Evolving Agile and Flexible Command at Sea

HMAS Australian Navy
The Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN’s) landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious ship HMAS Canberra (left), the MEKO 200 Anzac-class frigate HMAS Arunta (centre), and HMAS Hobart sailing from Darwin, northern Australia during the 2020 deployment. During this deployment, all three ships took on a command role within the RAN’s new task group command construct. (Royal Australian Navy)

Commodore Michael Harris, Commodore Flotillas, discusses how the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been scaling its task group command structure to enhance operational flexibility.

With returning great power competition manifested at sea in returning naval rivalry, task group operations are increasingly central for navies in delivering maritime presence.

Task groups bring flexibility in capability and operation, but to generate this flexibility such groups require effective command structures.

Growing emphasis on task group presence is evident in Indo-Pacific naval activity. As one of the theatre’s major regional navies, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has an established history of operating theatre-wide, from its own waters to the Gulf. Today, task groups sit more centrally in such RAN presence.

The RAN’s task groups are built around new platforms bringing new capabilities. The RAN is also operationalising various task group constructs built around these platforms, using a new command staff structure to deliver flexibility in using such capability.

The RAN’s new task group presence has been based initially around its Canberra-class landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide (commissioned in 2014 and 2015, respectively). The LHDs have deployed across the region for operations and exercises, including as amphibious task groups (ATGs) to provide humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) support for Australia’s neighbours. More recently, task group presence has been reinforced by the RAN’s three Hobart-class air warfare-focused guided-missile destroyers (DDGs), HMAS Hobart, HMAS Brisbane, and HMAS Sydney (commissioned in 2017, 2018, and 2020, respectively).

The RAN can now deploy different task group operational and command constructs, using the LHDs and/or the DDGs, and even its MEKO 200 Anzac-class guided-missile frigates.

Optimising Outputs

To maximise and optimise the flexibility and outputs of such task groups, the RAN has established two primary at-sea operational command-and-control (C2) staff constructs – the ATG and the Maritime Task Group (Mar TG), the latter established most recently, in December 2018.

“The Mar TG staff was stood up to provide Fleet Command and, in particular, Commodore Flotillas [COMFLOT] as the maritime component commander [MCC] with another arm in the staff, so they could act as task group command at sea and also provide their primary function as a warfare staff that constitutes the sea combat commander [SCC],” Commodore Michael Harris, in post as COMFLOT since early 2020, told Armada International.

Official Portrait - CDRE Harris
Commodore Michael Harris Royal Australian Navy, Commodore Flotillas (COMFLOT). (Royal Australian Navy)

This approach is creating a scalable command construct, one which reflects the scalability of the task groups themselves. The scalable command level is shaped by the mission. “It’s all derived around the mission and the principal warfare commander (PWC) duties,” said Cdre Harris. “The make-up has got two streams: there is the administrative stream for running the task group, that the Commander Task Group (CTG) runs; and there is the warfighting stream that the Composite Warfare Commander (CWC) runs.”

In 2019 and 2020, the RAN deployed different task group constructs on different operations and exercises. The deployments demonstrated how the new C2 structure is increasing command options and flexibility.

In late 2019, the Mar TG embarked in HMAS Hobart to deploy in a CTG role, as the DDG led a three-ship task group on a three-month operational deployment to Northeast Asia.

In early 2020, for the Ocean Shield / Ocean Horizon combined synthetic/at-sea exercise, COMFLOT and his staff embarked in Canberra as CTG/CWC, with the Mar TG staff fulfilling the SCC role and supporting Hobart’s commanding officer (CO) in the PWC role of the integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) command platform. “That allowed me as the CTG/CWC, Mar TG as the SCC, and Hobart as the IAMD commander to be certified as warfare staff for what was going to be a five-ship task group deployment to Hawaii for RIMPAC,” said Cdre Harris.

The annual, US Navy (USN)-led RIMPAC exercise took place in August 2020. Although it was delayed (by two months, from June) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the RAN’s deployment continued. Its RIMPAC task group included: HMAS Canberra (with COMFLOT embarked as CTG/CWC); HMAS Hobart, with the Mar TG’s SCC staff embarked alongside the IAMD staff; the Anzac frigates HMAS Arunta and Stuart; and the support ship HMAS Sirius.

The task group sailed on an extended deployment, calling first in Darwin, Australia before sailing through Southeast Asia to Guam, and then on to Hawaii.

HMAS Canberra left the group in Guam to return to Australia for scheduled maintenance. Cdre Harris said this necessitated a shift in the command staff and task group constructs, but noted that the shift demonstrated these constructs’ inherent flexibility. The SCC staff switched to HMAS Canberra to return to Australia. COMFLOT and the CTG/CWC staff embarked in HMAS Hobart, with the DDG continuing in the IAMD role. The SCC role was handed over to HMAS Arunta’s commanding officer. HMAS Hobart led the task group on to RIMPAC.

HMAS Australian navy
The RAN’s Anzac frigates HMA Ships Stuart and Arunta (both foreground) conduct a formation group sail with USN and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ships following the 2020 RIMPAC exercise. During RIMPAC and the wider regional deployment, the RAN demonstrated the flexibility in its emerging task group and operational command constructs. (US Navy)

Deployed to Fight

The command staff construct used for the 2020 deployment was a significant change from 2019, said Cdre Harris. “It was the first time the SCC – that comes from the Mar TG organisation – had deployed as the SCC under COMFLOT as the CTG/CWC,” he explained. “So, we effectively deployed, in that task group, in the way we would fight.” For deployments in 2019 (including the Australia-US Talisman Sabre exercise), the CTG / CWC staff had deployed ashore, rather than at sea, conducting command from the Deployable Joint Force Headquarters (DJFHQ) in Brisbane.

“The other change that occurred in line with that deployment is that we now see the command staff [and] the task groups as very much scalable,” Cdre Harris added.

In late 2020, HMAS Arunta and Anzac sister frigate HMAS Ballarat both conducted single-ship deployments (HMAS Arunta to support international sanction enforcement operations against North Korea, and HMAS Ballarat to the Indian Ocean to participate in the multinational, Indian Navy-led exercise Malabar), where they operated in the CTG role, although with no additional CTG staff embarked. “So, what we see very much is that the administrative functions of the task group are very scalable, from the ‘one-star’ [COMFLOT] going to sea all the way down to a ship’s commanding officer; alternatively, I can provide command elements from the ATG or Mar TG as the task group staff,” said Cdre Harris.

In 2021, deployments will follow a similar construct, he continued. “When a task deployment is a single- or potentially two-ship deployment and is non-complex in nature, the senior CO of the task group ships deploying can act as the CTG or task unit commander. When the deployment becomes more complex, that’s when the Mar TG organisation can deploy as a task group staff, or I have the ability to do that with an element of the COMAUSATG [Commander Australian ATG] staff.” For a large, complex task group – such as assembled for the 2020 RIMPAC deployment – COMFLOT would deploy as CTG/CWC.

The deployment and exercise focus for 2021 began in February with the Ocean Shield synthetic exercise, which then rolled into Ocean Horizon in February-March and a large fleet battle staff command post exercise involving the entire staff from COMFLOT down. However, the principal focus is Talisman Sabre, taking place off Queensland in the year’s third quarter. Here, COMFLOT and his staff will operate ashore at the DJFHQ as the MCC, and the Mar TG will deploy at sea as the SCC.

“What you can see – from the way the deployments of task group command happened in 2020, and the way it is going to occur in 2021 in the lead-up to Talisman Sabre – is that we’re really getting after the COMFLOT branch motto, which is ‘Command the Fight’,” said Cdre Harris. Integral to this ethos is continuing focus in the staff structure, from COMFLOT down, on warfare as the primary function, he added. “[This] is what we’re developing within the Mar TG organisation.”

Commodore Michael Harris (left), the RAN’s Commodore Flotillas (COMFLOT), is pictured in 2020 at the handover ceremony for command of the navy’s Maritime Task Group (COMMarTG), at Fleet Headquarters, Sydney. Established in December 2018, the Mar TG is a central component of the RAN’s emerging at-sea operational command-and-control (C2) staff construct. (Royal Australian Navy)

Command Contributions

When the Mar TG was established in 2018, RAN task group presence was based mostly around the LHDs as the force structure and the ATG as the command structure. Now, with the DDGs arriving in the force structure and with the command structure evolving, the RAN can use the DDGs and the Anzacs as platforms to support the Mar TG and other components of the at-sea operational staff. This underlines the scalability of the deployed staff and the flexibility of the administrative and warfighting command streams, relative to the deployed force structure and the mission in hand.

In terms of platforms, for a non-complex mission conducted by a single ship, the ship CO assumes the CTG/CWC role, with the ship’s own warfare staff providing the PWC function. For a more complex mission requiring two or more ships, the Mar TG staff can act as the CTG/CWC, with various ship principal warfare officers (PWOs) across the TG delivering the various warfare functions.

For a four or more ship task group, one possibly containing multiple task units, COMFLOT potentially would deploy as CTG/CWC, with a captain-led Mar TG staff undertaking the SCC role, and with the DDG’s CO delivering the PWC function (for example, for IAMD). Other command functions could be shared around the task group, the commodore explained. If the Mar TG assumed the CTG/CWC role in a three-ship task group, for example, the ship COs would provide the various PWC functions, including the SCC role. “It is really scalable in the way we conduct our task group deployments,” said Cdre Harris.

The primary aim in this force structure and command structure evolution is to deliver maximum operational flexibility. The benefit of that flexibility, Cdre Harris explained, is that “it allows us to put ships and staff against the mission. We have a process to ensure that a task group, whether it consists of one ship or six ships, is staffed and certified to conduct that mission.”

“The first step is mission analysis,” he said. “That then drives what the task group should look like: what assets it will be made up of, and what capabilities it needs from ship and staff perspectives.”

With the HMAS Canberra-/Hobart-led deployment in 2020, “We were able to show our flexibility and importantly our agility,” said Cdre Harris. Due to COVID delaying RIMPAC and HMAS Canberra needing to return home for planned maintenance, “the mission changed, where we needed a different focus in RIMPAC to what we had originally [planned]. That was when we were able to remove the SCC staff from the DDG in Guam … and a scaled-down version of the staff that I had as my CTG staff in Canberra was able to embark in HMAS Hobart as the CTG staff, augmented by other staff distributed throughout the task group.” The staffs remaining on the deployment retained the ability to reach back to the staff returning home with HMAS Canberra.

HMAS Canberra sails with the USN’s Flight IIA DDG 51 guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell (centre) and the Whidbey Island-class landing ship dock (LSD) amphibious ship USS Ashland during the Australia-US Talisman Sabre exercise in 2019, off the Queensland coast. (US Navy)

Sizeable TG Staff

The RIMPAC deployment, including the extended transit when HMAS Canberra sailed with the group, was the first time for a while the RAN had deployed a group of such size; moreover, the RAN’s entire warfighting staff from COMFLOT down was deployed at sea at the same time. Cdre Harris pointed to one particular element: “Because it was the first time the SCC had to work for COMFLOT as the CWC, I was able to drive the Mar TG staff to conduct their role as SCC.” “It wasn’t only the SCC,” he continued: “because of the size of the staff I had and the focus I put on the transit, I was able to drive the warfare organisation of the task group, which I don’t think is something we’d done for a long time because we hadn’t operated at that size of task group staff.”

Taking this forward into Talisman Sabre, where the RAN will again be integrating with the USN, it will be looking to demonstrate the emerging at-sea command construct and capability once more. “My aim will be ‘We’ve done it once, but we need to show that it’s repeatable’ and that, as a learning organisation, we learn from each deployment to make the next one better,” said Cdre Harris.

Should the opportunity arise for the Mar TG to operate in the SCC role embarked in a USN ship, for example, Cdre Harris noted that the Mar TG is designed to do just this. “It’s important to remember that the Mar TG role of SCC has been designed around a construct that is similar to, if not the same as, the staff that provides that function in the USN. The procedures we use are the same.”

“Before the Mar TG was stood up, from the fleet battle staff … and from the navy writ large [we had] been able to form staff to provide the SCC function because it’s a role we’ve been doing for a long time as it’s part of our warfare organisation,” the commodore continued. “The beauty now is that the personnel that are a part of the Mar TG that provide that function have done it before …. So, invariably, they can embark in the USN warfare organisation and hit the ground running as SCC, because it aligns with the USN’s sea combat command staff.”

“The complication we have this year with Talisman Sabre, like with RIMPAC last year, is that we’re operating in a COVID environment,” said Cdre Harris. “That drives us down the path that, invariably, there are no face-to-face meetings or briefings, pre-exercise: the ships meet at sea, and we then go and conduct the activity.” Consequently, he explained, “It’s kind of ‘We turn up, ready to go’, understanding all of our procedures and tactics.”

The RIMPAC deployment, said Cdre Harris, “proved to my staff, and to many senior staff, the flexibility and agility of the C2 construct we’ve developed.” “From [COMFLOT] down, the ability to provide flexible staff constructs that are agile depending on what the mission is, [and] a task group design that can change as we progress towards achieving the mission, has been a real step forward.”

by Dr Lee Willett