For decades, the alliance between the United States and Australia has been a cornerstone of security and stability throughout the Pacific Rim. U.S. Sailors and Marines routinely train and work hand in hand with the Australian Defense Force, as well as other partner nations in the region, to sustain theater security cooperation initiatives and improve integrated bilateral readiness, furthering cohesion between our militaries.
A newly established training operation, Exercise Koolendong (KD13), is just one more example of the U.S./Australian commitment to combined and joint-force operations in the Pacific Rim. During KD13, which took place at the Bradshaw Field Training Area (BFTA) in Australia’s Northern Territory Aug. 28 to Sept. 12, more than 2,000 Sailors and Marines of the forward-deployed Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) partnered with members of the 5th Royal Australian Regiment and Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) to assess the future suitability of BFTA as a viable site for holding live-fire exercises for battalion-sized units of 1,000 personnel.
Planning for KD13 began well before the Bonhomme Richard ARG got underway from Sasebo, Japan in June. Because it was the first time the ARG/MEU planned an exercise of this scale in an unfamiliar area, the preparation needed to be comprehensive and meticulous. The challenges presented required close and constant communication with Australian partners in order to ensure that required policies and practices were followed to prevent incidents from occurring.
“This was the first time the Bonhomme Richard ARG conducted a Marine Air-Ground Task Force offload in this area of Australia, so we had some different challenges to work through,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bradford Tonder, operations officer for Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, “Part of the exercise was to present our ability to offload the MEU using only the organic shipping capabilities that the ARG provides, so there were numerous challenges we had to overcome including port loading limits in Darwin, and extreme tidal ranges and swift currents that affected how we offloaded gear via landing craft.”
Sailors and Marines aboard forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) and amphibious transport dock ship USS Denver (LPD 9) spent more than 32 hours moving gear, vehicles and other equipment from the pier in Darwin to BFTA using cranes, amphibious landing craft and heavy vehicles.
“The offload of Marines and equipment prepared the ARG/MEU for future operations because the ships were able to execute actions that are central to the ARG/MEU mission with respect to offloading Marines and equipment,” said Marine Capt. Michael Allen, PHIBRON 11 combat cargo officer. “The old saying ‘practice makes perfect’ fits well here as KD13 allowed for the opportunity to conduct the planning and execution of the actions necessary to execute the debarkation of the MEU.”
More than 70 vehicles and 20 equipment trailers were moved during the offload, along with numerous mini transport containers and pallet containers. Landing Craft Utility from Naval Beach Unit (NBU) 7 offloaded more than eight full loads of vehicles and cargo from Bonhomme Richard and Denver onto the pier in Darwin for further transport to BFTA.
Once the Marines and their gear were safely offloaded, they took the fight 200 miles into the outback of Australia’s Northern Territory. In BFTA, U.S. Marines alongside ADF personnel executed day and night live-fire operations including light and heavy machine guns, mortars, and artillery. MV-22 Ospreys, UH-1Y Hueys, and CH-53E Super Stallions embarked on Bonhomme Richard and Denver provided assault troop transport, medical evacuation capability, close air support and logistics from the sea.
Aside from the offload and backload, the other key piece of KD13 for ARG shipping was the vertical assault drill conducted on Sept. 3. During that drill, Marines conducted a short-notice ship-to-shore helicopter assault with a platoon-sized reinforced element. Approximately 50 Marines embarked MV-22 Osprey helicopters which transported them to their landing zone in BFTA. Upon landing, Marines engaged a simulated enemy platoon. Due to the live-fire nature of the exercise, as well as the close-quarters mortar and artillery fire, extreme precision was required in the execution of flanking movements.
For these Marines, the unfamiliar environment of BFTA proved to be of great benefit.
“Training at BFTA was really awesome because instead of me just training my Marines, the range really trained me,” said Marine 1st Lt. Timothy Greene, assault platoon commander for Echo Company. “I was challenged by the task of managing all the different assets I was given at the same time, especially the timing and sequencing. The range demanded it. It’s not very often that all aspects of an element are able to receive training simultaneously.”
Even 200 miles from the coast, the Marines realized that the success of their assault was dependent on the ARG. “There’s definitely a lot of respect there,” said Greene. “Some things may have been taken for granted earlier, but there’s just a ton of things the Navy does to support us. There are a ton of assets and planning that go into getting 40-50 Marines on the ground. It’s pretty awesome.”
While KD13 provided both U.S. Marines and Australian forces with a region suitable for conducting live-fire exercises by large units, the exercise also demonstrated the full range of amphibious capabilities inherent to the ARG/MEU construct.
“On a daily basis we talk about the Blue – Green team and how important it is to have Sailors and Marines operating forward together. The Sailors and Marines of Amphibious Squadron 11, and the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit are permanently forward-deployed in order to be ready to meet current challenges and to build the relationships needed to be a relevant and capable force in the future,” said Capt. Cathal O’Connor, commodore, PHIBRON 11. “It was an honor to be the first ARG-MEU team to conduct Exercise Koolendong. It showed our capability to project warfighting forces inland into an expeditionary and isolated area and to conduct a live-fire combat exercise where we fired almost every weapon in the inventory, while supporting Sailors and Marines from the sea.”
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