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On Point: Making history, building interoperability, allied capability all in a day’s work

Royal Australian Navy Captain Phillipa Hay recently became the first Australian woman appointed to command a task force in the 49-year history of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), where she oversaw the future capability of the fleet coming to fruition and the importance of flexibility and interoperability with allies.

Royal Australian Navy Captain Phillipa Hay recently became the first Australian woman appointed to command a task force in the 49-year history of Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), where she oversaw the future capability of the fleet coming to fruition and the importance of flexibility and interoperability with allies.

In a historic position, CAPT Hay became the first non-US military woman to lead a RIMPAC task force, following only retired US Navy Vice Admiral Nora Tyson, former Commander, US Third Fleet. Tyson held the position of Commander, Combined Task Force during RIMPAC 2016.

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Since 1971, Australia’s participation in RIMPAC has helped foster and sustain the partnerships that secure a free and open Indo-Pacific region. This year, HMA Ships Hobart, Stuart, Arunta and Sirius are took part in RIMPAC as part of their Regional Presence Deployment through south-east Asia and the Pacific.

Ten nations, 22 surface ships, one submarine, multiple aircraft, and approximately 5,300 personnel participated in RIMPAC this year. This year’s exercise included forces from Australia, Brunei, Canada, France, Japan, Republic of Korea, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, and the US.

In this issue of On Point, Defence Connect speaks to CAPT Hay of the Royal Australian Navy to discuss the latest round of RIMPAC exercises, of which CAPT Hay was the first Australian woman appointed to command a task force in the 49-year history of Exercise Rim of the Pacific.

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We also expand on the growing levels of interoperability and capability aggregation developing between Australia and its Indo-Pacific partners and the role they play in supporting the government’s initiative of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Finally, we discuss the complexities of managing and conducting the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise during the COVID-19 pandemic and the agility with which all partners improvised, adapted and overcame the challenges.

Defence Connect: For those who don't know, could you give us a little background about RIMPAC and where the exercise is held, and how COVID changed the exercise? 

CAPT Hay: The RIMPAC exercise is a biennial exercise conducted off the coast of Hawaii and the west coast of the continental United States. This year, it was a wholly at-sea exercise, which was quite remarkable.

Normally we have a good week and a half in Pearl Harbor with all the nations, conducting pre briefings and ensuring all personnel and all the ships are ready and prepared for the exercise. But this year, the 10 nations who were participating, we sailed straight into a two-week exercise of high-end war fighting, which was a remarkable outcome and a true opportunity to demonstrate just exactly how cohesive we are with our partners and allies.

We had a very well-structured program and with complete confidence we were able to communicate with one another, exchange ideas, and roll into serialised activities and then into some free play, which normally there would be more hesitance.

I think it was a true demonstration of the high level of trust that we have between one another and it really demonstrated the longevity of those relationships. It was an amazing outcome. Everyone was quite amazed how well it went and very pleased.

Defence Connect: Multinational exercises like RIMPAC are essential parts of building defence-to-defence relationships, what was this year's experience like? 

CAPT Hay: Certainly one of the key points of RIMPAC is actually to establish personalised friendships and relations with all the other nations and actually get to know shipmates from the participating nations, that was something that was difficult this time round. 

Even when we had our short periods alongside Pearl Harbor before and after the exercise, just to conduct our replenishment, I'm able to manoeuvre up and down the walls and engage with one another.

But as the good mariners do, we resorted to traditional means and there were letters and coins being exchanged between ships and tankers, refuelling ships who were with us, became the literal postman of the fleet. And as ships conducted replenishments, good old HMAS Sirius and her American partner, the USNS Henry J Kaiser, across with the fuel would also come bags of letters and gifts from all the other ships as we exchanged them round. I have a beautiful stack of letters of continuous exchange between my counterparts from the other nations. So that was quite a unique way for us all to establish friendships.

We also used online data chat, not just to war fight, but also for discussions. And it was very impressive how very quickly we moved from polite, courteous, pleasantries into true frank discussions to support one another and develop our war fighting capability. 

I think, again, it hits back to the fact that we've had longstanding relations with many of these participating nations, and we were quickly able to move beyond the fact that we didn't know the individual, but we did know the nation and we could draw upon that long-standing friendship.

Defence Connect: You made history this year, becoming the first non-American woman to command the task force, what was that experience like? 

CAPT Hay: I assumed command of the task group on our departure from Guam a few weeks prior to RIMPAC. And part of the Australian role in RIMPAC for this year was to be the commander of task force one, which is half of the ships who are participating in RIMPAC.

I was unexpectedly informed by my own admiral of the fleet commander that not only would I be the taskforce commander, but I also was the first female to have that lead. I've never been one to try and promote my gender, I'd always like to focus that I have the ability and hopefully that's why I was there. But I certainly acknowledge the privilege of being in that position and being recognised and hopefully providing a role model for others to follow.

It is an amazing sight standing on the bridge of one war ship and looking around at all the other war fighting capability that surrounds you and know that you pull the levers to make sure that they are interoperable and effective, but you also have responsibility for all those lives that are on board to make sure you make the right decisions and the sound decisions.

I'm certainly pleased I had the opportunity to exercise that responsibility in an exercise environment and perhaps one day, but hopefully not, I might need to utilise that authority in a different setting. So, it was a huge privilege and certainly something to write home to my parents about.

Defence Connect: How does an exercise like RIMPAC help sharpen the capabilities of the ADF? What do these exercises enable the ADF to do? 

CAPT Hay: RIMPAC provides a few opportunities for us. Not only were we operating with the 10 other nations who were over there, all of whom are nations we exercise and operate with frequently, because the majority are from the near Asian region and the south-west Pacific, but it also affords us the opportunity to utilise the firing ranges that are off Hawaii.

During our period at RIMPAC, we were able to conduct a harpoon firing from HMAS Stuart, SM2 firings from Hobart, and our MH-60R helicopters did hellfire firings. The opportunity to conduct in live firings under tactical situations is a highly desirable outcome of RIMPAC and that is why we make the effort to get over to Hawaii every second year.

We conduct those firings often with our allies as well, and our coalition partners. In particular, the harpoon firing this year co-ordinated by an Australian ship, synchronised with four allies, [which] culminated [in] what we call the SINKEX, where we take an old warship and we do a co-ordinated firing to destroy an old warship. Hats off to HMAS Stuart who delivered that effect and also demonstrated our ability to be interoperable with our allied nations.

Defence Connect: Preparing for these exercises must be an incredibly time consuming process, what goes into planning these exercises? 

CAPT Hay: When we go into a live firing it's not without weeks of preparation, and on our way from Australia across to Hawaii all of the operations rooms and the firing teams were conducting their drills, their maintainers continuously assisting the weapons and the sensors and the firing apparatus to make sure that the platform is capable to execute. So by the time we actually get to the firing day, nerves are under control, drills are tight, and that affords the operations team and the weapons teams to be able to allow for any deviations.

We had a beautiful example on the harpoons day. It was conducted on a Saturday and the fishermen, the local fishermen were out. So we spent quite a bit of time having to clear the range to get fathers and sons and daughters off the range so that we had the clear air to do the firing.

But because the drills had been conducted over a prolonged period, the ship was able to execute that firing in a safe manner and not be distracted by the various activities that were disrupting what we thought would be a seamless play. And the learning that we take from that is huge because heaven forbid one time we go into a time of war, it's drills that will keep us safe. Because people will be able to go through the drills, manage the weapons, conduct an effective engagement, and be able to manage any deviations.

You can listen to the full Defence Connect podcast with Captain Phillipa Hay, Royal Australian Navy, here

On Point: Making history, building interoperability, allied capability all in a day’s work
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