The biggest New Zealand military exercise ever conducted in the South West Pacific, has showcased the New Zealand Defence Force's ability to conduct amphibious operations in a tropical environment, while building on its humanitarian role in the region.
Exercise Tropic Major, which concluded on May 9, involved more than 500 personnel in a Joint Task Force of Navy, Army and Air Force elements operating from HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington off Epi Island, in Vanuatu.
Running concurrently with the exercise, medical education specialists travelled to 10 remote villages and an Army dental team handled 60 patients a day at a medical centre at Lamen Bay.
The fictitious scenario involved a breakdown of law and order on the island, prompting the Vanuatu Government to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for its citizens. A New Zealand Joint Task Force, embarked on HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington, goes to the island to help restore order.
The exercise required battlefield support from two Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopters, Army reconnaissance operations and specialist engineering boat teams, Navy divers to conduct underwater clearance and a platoon of infantry to support Vanuatu police in the apprehension of an armed criminal group.
In the hours of darkness, Navy divers cleared mines set to blow by remote control. An amphibious team conducted a beach assault, securing the bay to enable the transport of vehicles, a platoon of infantry and Vanuatu Police officers ashore in a landing craft from HMNZS Canterbury. Partnered with infantry, the police progressed to Lamen Bay to disarm and arrest the armed criminal group.
However, the criminals had other ideas, making a stand at the airfield and firing at the infantry. The battle that ensued, watched over by the NZDF's exercise controller, was also watched in fascination by hundreds of local people, some of whom had travelled from other villages.
It was "mission success" for Royal New Zealand Navy Captain Garin Golding, the Commander of the Joint Task Force.
"This was a joint inter-agency mission, involving Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Police, and NZDF being tested over a range of contingency activities.”
The earlier diversion of HMNZS Canterbury to Espírito Santo Island, to deliver supplies for those affected by the Ambae Island volcano eruption, demonstrated the versatility and agility of the NZDF, Captain Golding said.
Exercise controller Lieutenant Colonel Martin Dransfield, who helped design the scenario, said the assault day was an intense, concentrated operation.
"It's designed to be challenging. We're doing things we don't get to do in New Zealand,” Lieutenant Colonel Dransfield said.
“We're working with local populations, in the tropics. It's totally a joint exercise, with all three services working together, working with the Vanuatu Police Force.
“It brings us to our aspiration of an integrated Defence Force, working with our Pacific neighbours, ensuring they know we are here to support them."
In thanks to NZDF for the humanitarian work and the goodwill earned over the 10 days of the exercise, the island's leaders held a farewell ceremony for the personnel in the Lamen Bay market square.
Commodore David Proctor, the Deputy Commander Joint Forces New Zealand, said this was the largest exercise where New Zealand had independently deployed as a joint task force.
"We are always training to do better, to respond to events in the Pacific. It's a great opportunity to test our training in a different environment, to work alongside our partners and friends," Commodore Proctor said.
New Zealand High Commissioner to Vanuatu Jonathan Schwass said there was a special relationship between New Zealand and Epi Island, because HMNZS Canterbury had been to the island in 2015 after Cyclone Pam.
It was important for New Zealand to have the skills to respond to requests for help, Mr Schwass said.
"If New Zealand is to respond well, we need a Defence Force that knows how to operate in these environments. I salute their skills, their dedication and their ability to work alongside people of different cultures."