As I stood in FLYCO (Flying Control) of HMAS Canberra, the sun dipped over the horizon and glinted off the deck of the Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD). The rotor blades of the three MRH90s loaded with troops from the Joint Pre-Landing Force began turning, then rapidly accelerated to flight idle. The planned wheels-up time was four minutes away. If aircraft were not off the deck by the time darkness fell the mission would fail. Last minute maritime manoeuvre had been essential to maintain the security of the force, but it meant the ship was not as close to the objective as planned. It was close enough… just. Steaming ahead it would be at 110 nautical miles, within strike range, for just two minutes with conditions set to execute the mission.
The ship veered into wind, straining to manoeuvre and achieve take-off parameters. The flight deck teams scurried like well drilled ants across the deck’s surface, moving with a confidence that masked the tension on their faces. In the joint operations room the staff who had done all in their power to create a two minute window of opportunity now watched the flight deck CCTV nervously. The commanders, even more invested, had moved to FLYCO for a box seat view.
The geo-analyst who had identified the target landing zones was anxiously waiting for the aircraft to take off for a different reason. He needed to access the quarterdeck for a cigarette. He was quietly confident that the analysis he provided the J2 (Intelligence) and aircrew would see the insertion carried out without detection. As an insurance policy a US Marine Corps (USMC) Harrier was launching from the neighbouring Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) en-route to provide overwatch, while a Seasprite from New Zealand was ready to respond instantly for medical evacuation if it was needed.
I could feel the hand on my watch tick every second. Two minutes to success, or two minutes to failure. As the aircraft lifted from the deck it was as though I could feel the hot air from the engines billowing into FLYCO. It turns out it was the hot breath from a collective sigh of relief from the crowd gathered in the small space behind me. The team effort in planning, re-planning, rehearsing, adjusting, sharpening pencils to find precious minutes, and adjusting with pinpoint accuracy, had created a two minute opportunity. The aircrew then did what they do every day of the week –they executed. The instant the aircraft crossed the deck I knew the mission would succeed. At that moment I was addicted to amphib.
The vignette above occurred during Ex Talisman Sabre 17. Apart from a good Talasman Sabre war story (helmets on!) there are two points to this snapshot. I first want to highlight the significant journey and development that Army Aviation has achieved to progress the ADF’s amphibious capability from Talisman Sabre 17 (TS17) to Integrated Sea and Land Series 18 (ISLS18). Secondly, I seek to demonstrate why investing in amphibious operations will develop better joint planners. I will then share my opinion on the next big targets for the ACE (Air Combat Element): increased efficiency and future force design to incorporate ARH Tiger.
The steep curve – Integrated Sea Land Series 2018
When I was a troop commander I believed I was an expert in ADF amphibious operations. I was confident I could command a sea-based deployment for any contingency, but most likely two aircraft for regional disaster relief. Young, naïve, keen, and with a little less salt and pepper on top, I could never have foreseen the scale and scope that the ADF amphibious capability would achieve just five years later. The best part? What I described above is just the beginning.
Focusing on the ACE alone, the pace of amphibious progression throughout ISLS18 was relentless. Artillery air assaults, certification of Chinook on multiple ships, multi-type air assault operations, six spot concurrent deck operations, development of radio-silent arrival and departure procedures, night external loads, multi-point hot refuels, tactical water insertion of troops and small craft, high line and water hoist extraction, and maintenance of stable aircraft availability are just some of the wave top activities. More impressive than individual achievement is the culture fostered from the ground up to develop collective capability efficiently and safely. If you get your kicks out of problem solving, pathfinding new procedures and achieving milestones, the ADF’s amphibious force is an attractive proposition. The good news is that if you haven’t been involved yet, there is a high chance you will be in the near future. Get excited!
Amphibious operations develop joint war fighters
Everything you do in amphibious operations relies on early and effective joint planning. The two minute window for success described in the opening paragraph isn’t a one-off for that mission, and it’s not unique to aviation. The margins are that tight every single time. No single service can generate the effects to successfully lodge a landing force without the intricate support of the others. Even in training, amphibious operations demand effective joint planning to integrate assets safely. That’s before the enemy gets a vote. There is no doubt the Army has an aspirational desire to excel at joint, coalition planning, but there are some things that cannot be taught on the All Corps Officer Training Continuum or exercised within the constraints of a Shoalwater Bay land battle.
When the ADF conducts amphibious training it is not a single service plan enabled by limited assets from other services; it is a truly joint endeavour from the outset. It sounds obvious but by design it has to be. The ships, air and surface connectors, ground and logistics support and air superiority are essential. This means real assets, with real walking, talking, breathing officers and soldiers from all services must come together, work together and learn together to achieve success. This is why I believe the ADF’s amphibious capability is the best thing to happen to Army Aviation Corps in a generation; in generating the ACE we are at the absolute forefront in the development of ADF joint warfighting. Aviators are developing relationships, understanding joint capability and being exposed to experiential learning opportunities unlike ever before. More broadly, this experience is not limited to aviation; all capabilities who invest time and resources into amphibious operations stand to reap the benefits.
Future ACE force design
The next big challenge facing the ACE is embarking ARH Tiger, MRH90 Taipan and CH-47F Chinook on two LHDs to certify an Amphibious Ready Group in 2019. I believe that each LHD should have the same aviation force embarked. For example, both HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide should each embark a single CH-47F Chinook, 2-3 MRH90s and 3-4 ARH Tigers.
This would see each LHD able to generate a force packet of 1 Chinook, 2 Taipans and 2 Tigers on an enduring basis. The force packet can be adjusted, Tiger or Taipan heavy, depending on tasking. This would allow flexibility to pair the Tiger with either a Chinook or Taipan as appropriate for the mission from the one LHD.
As a two LHD force, this configuration allows balanced aviation coverage (attack and lift) over 24 hours with offset deck cycles and the ability to mass aviation effect quickly with minimal changes to align deck cycles. It allows the full range of ACE effects to be projected in two areas concurrently without ‘cross decking’ assets. Once the ‘two LHD Amphibious Task Group’ is proven in 2019, it is unlikely to be exercised regularly. A common force structure allows the ACE to certify a consistent force package each year (on a single LHD) with the ability to rapidly generate a second utilising existing procedures if required.
This force design presents new challenges for C2 (Command and Control), combined planning and maintenance. A single Chinook per LHD carries maintenance risk and similarly Taipan and Tiger maintenance carries marginally increased maintenance risk. The previous high serviceability of both the Chinook and Taipan while embarked indicate this is likely acceptable for the operational benefits.
A balanced force design for 2019 is a gold plated solution that introduces short term complexity to achieve long term strategic flexibility. Looking back on how far the ACE has come in such a short period of time, I am confident it is achievable. It is the best solution for the joint force commander.
About the author: James Pidgeon is currently the Officer Commanding of A Squadron, 5th Aviation Regiment. In 2017 he was Commander of the Air Combat Element (ACE).