With a pipe from the Executive Officer it was all over. The ship and its company had passed the final assessment that began with a Mariner Skills Evaluation back in March and culminated in September with a final Force Protection assessment alongside Diamantina Pier, HMAS Stirling, WA.
Not that it was ever in doubt, but HMAS Melbourne and her company received their final ‘tick in the box’ to deploy to the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) as a part of Operation SLIPPER, Australia's Defence Force contribution to the international coalition against terrorism.
When she arrives in the MEAO, the Guided Missile Frigate (FFG) will relieve sister ship HMAS Newcastle, which is currently on station in the area of operations where she is conducting maritime security patrols.
Back in 2000 the United States warship, USS Cole, was targeted in an attack by an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber in the port of Aden in Yemen. A small motor vessel made an approach from seaward at high speed and detonated its payload of high explosives at approximately mid-ships, resulting in the death of 17 sailors. Thirty-nine were seriously injured, and millions of dollars worth of damage was caused, effectively rendering the warship inoperable. This tragedy (and now unfortunate case study) exposed the need for coalition units to reassess the way Force Protection measurements were implemented and carried out while visiting any foreign port with the potential of a hostile threat.
The ship's company of HMAS Melbourne has been trained in how to deal with incidents ranging from peaceful protestors to those who wish to vandalise or hinder assets; from disgruntled local fisherman who resent their presence to armed militia or paramilitary units determined to engage the warship with small arms. They have been trained to deal with bomb-threats as well as identifying and locating improvised explosive devices.
There has also been training on Use of Force and the escalation of the force continuum in accordance with the doctrine of neutralising a threat using the minimum force required to effectively do so. And they have been trained to deal with an intruder who may inveigle their way on board for any number of reasons.
The ship's company has been taught to present a ‘hard target’ by posting armed upper deck sentries, wharf sentries, access point sentries and setting physical perimeter boundaries such as access points, slow points, shipping container barriers, temporary fencing and patrolled ‘no-go zones’ from any seaward approach. Their immediate action drills are honed to a point where they have become second nature, be they engaging threats with the Long Range Acoustic Device, with its ultra-high powered megaphone capability or its debilitating tones that are designed to encourage anybody who strays into a no-go-zone to stand down; or as a last resort independently engaging a threat with firearms in accordance with Use of Force continuums, in order protect themselves or personnel they are tasked with protecting.
The Force Protection Officer, Lieutenant Jorge McKee is in charge of the evolution.
“The greatest threat to the Royal Australian Navy in the MEAO occurs in port or in the littoral. As a result, Force Protection is essential to both achieving our mission and bringing everyone home safely.”
Force protection assessment takes place with crews closed up in the ship’s Operations Room, manning the electronic eyes of the ship. The ship's company take up their positions in accordance with their promulgated watch bill and are put through various scenarios orchestrated by the very experienced members of Sea Training Group, who act as playmakers, referees and most importantly safety numbers.
The collective experience of these members is utilised to both mentor and educate members of ship's company in dealing with the scenarios and ultimately assess the skill sets that have been learnt, in order to deem the ship’s company competent to undertake operational deployment.
Over the course of two days, all members of ship's company were put through their paces in various Sea Training Group scenarios which escalated from relatively benign to a situation where the warship was ultimately required to make an emergency departure from its berth.
Throughout all these assessments, the ship's company of HMAS Melbourne shone, and ultimately earned the right to deploy and become the 56th rotation of an Australian warship to the MEAO since the first gulf war in 1990.
Imagery is available on the Australian Defence Image Library at http://images.defence.gov.au/S20131353.