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Op-Ed: Fleet operations in the COVID-19 environment

RAAF F/A-18A Hornets, EA-18G Growlers fly over a Royal Australian Navy task group of HMA Ships Canberra, Hobart, Stuart, Arunta and Sirius during the Regional Presence Deployment in July 2020 (Source: Dept of Defence)

Operating in the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all, including the Royal Australian Navy Fleet. The pandemic has resulted in significant changes requiring Navy to balance the risk to personnel with operational needs, explains Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, Commander Australian Fleet.

Operating in the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all, including the Royal Australian Navy Fleet. The pandemic has resulted in significant changes requiring Navy to balance the risk to personnel with operational needs, explains Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead, Commander Australian Fleet.

While some may think the Navy would fare well due to the nature of life at sea, the requirement to conduct port visits, both domestic and international, underpins sustainment efforts through logistics resupply, maintenance and personnel respite. COVID-19 has resulted in strict limitations upon port visits and indeed, many nations have closed their ports. Consequently, personnel deploying in Fleet units are now conducting up to 120 days at sea without shore liberty, which has never before occurred in the history of the RAN.

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The Fleet Seaworthiness Management System is the key policy in which operational, technical and support elements are incorporated to ensure the ongoing operability of a ship and its crew. More than ever, a robust seaworthiness program has been necessary during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to conduct these prolonged deployments with limited port access. At the forefront of this program is the welfare of our men and women. Preventing COVID from entering a ship has been step one of the deployment process.

Currently, personnel deploying overseas are required to isolate at home for 14 days prior to departure, to reduce the likelihood of contracting the virus. Once the ship departs home port, another 14 days is spent operating on the Australian station to ensure all personnel are COVID-free prior to departing overseas.

An extensive screening process is also conducted for all personnel deploying to ensure they are medically fit and their personal situation is stable, as overseas nations are only allowing personnel to proceed ashore in life-threatening circumstances. This has certainly required a shift in mindset for our people, as previously personnel were able to return home as required from even very remote destinations.

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Domestic operations have continued with due regard to relevant state and territory restrictions. The RAN’s requirement to support government-directed operations such as Operation RESOLUTE (the effort to protect Australia’s borders and offshore maritime interests) has not abated throughout the pandemic.

However, to ensure crews remain COVID-free and that the RAN does not contribute to the spread of the virus, domestic port visits outside of home port have mostly been cancelled. Where units have been required to enter a non-home port to embark stores/fuel, visits have complied with border restrictions with most being contactless. Shore liberty has been granted for ports such as Darwin (NT) and Fleet Base West (WA), where the presence of COVID is minimal and only after any quarantine restrictions have been met.

Whilst changes to domestic operations have been relatively simple to implement, overseas deployments have been a whole new challenge, particularly owing to the vast distances our ships are required to transit. Recently, HMA Ships Hobart, Arunta, Stuart, Canberra and Sirius deployed as a Task Group to the Indo-Pacific as part of Regional Presence Deployment 2020 (RPD20).

These units deployed from their home ports on 15 June 2020 and returned home after approximately 115 days. Sustaining the Task Group at sea for this duration was challenging; the replenishment vessel, HMAS Sirius, was vital to the provision of food and fuel, not only for our own units, but to other navies as well.

During RPD20 alone, HMAS Sirius conducted 63 replenishments; an impressive amount considering she has averaged approximately 50 replenishments a year since commissioning. Operating overseas during the pandemic will continue to highlight the critical role of afloat logistics support for Task Group sustainment.

Materiel sustainment and defect rectification was also vital to the effectiveness of the RPD20 Task Group. With limited access to ports and travel restrictions in place, the ability to fly-in contracted repair personnel was severely restricted. As such, self-sufficiency was key, with organic engineering personnel conducting repairs through remote support.

Some key logistics nodes, including Guam and Singapore, were established during RPD20 in order to deliver essential stores and parts. These stores were then transferred to the ship via contactless arrangements. Without these key logistics nodes and support from partner nations, these extended deployments would be impossible. 

The ability to conduct prolonged deployments and continue operations in the current environment has of course been testament to the resilience and resourcefulness of our men and women. Port visits throughout RPD20 were rare; for the 115-day deployment only three stops were made.

Shore liberty was not granted for these visits in order to reduce the likelihood of infection in our ships. However, it was possible to arrange COVID-safe bubbles for two visits which were to military bases; these bubbles involved prepared base facilities, such as sports grounds and wharves that were sanitised and used exclusively by our ships companies.

These measures allowed brief periods of respite from the ship, which were essential to the mental wellbeing of the crew. Port visits have long been the primary method in which deployed personnel achieve respite; they allow our people to switch off from work, call home and generally relax for short periods. Noting this key respite opportunity was not available under the pandemic environment, other innovative measures in addition to the COVID-safe bubbles were implemented.

Days at sea throughout the deployment were allocated as ‘Sunday Seas’ whereby only essential activity was conducted. This allowed personnel time for additional sleep and recreational activities, albeit within the confines of the ship. In essence, our men and women were in a very similar ‘lockdown’ to those of us at home.

Whilst operating in the pandemic environment has been difficult, finding new ways to deploy and sustain our ships has resulted in a large number of invaluable lessons, which would not have otherwise been realised. Engagement with regional partners is a key function of a maritime force, and finding opportunities to operate together to improve interoperability is vital. Traditionally, prior to conducting an international exercise, a harbour phase is held in port to refine planning and ensure all parties are briefed on the requirements.

COVID, however, resulted in the cancellation of all face-to-face engagement and planning was conducted remotely. A number of high-end warfighting exercises such as Exercises Rim of the Pacific, Pacific Dragon and Pacific Vanguard were conducted with like-minded nations during RPD20 and for the first time ever, these were planned solely via email or video conference.

This ability to conduct remote planning and execute highly complex missile firings with foreign navies heralded an enhanced level of interoperability, forced purely by the pandemic; a key success story for RPD20.

In all, operating during the COVID pandemic has certainly been challenging for the RAN. The service, innovation and dedication of our women and men has been critical for sustaining operations, both overseas and on the Australian station. Of course, as always, we owe a debt of gratitude to our family and friends for their support, particularly noting the additional difficulties experienced at home. Their backing has been a fundamental enabler of Navy’s achievements during these unique times.

Rear Admiral Jonathan Mead joined the Royal Australian Naval College in 1984 and graduated in 1986 with a Diploma of Applied Science. He specialised in Mine Clearance Diving and Explosive Ordnance Disposal and after serving as Executive Officer of Clearance Diving Team One, he undertook Principal Warfare Officer (ASW) training. A succession of warfare postings then followed, including: Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer in HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Arunta, Fleet Anti-Submarine Warfare Officer and Executive Officer of HMAS Arunta.

In 2005, Commander Mead took command of HMAS Parramatta and saw active service in the North Arabian Gulf as part of Operation CATALYST in 2005-06; for this his ship was awarded a Meritorious Unit Citation and he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

He undertook studies at the Indian National Defence College in 2007, after which Captain Mead was appointed as Australia's Defence Adviser to India. Promoted to Commodore, in July 2011, he deployed to the Middle East where he commanded Combined Task Force 150, responsible for maritime counter terrorism, during October 2011-April 2012 and he was consequently awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service, in 2013, for his service in the Middle East region.

Upon his return to Fleet Headquarters in 2012, he served as Commander Surface Force. In January 2015, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and assumed the position as Head Navy Capability.

RADM Mead holds a Masters Degree in International Relations, a Masters Degree in Management and a PhD in International Relations. He is the author of Indian National Security: Misguided Men and Guided Missiles published in 2010. RADM Mead assumed the position of Commander Australian Fleet on 19 January 2018.

Op-Ed: Fleet operations in the COVID-19 environment
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