Masterton officer commands international fleets

Captain Blair Gerritsen.

When he’s not a career naval officer, Captain Blair Gerritsen would describe himself as an enthusiastic mid-handicap golfer and part-time farmer in Masterton.

However, this month duty calls as he takes command of a naval Task Group larger than the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) fleet.

Captain Gerritsen is the first New Zealander to be assigned the role of Sea Combat Commander (SCC) for one of the two Strike Groups that constitute the two main forces in the world’s largest international maritime exercise, Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC), taking place in Hawaii and southern California during July and August.

Using 10 combat ships from seven different countries – including the New Zealand frigate HMNZS Te Mana – Captain Gerritsen has to ensure the defence of the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), a force centred around five large amphibious ships.

He will command the at-sea defence of the ESG from a range of air, surface and sub-surface threats, while the ESG moves between operating areas and during the landing and withdrawal of its amphibious forces.

“What you have to appreciate about RIMPAC is its scale - it’s just unparalleled,” Captain Gerritsen said. “These are about as big a multi-national forces as one could conceive of. There are huge benefits for us, in terms of building skills and experience involved in commanding forces of this sort. For a defence force of our size, we never get the opportunity to command this many ships in our own waters.”

He is used to the expression “it’s a small world” when it comes to the RNZN, especially when he considers he helped commission Te Mana, then later commanded her, and now his former executive officer, Commander Lisa Hunn, is in command of Te Mana at RIMPAC and will be under his direction.

Captain Gerritsen was tapped for the SCC role in October last year, and has been to RIMPAC before, as Maritime Operation Centre Director in 2014.

The key role came out of the blue, he said.

“I thought my sea-going days were behind me, so it’s a fantastic opportunity to re-engage.”

Captain Gerritsen has commanded two RNZN ships, has been the Chief of Operations at Joint Headquarters and is currently a director at Defence Headquarters in charge of Future Force Development.

Some of the ships under Captain Gerritsen’s command. In front is HMAS Adelaide, the lead ship. HMNZS Te Mana is at top right. (Photo: Royal Australian Navy).

At RIMPAC he will operate from HMAS Adelaide, the largest ship in the Royal Australian Navy.

“Even within my staff of 30 there will be a wide mix of countries represented. It’s a unique opportunity to bring these people together, learning off each other, building trust, and developing them into an effective team,” he said.

“You can’t replicate this anywhere else. It’s quite an event and it takes a long time to plan. As soon as they finish, they starting planning the next one in two years’ time.”

Many of the other countries at RIMPAC do not often get a chance to work with New Zealand, and apparently the Open Day function in Te Mana, with the Māori Cultural Group, is traditionally considered a RIMPAC highlight.

“During harbour training week, at the start of RIMPAC, it’s a really good opportunity for the ships to mix and mingle,” Captain Gerritsen said. “Each nation hosts a function, there are a series sports events and the US Navy puts on a great day of activities on July 4 with a concert, fireworks etc.”