CORAL SEA - Through a locked door painted with a mural depicting the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6), various aircraft, and the words “In God we trust, all others we track,” is one of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) nerve centers. Here, information on allied and adversarial surface and air contacts is gathered and disseminated throughout the ESG. The space, thus, is suitably named the Combat Information Center (CIC).
Locked with a cipher lock and only accessed by those outside of the “need-to-know” via buzzer and a secret clearance, this dark room with little headroom contains the equipment and communications systems to be the eyes, ears and voice of the ship. Consoles made up of monitors in a variety of shapes and sizes display information using the ship’s radar and tracking software. The information displayed glows from the screens in tones of green and orange. These glowing screens illuminate the faces of their operators; Sailors using such precise finger-to-keyboard movements and disciplined voice communications that an interruption of their work feels like it could be considered an act of sabotage, like a wrench thrown into gears.
Avoiding such sabotage, you cross the room, passing by the tactical action officer, or TAO, and the CIC watch officer, or CICWO, with their workstations and large displays of what to the untrained eye looks like just a wall of random data and numbers. As you continue across the room, you make it to the corner they call the “surface side.” In this area, you may find some uniforms not “uniform” amongst the standard Navy, blue, fire resistant variants (FRV). These uniforms of grey, green and black camouflage patterns belong to members serving under the flag of an old ally and friend of the U.S. Navy, for on each of their black shoulder boards can be read, simply, “Australia.”
During Talisman Saber 17, the seventh iteration of a biennial, bilateral exercise between the U.S. and Australia, Bonhomme Richard embarked a team of Royal Australian Navy Sailors with the intention of training, testing and demonstrating the interoperable capabilities of a U.S.-Australia ESG.
Two sections, rotating three person watch teams, were tasked with managing and safeguarding a U.S.-Australia strike group, consisting of 11 U.S, Australian and New Zealand ships, including the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Sterett (DDG 104), which as part of the up-gunned ESG concept serves to protect the amphibious force.
“We were in control of maneuvering the task force around the mission essential unit,” said Royal Australian Navy Lt. Gemma Casserly. “We are the ones who stay here 24 hours a day on two watches to maintain the picture in order to let the commanders know where their ships are, what their ships are doing, and the tactical situation that’s developing.”
One of the watch teams consisted of Casserly, the battle watch captain, Able Seaman Communication Information Systems Chelsea Bott and Able Seaman Combat Systems Operator Samuel Perkins, all Sailors of the Royal Australian Navy.
“Chelsea [Bott] the communicator is telling the ships where to go. She will maneuver the ships based on various factors and then Sam [Perkins] is the one who lets me know if the ships are doing the right thing, if they’re where they’re meant to be, and where the threats are. He will also maintain the plot, so that we can all work together and give the command the best recommendation as to what to do,” said Casserly.
The strengthening and flexing of these cooperative muscles are undertaken to ensure future regional security, fortify the mutual commitment to peace, and reinforce the long-standing friendship and alliance of the two Navies.
“I brought a small team with me for the sea combat command element. As soon as we arrived we were welcomed. We fit right into the command and control systems, and were able to understand and integrate straight into the battle rhythm. So, it was as if we had been doing this for years, which really is the hallmark for the Australian Navy defence force and U.S. defense force integration,” said Royal Australian Navy Capt. Guy Holthouse, sea combat commander for Talisman Saber 2017. “It’s always seamless. It’s always easy to do, and we can really hit the ground running and bring the most out of whatever exercise we are participating in.”
For the duration of the exercise, both the U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy Sailors seemed not only on the same page but on the very same line and word according to Perkins.
“The systems are pretty much the same,” said Perkins. “It’s pretty cool. I didn’t know the ways things are [for the Royal Australian Navy) would be the same across the board.” Operations Specialist 3rd Class Dominique Jose, a CIC watch supervisor, from Los Angeles said that not only was the U.S.-Australian partnership an effortless technical bridge to cross but an effortless friendship bridge as well.
“Everything ran smooth, as if they were a part of the crew,” said Jose. “They are really friendly.
It’s like how you can call everyone on the ship your brothers and sisters. There is a bond.”
The use of foreign allied Navy Sailors to fulfill roles aboard Bonhomme Richard was a fairly straight-forward idea, but it also had some immense implications.
“It [partnerships] keeps lines of communications open. Through the military we get opportunities to meet people from around the world and see how they work and therefore everyone improves and gets better. So, I think as a collective, we are going to be able to defend the nation better by using everyone else’s experience,” said Casserly.
Talisman Saber is a biennial exercise which unites 33,000 U.S. and Australian personnel to strengthen the U.S.-Australian alliance by building on partnerships, interoperability and the ability to respond to contingencies in the region.
Bonhomme Richard, flagship of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group, is operating in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region to enhance partnerships and be a ready-response force for any type of contingency.