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    Staffing partnership: Australian Navy exchange officer serves on Amphibious Squadron 11 staff

    Royal Australian Navy officer serves with U.S. Navy Amphibious Squadron 11

    Photo By Petty Officer 2nd Class Shelby Tucker | CORAL SEA (July 27, 2021) Royal Australian Navy officer Lieutenant Commander Rob...... read more read more

    CORAL SEA

    08.02.2021

    Story by Lt. John Stevens 

    Amphibious Squadron 11

    CORAL SEA (July 31, 2021) – As the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat (FFH 155) steamed alongside USS America (LHA 6) for the first-ever fueling-at-sea between a U.S. amphibious ship and a partner nation vessel on July 27, Lt. Cmdr. Rob Wright, from Boonah, Queensland, stood on America’s weather deck among a crowd of American Sailors.
    Hands in the pockets of his black jacket, with AUSTRALIA embroidered across each shoulder board, Wright watched a historic milestone in U.S.-Australian naval partnership – a partnership he’s helped build throughout his Australian naval career. Now, as the plans officer for the U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Squadron (PHIBRON) 11, forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan, Wright gets a new perspective on this 100-plus-year bilateral relationship.

    I got a phone call from the poster, and now I’m here.

    Wright is part of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Personnel Exchange Program, or PEP, which sends more than 200 Navy personnel across decks to serve with navies from 20 partner nations. But he’s not a liaison officer, or LNO, on temporary duty. He’s fully posted to PHIBRON 11 for two years. While he’s worked with the U.S. many times in his career in joint billets or during joint exercises, he now works entirely for the U.S. Navy on this tour.
    “It’s an interesting career billet and it adds to your employability and promotability on the tour,” said Wright, 36, who hails a small town within earshot of the jet noise from Royal Australian Air Force Base (RAAF) Amberley. He’d expressed interest in the PEP earlier in his career, but it wasn’t until 2019 when his poster – detailer, for us Yankees – called him back. “I got a phone call from the poster going ‘Hey, you previously applied for this job. Do you want to put in an application again?’ So I did, and how I’m here.”
    Wright’s PEP billet is always a one-for-one swap between PHIBRON 11 and the Australian Amphibious Task Group, where Wright’s counterpart, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Russell Mackay, presently serves aboard HMAS Canberra (LHD 02). “He’s the ‘American Rob’ or the ‘Australian me,’” said Wright.
    Reporting to the Navy’s only permanently embarked amphibious staff, aboard America in spring 2020 in an escalating COVID environment, Wright became the staff’s future operations planner for the America Amphibious Ready Group (ARG). He eventually assumed the lead planning role for PHIBRON 11’s involvement in Talisman Sabre (TS) 21.
    TS21 is the ninth iteration of a large-scale bilateral exercise between Australia and the U.S., conducted biennially since 2005. This year’s exercise involved more than 17,000 participants from seven nations, the most countries to ever participate according to Wright, who has more than the average share of experience.
    “Literally every Talisman Sabre since 2007 – well, except 2009 – I’ve had some role in,” said Wright. “My maiden cruise as a Midshipman was on the last Crocodile. Ex-Crocodile was ‘Talisman Sabre’ before Talisman Sabre.”
    Even before there was Talisman Sabre, there was Wright – “doing Talisman Sabre things.”

    I haven’t come up with a better option yet.

    “My dad was a submariner. He was a stoker,” said Wright of his father, John, an engineer aboard Australian Oberon-class submarines, or “O-boats.” The engine-room moniker stuck around from the early coal-fired propulsion days, even though O-boats were diesel-electrics.
    Wright said his dad’s career showed him the Navy was always an option for a stable profession, and when it came time to choose a path, “It seemed like a good idea at the time, and I haven’t come up with a better option yet,” he said, 18 years on.
    In 2003, Wright commissioned into the Australia Defence Force (ADF) Academy in Canberra while concurrently earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of South Wales.
    From there, Wright served across multiple platforms and warfare areas including communications, antisubmarine warfare and amphibious warfare. He’s posted to minehunters, patrol boats, frigates including Ballarat and HMAS Parramatta (FFH 154), and amphibious ships including HMAS Canberra. All three of these ships participated in TS21.
    RAN officers first qualify Officer of the Watch, similar to Officer of the Deck for the U.S., to eventually achieve their Maritime Warfare Officer (MWO) milestone. Australian officers then attend the Principal Warfare Officer (PWO) course, which Wright said is like a combination of the U.S. Navy’s surface department head school and Warfare Tactics Instructor, or WTI, course.
    After PWO, RAN officers typically move on to an Operations Officer milestone job, but in Wright’s case, he instead served on two staffs at sea: the Australian Maritime Task Group embarked aboard HMAS Canberra and HMAS Hobart (DDG 39), and PHIBRON 11 aboard America.
    Ashore, Wright has always had a hand in multinational exercises. He served as a communications officer at the Joint Operational Command (JOC) headquarters at Bungendore, near Canberra, and later wrote doctrine as an amphibious policy officer at the Australian Maritime Warfare Center (AMWC) in Sydney.
    JOC is Australia’s answer to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM). The principal difference is that it encompasses a global theatre for the ADF, where USINDOPACOM’s geographic area of responsibility has two numbered fleets, U.S. 3rd and 7th Fleets, in the eastern and western Pacific respectively.
    At AMWC, Wright’s work directly influenced U.S.-Australian amphibious integration, as the reinvigorated Australian Amphibious Force had achieved initial operating capability, but was still on the path to full operational capability. Wright said his position at PHIBRON 11, which has been active for almost 10 years, was expressly created for this integral purpose.
    “In 2019, the new amphibious capability associated with the Canberra class achieved full operational capability,” he said. “As part of the process to getting there, this billet was established to allow mutual learning.”
    With his background in amphibious warfare planning, doctrine development and joint multinational operations, the PEP posting was a natural progression for Wright.

    The plan was a month in Sasebo, then fly to Thailand. COVID happened.

    When he received a January 2020 posting to Sasebo, where he’d been before and looked forward to living with his partner Kate, Wright could not conceive of how the world was about to change.
    “I’ve been through Sasebo various other times previously,” said Wright, “so I kind of went to Kate, ‘Hey, cool, Japan’s cool, I like Sasebo as a city, it’s a good place, so let’s go there for two years and use it as a base to see the rest of Japan and experience different things.” That was in late 2019, before the pandemic.
    “The plan was about a month in Sasebo to get Kate and me settled, then fly to Thailand to join [USS] America,” said Wright. “COVID happened, so I didn’t fly out of Sasebo. I was in Sasebo for a couple months waiting for America to return and end that patrol, and that’s when I really got involved heavily with the command.”
    With America at the nucleus, the ARG also has one transport dock ship and one dock landing ship, currently USS New Orleans (LPD 18) and USS Germantown (LSD 42), but may also include USS Green Bay (LPD 20) and USS Ashland (LSD 48), depending on which of the four are available for tasking. In a continuously forward-deployed environment with high operational tempo, Wright’s job keeps him constantly thinking two steps ahead as he plans what’s next for the ARG.
    “I look about four-to-eight days ahead of what the ship is doing, and try to work out the detail of what America, New Orleans and Germantown collectively do in support of whatever mission we’ve been assigned,” said Wright.
    Despite the universal struggle to adapt to the COVID normal, Wright found a home on America’s 02 level, where ship and staff officers live and do most of their work, bathed in tactical blue or iridescent white light, blasted with frosty recirculated air. He’s managed to take a challenging job, made more formidable by new phrases like “restriction-of-movement” and “social distancing,” in stride and good humour.

    We’ve managed to convince one of the officers on board that drop bears are, in fact, real.

    “I probably haven’t been outside for the last four weeks. I work inside an office with no windows and go from meeting to meeting to meeting, and then write orders … it’s a glamorous job,” quipped Wright.
    Darting among planning meetings, staff synchs and video-teleconferences behind impersonal gray poly masks, he has still managed to bond with his U.S. counterparts both professionally and socially.
    “I could not be more welcomed professionally, completely as integrated as I can be. I feel like a fully-fledged member of the team.” Wright gave a laugh and added, “People around me are generally more frustrated when they can’t include me on things than I am at not being included.” He shrugged. “That’s just the reality of being on a staff. They have absolutely been professional in including me as much as they can.”
    A self-proclaimed introvert, Wright said his time in service has pried him out of his shell, which is essential if you’re going to sea with several hundred of your closest friends, so to speak.
    “One of the things I’ve learned in the Navy is how to be more outgoing and pick up friendships relatively quickly,” he said. “It’s just one of those skills you learn – get dropped in the room where you don’t know anybody, and by the end of it you’re making jokes with half the room.”
    One that’s definitely caught on among his American peers: drop bears. (Google it.)
    “We’ve managed to convince one of the officers on board that drop bears are, in fact, real … and he’s very concerned by them,” said Wright, who said he used a tongue-in-cheek Australian Geographic article on satellite-tracked drop bear attacks to stoke the fires. “I hand that out to people because it’s a serious article, so they go, ‘Yeah, this must be real.’”
    Behind the introvert with a dry sense of humor, Wright, at his core, is committed to cooperation, partnership, and channeling his 18 years’ experience to help improve joint warfighting at a practical, tactical level.

    It’s about supporting wider bonds among multiple different partners.

    Known on staff as “N5,” his position within the command structure, Wright has the rare opportunity to see bilateral interoperability from the reciprocal point of view, where his job as a U.S. Navy staffer is to integrate with partner nations – including his home country.
    “This posting’s been eye-opening,” he said. “What I found very refreshing is how earnestly people at the tactical level want to, and how increasingly they’re being able to engage with, allies and partners.” Wright said the partnered navies are still refining some wider-scope aspects of collaboration at the fleet, theatre and global levels, which takes time and familiarization – and it’s why Talisman Sabre exists – but individual units and staffs are finding ways to plan, communicate and integrate better as part of their daily battle rhythm.
    “Literally everybody I’ve talked to at my level or immediately above me wants to enable working with allies and partners day-to-day,” said Wright. “They want to be in comms with every allied ship. That is their fervent desire – that is how they see ‘normal.’ Fundamentally, Seventh Fleet wants a normal that looks like they can just pick up the radio and talk with their allies and partners.”
    Wright said exercises like Talisman Sabre are opportunities to learn and train together as capabilities – and adversaries – advance each year. Reflecting on his many Talisman Sabres, he said the most marked change was expansion beyond its original goal of building bilateral U.S.-Australian partnership.
    “I think the biggest change is how much more focused Talisman Sabre is on integrating lots of different allies and partners, not just the traditional Australian-U.S. relationship,” said Wright. “My first Talisman Sabres, it was only America and Australia, whereas now we’ve invited both Japan and the Koreans. This is the first Talisman Sabre the Koreans have been invited to as a participant. It’s about bringing in nations through the commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific, supporting wider bonds among multiple different partners.”
    Wright said the far-reaching tactical advantage of a more complex, diverse Talisman Sabre is truly establishing a networked coalition of like-minded nations who can fight as one.
    “There is a whole heap of really good learning and events going on in Talisman Sabre,” said Wright. “But fundamentally, the best value I see in Talisman Sabre is it serves as a forcing function for Seventh Fleet and the rest of INDOPACOM to try to fight, as a coalition, with allies and partners – that is the fundamental benefit of Talisman Sabre.”

    I joked that I wanted to bum a lift, because Mum’s literally forty-five minutes away.

    If learning to fight alongside partners and allies is the fundamental benefit of Talisman Sabre, a fringe benefit of past iterations has been cultural integration – in other words, an all-expenses-paid trip to Australia for U.S. Sailors and Marines.
    But this year, COVID policy has prevented the Navy from conducting port visits. Because Wright is assigned to a U.S. Navy unit, even he, a native Australian, can’t visit home. So close and yet so far away, he couldn’t help but find the humor in it yet again, as one of USS America’s embarked MV-22B Osprey aircraft touched down at RAAF Amberley, with COVID mitigations in place, as part of the exercise.
    “I joked with everybody on board that I wanted to bum a lift on the MV-22, because Mum’s literally forty-five minutes away from Amberley Airport,” he said.
    Wright’s mother, Penny, and his brother Ian, a RAN veteran himself, both live near Ipswich in Queensland, close to TS21’s exercise battlespace. Wright said his mother understands the limitations from two perspectives, both as a Navy wife herself, and from growing up in Scotland during a tuberculosis epidemic. “She is completely understanding about all the restrictions, because she’s from a generation which has seen … this not be good.”
    Wright shares his U.S. shipmates’ lamentation for only being able to see Australia on an exercise briefing slide or an electronic chart. However, with a little help from a colleague, he was able to share some of Australia with them.
    He’d left some popular Australian confections behind in Sasebo – Arnott’s Mint Slices and Tim Tams – so he did what any proper staff officer would do: he sought the help of his peers.
    “I mentioned this to one of the people on the staff, and he ordered by Amazon a box of various different flavors of Tim Tams, then handed them to me,” said Wright. “So when we arrived off Australia, in one of the meetings with twenty or thirty people I worked with closely, we broke out the Tim Tams and everybody got to enjoy a Tim Tam, despite the fact we didn’t get to go ashore.”
    Aside from seeing family and friends, Wright said he’s missed having a traditional pub lunch with a good beer afterward. “Just the whole experience of a pub lunch is something quintessentially Australian – also British – but not something you get on the American side or the Japanese side.” Short of a full pub lunch, he said he misses Australian meat pies for a quick snack. “Nothing beats a good pie as sort of a quick lunch, and you just can’t get anything similar to that.”

    He will never forget serving not just with the U.S. Navy, but in it.

    Looking across 200 feet of ocean at one of his former ships, standing on the deck of an American ship, Lt Cmdr. Rob Wright nears two decades in uniform almost exclusively dedicated to cultivating relationships with the U.S., building on more than a century of cooperation. More than half that time has been spent landing forces together on south Pacific beaches.
    “Collectively, the Australians and the U.S. have been doing amphibious operations together in this region since 1942, in some shape or form, at different degrees of intensity,” he said. “Part of all that has been exchanges.”
    As he looks across at his past on Ballarat, he also looks to future milestones that could include Staff College and command at sea. But wherever his career goes from here in the Australian Navy, and even if his memories of this tour are sharpest because of COVID, he will certainly never forget serving two years not just with the U.S. Navy, but in it.
    Together, the forward-deployed ships of PHIBRON 11 and elements of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit are operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility to enhance interoperability with allies and partners, and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 08.02.2021
    Date Posted: 08.01.2021 19:45
    Story ID: 402191
    Location: CORAL SEA

    Web Views: 297
    Downloads: 0

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