U.S. Navy’s Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group was joined by a U.S. destroyer and four Australian frigates to test elements of the up-gunned ESG concept during two weeks of drills at exercise Talisman Saber 2017.
The field training exercise (FTX) component of TS17 tested a combined and joint forces’ ability to respond to a crisis situation. Amphibious forces played a critical role in seizing objectives ashore that allowed a land force led by Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade to deliver stability further.
Throughout the exercise, the combined U.S.-Australia-New Zealand amphibious force defended against opposing exercise forces in the air, surface, and undersea domains while providing combat power against both those forces and opposing forces ashore. The scenarios allowed the ESG to flex its sensors, weapons, and maneuverability; attaining sea control and project power ashore.
“Australia has become one of our most capable amphibious allies in the region. Together we showed during Talisman Saber 17 that we are ready to fight our way into the littorals and simultaneously control the seas and land,” said Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 7 and commander of the combined amphibious force for the exercise. “I couldn’t be more proud of our combined team. We integrated our warfare commanders, ships and embarked ground forces to take the fight to the opposing forces successfully.”
Talisman Saber is a biennial exercise that unites more than 33,000 U.S. and Australian personnel to build on partnerships, interoperability and the ability to respond to contingencies in the region. The exercise also doubled as ESG 7’s certification exercise to remain the Navy’s only forward-deployed certified expeditionary strike group staff.
The myriad of maritime threats put ESG watchstanders to the test. Sailors manning watch stations in their unit’s combat information center (CIC) had to remain vigilant in using pre-planned responses and stimulating employment of weapons systems in defense of the ships at sea. As some watchstanders worked to determine a sub’s location, others were coordinating attacks to destroy opposition surface ships.
The Royal Australian Navy Fleet Battle Staff embarked the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) to perform duties as the Sea Combat Commander, managing U.S. and Australian surface forces, multi-mission helicopters, and shore-based maritime patrol aircraft to take control of the surface and undersea from opposing ships and submarines.
While the Fleet Battle Staff was on Bonhomme Richard, the Adelaide-class guided-missile frigate HMAS Darwin (FFG 04) was in charge of the air defense of the ESG, keenly monitoring the skies and directing surface-to-air fires when needed.
Both Australian-led warfare areas were critical to the survivability of the force.
“It was professionally and personally rewarding to be a part of something like this, where we could feel so integrated and part of a fantastic team to accomplish the mission,” said Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Scott, future operations officer for the Fleet Battle Staff. “The grouping of Australian frigates alongside the USS Sterrett allowed us to fold in tenets of distributed lethality, effectively using a number of sensors and weapons to protect the force. It was impressive to see how we were able to leverage each other’s capabilities to achieve a combined effect.”
To add increased capability, the Bonhomme Richard embarked MH-60Rs Sea Hawk helicopters assigned to the “Saberhawks” of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 77 who are deployed with the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 77). While the concept has been used in exercises like Rim of the Pacific, it was the first time MH-60Rs were embarked on Bonhomme Richard in the Forward Deployed Naval Force.
MH-60Rs provide long-range surface search and undersea search capabilities, as well as offensive firepower within the Up-Gunned ESG concept.
“It was great to work with a coalition partner and practice these skill sets,” said Cmdr. Newt McKissick, executive officer of the “Saberhawks.” “It was also a rewarding experience to partner with the Marine Corps and contribute Navy air capability.”
The exercise was also an opportunity for the ESG to conduct its primary mission: launching Marines ashore. A wave of landing craft and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft transported 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit Marines and equipment to landing zones at various junctures in the exercise. MEU Marines trained with the Australian Army within the framework of crisis response once ashore.
“Amphibious forces remain the heart of the ESG and our Sailors, ships and landing craft personnel did an amazing job off-loading the Marines safely and efficiently,” said Capt. George Doyon, commander, Amphibious Squadron 11, who commanded the amphibious operations for the strike group. “This exercise has challenged and made us better. I am confident we could stand together with Australia to respond to a contingency.”