Sailing through Sydney Harbour, the first sign things were amiss was the dull thump of helicopter blades, barely audible over the water rushing past the bow of the ferry.
Seconds later, 2nd Commando Regiment soldiers disembarked from rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) and climbed over the side rails, while their comrades fast roped onto the deck from a hovering Black Hawk, supported by snipers in another Black Hawk providing aerial fire support.
They stormed through the ferry and subdued all the threats they met. Within minutes they had the ferry under control, the threats neutralised and the hostages saved.
The scenario was part of Exercise MARS Rotor Anchor Toothfish (RAT), a key exercise for the Sydney-based TAG-E – the ADF’s 'in extremis' counter-terrorism force drawn from 2nd Commando Regiment .
Along with the maritime counter-terrorism exercise on Sydney Harbour, MARS RAT also included a ship-at-anchor recovery of a large merchant vessel off Port Kembla, NSW, and a co-ordinated split assault on two linked strongholds: a high-rise in Melbourne’s CBD and shipping facility in Hobart.
The regiment's HR/CT (hostage recovery/counter-terrorism) company that makes up TAG-E includes a RHIB boat team, commando assaulters, commando snipers, a dedicated medical team, and is supplemented by Navy clearance divers.
This mix of skills gives ground commanders many approach options, with Captain N saying the addition of Navy clearance divers added flexibility.
"The exercise is really about consolidating our key domestic counter-terrorism skills," Captain N said.
"Part of that is the maritime counter-terrorism piece, where we have a remit out to 200 nautical miles. We covered off on ship-alongside and ship-underway assaults, including sub-surface approaches with our divers.
"We were also working on force projection, using helicopters to launch us into top-down assaults to achieve vertical envelopment and using Royal Australian Air Force assets to deploy interstate."
While MARS RAT gave the company an opportunity to hone its maritime counter-terrorism and aerial insertion skills, it’s not the culmination of their training program.
Because of their unique mandate, it has to be prepared for any eventuality.
"TAG is basically the Australian government’s fix for any situation that is beyond the capability or capacity of the state police," Private R said.
"I can put my hand on my heart and say the guys I work with are the best. You want to come to work every day and you want to push to achieve your goals because you’re with like-minded people."
Special Operations Command's mission is to generate, command and reconstitute high-readiness world-class joint forces in order to conduct combined special operations in support of Australia's national interests.
Special Operations Command is made up of the following units:
- Headquarters Special Operations Command;
- 1st Commando Regiment;
- Special Air Service Regiment;
- 2nd Commando Regiment;
- Special Operations Engineer Regiment;
- Special Operations Logistics Squadron;
- Special Operations Training and Education Centre; and
- Parachute Training School.
All Special Operations Command personnel are specially selected and highly trained to act with discretion and discipline in situations that may have national and strategic consequences.
With its origins in the Directorate Special Action Forces-Army created and, later, Headquarters Special Forces, in 2003 the Australian government directed the establishment of a Special Operations Command. The new Special Operations Command would be equal in status to maritime, land and air commands, in order to enhance Australia’s ability to use non-conventional war fighting means to respond to the asymmetric threat of terrorism.
Special Operations Command's motto is 'Acies Acuta', which is Latin for ‘The Cutting Edge'.