Aviation Spotters Online

Aviation Spotters Online

Defence Projecting Force in WA

Exercise Northern Shield 2015

This year from the 19th to the 24th of September one of the largest ever exercises involving only Australian Defence Forces was played out in the remote area of Exmouth Western Australia. While RAAF Learmonth was host to close to 1000 military personnel the purpose of the exercise was to “… test at short notice the capability to project forces in the north west should the need arise to protect the population, resources and infrastructure,” Major General Caughey said and he should know as he is the Acting Chief of Joint Operations. Major General Caughey also points out that “the exercise incorporates force preparation activities, Special Force activities, parachuting, land force manoeuvre, air mobile operations and maritime activities”.

Day 1

I joined the action right from the start to cover this exercise for ASO and my ride for the flight up from Perth to RAAF Learmonth was aboard a Beechcraft King Air KA350 A32-426 from 38SQN  “Dingo Airlines”. Leaving from RAAF Pearce, home of No 2 Flying Training School and 79SQN. With a flight time of just over 2 hours this gave me enough time to just see how this part of Australia changes from nice and green around Perth to remote Exmouth, as I hadn’t been to Western Australia before it sure was a beautiful flight. Just as I was getting used to the very comfortable King Air it was time to land. As we came in over the Gulf of Exmouth the color of the water was amazing and on base turn for landing I could even see whales out in the water. Once on the ground it was very clear that this was a “Bare Base” with only about 20 people getting things ready for what was to come in for the exercise.
Exmouth Gulf and its crystal waters
Banking in to turn “Base” for landing at RAAF Learmonth
                                                                         
On final approach into RAAF Learmonth looking out the front of the RAAF King Air.
On final approach in the RAAF King Air.
We headed into the marina then out a short distance into the gulf to see the start of this exercise. Up first was a RAAF AP-3C Orion from RAAF Edinburgh South Australia. The Orion carried out surveillance over the area followed by 2 very nice low passes to clear the way for the Commandos. Then 38 men from the 2nd Commando Regiment based in Sydney New South Wales, launched from 3 x 37SQN C-130J-30 Hercules via a “para load follow” (PLF) into the crystal clear waters of the gulf with pallets of gear including inflatable zodiacs. Right on time we could see the Hercules appear on the horizon, 3 abreast, 1000ft off the deck.
RAAF AP-3C Orion passing in front of the massive towers.
RAAF AP-3C Orion passing the radio comms towers of NCS Harold Holt.

 

The Orion passes in front of the massive towers used for Naval Communication Station Harold E Holt. The towers are used for very low frequency (VLF) radio transmissions to US Navy and Royal Australian Navy ships and submarines in the western Pacific Ocean and the eastern Indian Ocean. The frequency is 19.8 kHz. With a transmission power of 1 megawatt, it is the most powerful transmission station in the Southern Hemisphere. The tallest tower in the middle is a crazy 387m or 1,270ft in height with the outside towers standing only 304m/997ft.
Eexercise Northern Shield sat para drop
Commandos launch from the C-130J-30 straight from Richmond, NSW
The Mass Para Load Follow (PLF) into the Gulf of Exmouth.
The Mass Para Load Follow (PLF)
2 Commando's splash down ready to go
” Splash Down “
Zodiac build
The guys get to work very quick building their zodiac. From jumping out of the Hercules to having the zodiac moving is under 5min!

Have you ever wondered ” What is it like to be this close to a Fire fight ? “

The enemy
One of the many “enemy” on a patrol.
We moved to a location just outside the township of Exmouth where some old buildings were being used to simulate an attack on the “enemy” position. The role of the enemy is being played by members of the Army who have similar training but will work in a different way to the commandos. Both groups will get some training benefits out of the mission.
From the start we could hear 2 F/A-18F Super Hornets doing laps above us taking imagery which will provide intel to the commandos. I was allowed to have a look at the sky with Night Vision Goggles (NVG) to see the jets flying above us and they look like shooting stars across the sky. The information they were giving the team on the ground in real time was providing a better idea of just how the enemy was acting.
At this point you can see how the new strategy of the Defence Force is paying off big time. Before each asset performed its task to the best of their abilities but with the addition of assets like the E-7 Wedgetail, Super Hornet and SATCOM everyone can share information which leads to a new understanding of the “War Zone” and also opens up many more possibilities for military personnel to be front line specialists without being right at the front.
Contact
Contact
Without any warning the commando’s appeared and over run the place in minutes. Each room was checked and searched with a few “enemy” found. Very soon it was clear the job was done. It really is a strange sight seeing many “enemies” walking around with guns and then suddenly the good guys appear from out of the shadows and suppress the situation. All this was done on the edge of darkness so the media had a chance of getting some footage but it was made very clear that in a real world situation it would have been in total darkness.
Once the area was clear the Super Hornets left and headed back to RAAF Darwin via a refueling from the KC-30 somewhere on its trip. Another aircraft that was in the air but not seen was the E-7 Wedgetail from 2SQN, this aircraft is based at RAAF Williamtown NSW but for the exercise was using RAAF Tindal NT to launch from. The Wedgetail has really been a game changer in the way information is used with many behind the scenes people being able to see in real time a live feed from the Super Hornets sensors and with this elevated situational awareness better assessments can be made on the right tactic to employ and how to use the right assets to make that happen.

20150920-DSC_9477

 Day 2. Sunday.

Since the area was now secure and under the control of the troops from 2 Commando, it was time to bring in the Ready Combat Team (RCT) comprising of troops from 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) based in Brisbane QLD. These troops landed on mass via 3 x C-17’s from 36SQN RAAF Amberley  and 3 x C-130J-30’s from 37SQN RAAF Richmond and they didn’t stop going back and forth until close to 1 million pounds of resources had been moved in to support this exercise. As the aircraft landed the rear ramps were getting lowered so that as soon as they stopped the teams would swing into action with troops off first, then any thing from pallets to Bushmaster vehicles or even Tiger Attack helicopters. With so much action going on non stop it really didn’t hit me just how much cargo had been moved until I left for the night, I could see patrols going non stop around the base and tents everywhere.
RAAF C-17 A41-208 taxing in after flying straight from RAAF Amberley QLD.
RAAF C-17 A41-208 taxing in.
RAAF C-17 A41-208 taxing in with the ramp down ready to unload.
RAAF C-17 A41-208 taxing in.
RAAF C-17 A41-206 getting marshalled in.
RAAF C-17 A41-206 getting marshalled in.
RAAF C-17 A41-206, A41-210 & A41-208.
RAAF C-17 A41-206, A41-210 & A41-208 getting ready for another flight.
It really is a sight to behold just how many people can move into one place and set up so quick. Because there was always 3 aircraft on the ramp getting unloaded or refuelled and it seemed like no sooner had one arrived that another was leaving to get another load for this rapidly growing remote air base.
Troops on the move
Troops on the move
RAAF C-17 A41-206 getting unloaded momments after stopping.
RAAF C-17 A41-206 getting unloaded momments after stopping.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-466 with a load of troops.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-466 with another load of troops.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 getting the last loads out.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 getting the last loads out.
The action didn’t stop until well into the night and once the sun went down I was given very rare access to the Flightline at night, which created a great opportunity to capture activity which isn’t normally seen. The scene I really wanted to get was just showing the movement and the action of what was happening so it had to be some long exposure work with the tripod.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 unloading pallets.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 unloading pallets.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 & A97-466 getting ready to leave.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 & A97-466 getting ready to leave.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 & A97-466 getting ready to leave.
RAAF C-130J-30 A97-447 & A97-466 getting ready to leave.

Day 3 Monday.

After Sunday’s massive day with the temp up around 38c and on the ramp 45c, we had a late start which was much needed. I had the choice of following the RAAF Hawk’s or the Army’s Tiger Attack helicopter. It was a tough choice but I couldn’t pass up the jets, so off I went to meet the crew for today’s sortie. Due to RAAF Learmonth being a bare base the hangars that house the Hawks are very basic but they do the job. As we weren’t told what type of sortie was planned we just stood back and watched the pre flight checks which seems to happen very quick, but following the crew around you really see the high level of detail that pre-flights are performed at.
Flying Officer Jess from 79SQN doing the pre-light checks.
Flying Officer Jess from 79SQN doing the pre-light checks.
Flight Lieutenant Vic and Flying Officer Jess from 79SQN.
Flight Lieutenant Vic and Flying Officer Jess from 79SQN.
Flying Officer Nick from 79SQN ready to go
Flying Officer Nick from 79SQN ready to go
Once all the checks were made it was time for me to leave the area for start up, the encounter with the 2 young Flying officers was pretty awesome as both seemed to really enjoy what they were doing, almost as much as I was enjoying this rare glimpse. I must say its very hard to see a jet get ready and depart when there is a spare seat and no one to go in it !!!!! We can dream but really both these officers seemed very comfortable even with a camera capturing their every move around the aircraft. Once the engines where on, it was game time and very soon this would be time for me to leave once they had taxied out.
RAAF Hawk A27-22 & A27-24 79SQN taxi out
RAAF Hawk A27-22 & A27-24 79SQN taxi out
RAAF Hawk A27-22 79SQN taxi out with an ARMY Tiger Attack Helicopter ready to go.
RAAF Hawk A27-22 79SQN taxi out with an ARMY Tiger Attack Helicopter ready to go.
RAAF Hawk A27-22 & A27-24 79SQN taxi out
RAAF Hawk A27-22 & A27-24 79SQN taxi out

 

Once the Hawks had taken off for the mission ASO was given the chance to interview LTCOL Richard Niessl , Chief of Staff, Joint Task Force and WGCDR Jeff Howard, Commanding Officer Contingency Response Squadron, here is an extract from the interview.

 

ASO: What roles do your units play in the operations as a whole ?

LTCOL Niessl: ” What we have on the ground at the moment is the Joint Task Force and we have supporting the Joint Task Force the Contingency Response Squadron which has established at RAAF Learmonth to enable the Joint Task Force to move into the area and conduct operations from this facility. The JTF is responsible for not only projecting into the Exmouth area but also setting and improving security following a fictitious hostile act that has occurred in the area.”

ASO: How many men and women do you have for this Exercise ?

LTCOL Niessl : “There is about 400 within the JTF but then in support of the JTF the CRS has around 130 and then in addition to that all the aircraft that are flying so another few hundred in support of them. So talking about just under 1000 personal for the exercise.”

ASO: What type of equipment are you using for these tasks ?

LTCOL Niessl  : ” From a JTF perspective, the JTF task Force comprises 4 different task groups underneath the HeadQuarters. So we have the Commando’s and they have conducted a Parachute Load Follow (PLF) into Exmouth Gulf, so that involved things like the RAAF C-130J-30 Hercules and then using their watercraft to move into shore to conduct the security task they did. We have the Ready Combat Team (RCT)  and that ready combat team is based on an infantry company but with additional supporting enablers like medical ,engineers that are operating in a mobile role using the Australian Protected Mobility Vehicle then we have got an RFSU Squadron and that Squadron provides a number of reconnaissance and surveillance patrols using their recon/surveillance vehicle that’s a new vehicle that’s only been introduced in the last 2 years that enables them to conduct long distance vehicle mounted patrols over very difficult terrain. They also have their regional patrol craft a small aluminum boat which enables them to conduct patrols around the coast line. Then we have the aviation group which consists of 4 armed reconnaissance Tiger attack Helicopters flying in an reconnaissance role  in support of the JTF.”

ASO: So from being allowed to get so close to the personal, we are seeing age groups from pretty young to personal that have been in service as a career. What age group are you looking for and how quickly could they be involved in an exercise like this one ?

LTCOL Niessl : ” I think age is no longer a limiting factor as perhaps it once was, what is key is people’s medical fitness and motivation. So if you’re fit,motivated and have the right attributes then I think Defence would look very keenly to try and bring them in with the key thing for Defence is the real desire to try be as diverse as we can because we recognize we get so much more from a diverse group of people ,different ethnic groups , different genders and different cultural back grounds. So Defence is very keen to take people of any age so long as they are fit, healthy and mentally motivated into the service. That includes young people as well and to be honest the majority of people joining the Military are young but its no longer a limiting factor that perhaps it once was . ”

ASO: We saw the deployment which ASO has never seen on this scale before which is very impressive, how do you find the capability of the new assets that we have at your disposable to do such a vast operation. We had 3 C-17’s , 3 C-130J-30 Hercules here to name a few ?

LTCOL Niessl : ” Look I was just reflecting on that myself and we were talking about the equipment earlier I was focused on ARMY equipment but you’re absolutely right.We have had C-17’s , F/A-18F Super Hornets we have had Airborne Early Warning aircraft the E-7, Hawk training Jets and the AP-3C Orion. So all of that kit has been brought because what it does it provides layers of security and layers of surveillance which enables us to project quickly so for me the C-17 is a bit like what the C-130 was 20 years ago. Being able to project long distances quickly with heavy equipment on board but of course in that 20 years our equipment has got bigger and heavier , look at the Protected Mobility Vehicles. Heavy Vehicles that they are so the C-17 fleet we have got now enables us to project very, very quickly into remote locations, it’s a fantastic asset and when you combine all those things together you get a quite potent capability.”

ASO: On the 1st night we saw the Commando’s do the night assault and to hear Super Hornets above us with their capability of what they bring so when you look at what we could do say 5 to 10 years ago to what can be done now and into the future with the “Growlers” coming online soon how does this change make a difference in your training?

WGCDR Howard: ” I think culturally the Defence Organisation has changed from being a largely static and somewhat non dynamic in its approach to operations and I think the Australian Government with its pursuit of aligning the capabilities with other nations has seen our ability to react to contingencies much, much greater. Culturally I think that extends throughout all 3 services and the public service of Defence enabling us to project that force, so you mentioned the Super Hornets and the ” Growler ” capability in the future there enabled by other platforms such as the E-7 Wedgetail and the AP-3C Orions but then in supporting the land and maritime environments we have become a lot more proficient in supporting those capabilities are on the surface of our oceans or our land forces in Australia or overseas. Certainly the ability to project that Force has been a large part of this exercise, from an Air Force perspective it has confirmed a lot of our capability requirements and has also proven to ourselves that we have that capacity to execute Australian Government tasks on the required notices to move and each time we do it we have the opportunity to work with our peers across the various organisations to really learn those lessons that will make short notice contingencies responses improve over time. So it certainly is culturally a much more dynamic flexible approach to delivery of those strategic objectives the Government is seeking.”

ASO: With All this new technology coming online how has the roles changed of what is front line and what isn’t ?

WGCDR Howard: ” Air Force has a very proactive improvement program and in that we are identifying those new needs, the environment in which we are operating is changing and the skill sets and the platforms that support our Government in those responses is changing so there are organizations that will continue evolve as new capabilities come in particularly those that are integrated into electronic systems and sensors operators as well as the types of delivery systems that we will use in the future. The C-17 is a great example of that delivery system that’s being changed, the force flow in our ability to meet those objectives particularly for tasks like humanitarian aid and disasters relief. Those types of activaties require a very prompt response in order to save lives, receive a huge benefit from having those integrated work forces and that evolving cultural of not doing things the way that we used to do them , so really learning those lessons of practicing in the Australian environment for those strategic purposes.”

LTCOL  Niessl, ” From an ARMY perspective everyone is a specialist now whether you’re an infantryman using a whole suite of communications systems, a whole suite of different weapons, sensors and fighting equipment on the one hand, through to someone who is an technician working on an Attack and Recon helicopter who is keeping those sort of platforms airborne for long periods of time. There is such an enormous spectrum of specialist roles people can do and its fantastic all of those opportunities exist.”

RAAF A32-671 King Air ready for our flight back to RAAF Pearce
RAAF A32-671 King Air ready for our flight back to RAAF Pearce

 

With the interviews wrapped up it was time to head home on board A32-671 via our good friends from 38SQN and their King Airs. After the take off we banked back over RAAF Learmonth to get a good view on the size of the base and just how bare and remote it is. The Defence Force tested and proved that they can project a large force very quickly over long distance to combat issues that may have flared up in these remote parts of our country. Due to the large size of this exercise ASO have only covered the Aviation component, but every day of the exercise many different parts where being played out all over the Exmouth area.  I can assure you that just keeping up with the Aviation parts of the exercise kept me very busy.

RAAF Learmonth form the King Air
Over looking RAAF Learmonth

 

I would like to thank the Australian Defence Force media team for their amazing amount of support through out this exercise, they had 12 media people going non stops covering everything. Thanks team.

Bring on the next Exercise Northern Shield.

 

To view all images from this Exercise click here: http://aviationspottersonline.com/exercise-northern-shield/

If you or someone you know is interested in starting a career that could lead to getting involved with the types of things featured in this article, take a look here

Mark Jessop.

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