mid-2019 and 2021, respectively.

“There have been extensive works carried out here over the past few years, including new accommodation spaces on the western side of the base,” he said.

“Currently, we’re constructing new roads, guttering and civil works, as well as increasing the hard standing to the west of the base.

“The end result will be a new Headquarters and Navy base, all supported by the Australian Government, but carried out by a combination of local Tongan contractors and the Regional Development Unit, the engineering arm of His Majesty’s Armed Forces.” 

Lieutenant Commander Ryan said the project showed Australia’s commitment to increasing Tonga’s capability.

“I’m quite happy with the progress so far. We’ve employed a former Army Warrant Officer as the project manager and he’s been here for several years overseeing the works,” he said.

“Every schedule has been met and, in some cases, work has been finished before schedule, so I expect to see all the works I’m currently managing completed during  my time here.

Chief Petty Officer Marine Technician Adam Davies is one of two Technical Advisors to His Majesty’s Armed Forces in Tonga, assisting with the maintenance of Tonga’s three Pacific Patrol Boats and one Landing Craft Medium, gifted under the Defence Cooperation Program. 

As a technical adviser on Pacific Patrol Boats, no two days are ever the same. 

“It’s a very involved job because we have to deal with more than 120 people on the ground, including the boat crews, people at Masefield Navy Base, and others at the High Commission,” he said.

“The job itself can be challenging at times because of language and cultural differences, and holistically, because sometimes, while the outcomes are positive for the nation, how we achieve them is different from how we do it in Australia.”

Chief Petty Officer Davies said he enjoyed working with the Tongan sailors because they were so friendly.

“They jump in and get the job done and they’re very knowledgeable about their boats, which enables them to ensure their vessels remain capable of going to sea,” he said.

“There are some challenges that come with the job, but the fleet carries out up to six operations a year with different countries, including Australia.

“The job we do with the Tongans, ensuring they have the capability to do their different missions, is rewarding.

“We also gain visibility of what Australia’s greater strategic interests are, and that’s different from my background on Armidale class Patrol Boats.

“We do a lot of relationship-building with the locals, which goes a long way to ensuring capability of the vessels,” he said.

Fleet Marine engineer Officer Warrant Officer Class One Semisi Pohahai has been in His Majesty’s Armed Forces for 32 years. He said he was looking forward to the delivery of the new Guardian-class patrol boats for many reasons. 

“They are a larger, more capable platform, so they will sail better, the engine is a new system, as is the navigation system, and they will have more horsepower than the current ones,” he said.

Masefield Navy Base will end up being a showpiece for His Majesty’s Armed Forces in Tonga and to top it off, they’ll have the new Pacific Patrol Boats and an Landing Craft Medium based in a highly capable facility.”