Exercise Southern Katipo
Titirangi Bay, towards the northern fringe of the Marlborough Sounds, has never been so busy.
More than 2000 military personnel from New Zealand and eight other countries took part in a month-long international exercise hosted by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), starting in late October.
Exercise Southern Katipo 15 (SK15) aimed to test and evaluate the NZDF’s ability to plan and conduct joint operations involving a range of naval, land, and air assets. It involved military personnel from Australia, Canada, Fiji, France, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus China as an observer.
Unlike previous iterations of this biennial exercise, the NZDF treated SK15 as one of several operations to be managed and supervised, an approach more realistic because that would be exactly the way things would be played out if an emergency arose in the Southwest Pacific.
SK15 was held this year in the Buller, Tasman and Marlborough districts in the South Island. The exercise scenario saw New Zealand deploying a military contingent to lead a multinational combined joint task force (CJTF) that restored law and order in the fictional South Pacific country of Becara. The task force was to conduct stability, support and humanitarian operations, including the evacuation of internally displaced people.
During the exercise the NZDF was dealing with challenges facing commanders in real-world operations such as exercising command and control over units operating in remote areas.
An NZDF spokesman said, “Our personnel are well trained and ready to respond to any crisis at home or overseas. And through exercises like SK15, we get the chance to further enhance our ability to operate effectively alongside other militaries.”
The exercise got underway with the sealift and amphibious support ship HMNZS Canterbury being loaded with military equipment and personnel at Aotea Wharf in Wellington on the evening of 29 October.
Canterbury has an extensive range of capabilities, including the ability to land personnel, vehicles and cargo by landing craft, helicopter or ramps, as well as conventional port infrastructure. She can carry up to 250 people as well as her own crew for long periods and has played a significant part in previous disaster relief efforts such as the 2009 Samoa earthquake and tsunami and the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011.
An interesting part of the exercise was the announcement that a USAF RQ4 Global Hawk remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) was to be used in New Zealand for the first time during SK15. Taking imagery of simulated adversary areas of interest as part of the exercise, the RPAS would be operated remotely by USAF controllers with the NZDF advising parameters.
With an endurance of more than 28hr, it was said to have flown from its base at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, all the way to New Zealand, captured imagery and returned home nonstop, cruising at an altitude of 60,000ft.
The Global Hawk has provided assistance in humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions, as well as security and stability operations worldwide. It has also been used domestically in the USA to identify wildfire hotspots.
Did it come? Nobody would confirm or deny its presence, but the Global Hawk would be an asset to the exercise and add to the airborne surveillance and reconnaissance capability of the RNZAF P-3K2 Orion.
As part of SK15, personnel from the NZDF and the eight partner countries descended on Westport. USAF and RAAF C-17s and C-130 Hercules transports, plus RNZAF C-130s, were utilised to transport troops and equipment, with the larger C-17s said to have been most impressive in their capability to operate into Westport’s small airport. The USAF and RAAF also moved equipment and vehicles across the Tasman.
During the exercise the NZDF and its partners conducted a simulated evacuation of civilians. The training simulated a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO) and provided an opportunity to demonstrate and evaluate the ability to safely evacuate civilians wishing to leave a country as a result of a deteriorating security situation or a natural disaster.
This exercise was very real and important for the Southwest Pacific, as indicated by the presence of several high-ranking officers visiting their troops during the exercise.
“A key part of this exercise was for the NZDF to respond to a deteriorating security situation with the focus of protecting citizens as they are evacuated from their homes to a ship or airport for travel onwards to a safe destination,” said the NZDF.
In real-life situations an evacuation plan would be administered under the direction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) with the NZDF playing a key role. As part of the simulation the NZDF, MFAT and international defence personnel arranged evacuee assembly and processing, before the evacuees were transported to Westport Airport for evacuation in an RNZAF Hercules. More than 100 local residents acted as evacuees and were flown to Woodbourne for lunch.
The exercise then moved from Westport and up the Murchison Valley through to the Nelson Lakes region. This phase saw most of New Zealand’s military assets being used, including the C-130s and A109 and NH90 helicopters, all being moved through the northern part of the South Island.
Landing craft carrying hundreds of troops, military vehicles and other equipment were launched from HMNZS Canterbury at Titirangi Bay and Okiwi Bay in the Marlborough Sounds. The amphibious landing was one of the centrepieces of the exercise, with landing craft launched and transporting equipment, including medium heavy operating vehicles (MHOVs), and personnel to the shore.
The French had a Corvette class frigate available, along with its helicopter. Titirangi Bay is extremely isolated and provided a unique opportunity to the forces landing and securing it. Among other things, Defence was evaluating the speed and efficiencies of Canterbury and seeking ways of improving its ready reaction to events.
Further into the Southern Alps and around the Nelson Lakes were large numbers of ground forces operating and securing the area. The mountainous terrain made this particularly realistic and the Australians had provided troop vehicles to move the troops.
According to the NZDF, “We learnt a lot from SK15 and it was a valuable event in being able to work with our allies. The NH90 helicopters were well used during the exercise with at times up to five on the flight line at Westport.
“The NH90 has a great uplift and can move large loads within a battlefield theatre, including underslung loads, and is an ideal winching platform. It is ideally placed in moving armed troops into remote locations.”
An observer could see from the troops involved and the passionate enthusiasm of their commanders that everyone had put 100 percent into their roles. SK15 was an exercise that will help give New Zealand the ability to offer its presence and help in our region, to help with its stability and be able to work with different nations.
- Report and photograph by Peter Clark.
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