Amid growing concern about potential threats to peace in the Indo-Pacific, a Royal Australian Navy task force has completed a three-month tour of seven key regional nations.
Led by the flagship HMAS Canberra, the four ships on the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 (IPE 19) operation visited India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia on one of the RAN’s most complex and ambitious operations in peacetime. The vessels were accompanied on part of the exercise by a RAAF P8 Poseidon maritime patrol plane and a submarine.
Aboard HMAS Canberra, navy chief Mike Noonan says the operation has demonstrated to Australia’s allies in the region and internationally the fleet’s growing capability and what that means for the Australian Defence Force, and the government’s ability to operate in the region.
‘IPE 19 could be categorised as a series of goodwill visits, but it’s much more than that—it’s about deepening relationships and partnerships in the region, improving our capacity to contribute to the region and building our mariner skills and amphibious capability’, Vice Admiral Noonan says.
‘This deployment sends a very strong message throughout the region that Australia’s a very capable and committed partner, friend and ally.’
For HMAS Canberra, IPE 19 has provided a ‘soft start’ to a series of exercises which will culminate with Talisman Sabre in July. The Canberra’s sister ship, HMAS Adelaide, will also take part. ‘Those exercises will absolutely test their high-end war-fighting capability’, Noonan says.
For decades the navy had a frigate stationed in the Middle East which has seen a focus on single-ship boarding operations and there were few opportunities for the ships to work together.
As detailed in his Plan Pelorus 2022, Noonan’s goal is to ensure that the navy can conduct sustained task group operations as part of a combined force. The navy strategy says: ‘There will be an increasing focus on persistent operations in the near-region to shape and understand our operating environment, support our regional partners, and ensure our national influence and access. This will be enabled through integrated operations with Air Force and Army, increased activities with allies and like-minded partners in our region.’
All prudent navies know the operating environments in which they’ll work, Noonan says. Being active in the region is very important in terms of understanding the climatic conditions, the geography, how people operate and how the ship’s systems will function, and that’s what IPE 19 is about. But getting there is a long and complex road.
Noonan says IPE 19 is not directly related to anything China is doing in the region or around the world.
China took part in the International Maritime Security Conference hosted by Singapore’s navy during the task force’s visit and a ship from the People’s Liberation Army Navy was tied up close to HMAS Canberra.
China’s interests in the region were discussed at great length during the conference, Noonan says.
HMAS Melbourne visited China last month for the 70th anniversary of the PLAN.
‘These are opportunities for us to interact with our Chinese counterparts. I see this as being part of the regional understanding of what our navy does, and the other navies that are out there.’
During the year, Australian ships would deploy to the South China Sea and the RAN would attend the Japanese navy’s fleet review.
‘Operating in this environment is standard practice and we’re committed to continuing this’, Noonan says.
Task force commander Air Commodore Richard Owen says Australia is happy for China to be involved in the region as long as it’s operating in a transparent way that enhances trust and builds the rules-based order.
‘They’re a major world economic power with a large military and of course they’ll be involved in the region and offering regional security. Everyone else operates to that rules-based order and China needs to be part of that as well.
‘It would be foolish to push China out. We need to encourage them to come in in a transparent way.’
With an average age of 24, the ships’ young crew members brought the task force down through the Malacca Strait, among the world’s most congested waters. Owen says the experience will help them for their whole careers. ‘They’ll be better sailors for it, better navigators and better watch keepers.’
The choice of an air force officer to head the task force signalled the wish of ADF chief General Angus Campbell to emphasise the need for the increasingly high level of ‘jointness’ in ADF operations.
On the Canberra were Darwin-based US Marines and personnel from New Zealand, Britain, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia. The New Zealanders and Sri Lankans were on board when the Christchurch mosque shootings and Colombo church attacks occurred.
While a focus of the trip was on humanitarian and disaster relief operations, it can’t have been lost on anyone that the flagship carried four of the army’s Tiger armed reconnaissance helicopters from the 1st Aviation Regiment.
The Tigers were not part of IPE 19. The army fliers were there to take advantage of the extended time at sea to qualify for deck landings by night and day and in varied weather conditions.
That said, the Tigers are armed with Hellfire missiles, rockets and a 30-milimetre cannon, and the aviation regiment’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel Dan Bartle, says they could protect the amphibious force when it was going ashore aboard transport helicopters or landing craft.
But it could also defend a task force in coastal waters from threats such as fast attack craft. ‘Fifty knots is fast for a boat but not particularly fast for a helicopter’, Bartle says.
That could be as part of a humanitarian mission to rescue Australians trapped overseas in a security crisis, or a major combat operation.
Despite years of problems getting the Tigers operational, their pilots say they have matured into very capable combat aircraft. They ‘go like Greyhounds’ and they’re very well suited to the ship.
It’s telling, too, that the helicopters were flown to Malaysia on the RAAF’s giant C-17 transport planes. They were assembled there and were then flown out to HMAS Canberra.
Procedures have been worked out over two years by test pilots and the first operational army pilots qualified to fly off the ship on this extended voyage.
The pilots are also trained as forward air controllers and could use their laser targeting systems to direct fire from ships, land-based artillery or aircraft onto enemy positions, Bartle says.
‘With the Tigers on board, the landing ships can carry out a whole range of additional missions with greater security.’
*Brendan Nicholson is defence editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.First published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute