Marines and Sailors of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin (MRF-D) joined members of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Australian Defence Force (ADF) for Exercise Alon, part of Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2023. Alon, a Filipino word which translates to waves in English, refers amphibious nature of the exercise which included ship-to-shore movements conducted by the combined force.
“Exercise Alon has been two years in the making – what started off as just a concept is now coming to fruition,” said the Commander of the Amphibious Task Force, Royal Australian Navy CAPT Phillipa Hay. “It's a great pleasure to be operating with the Filipinos and particularly to be able to exercise and bring together an integrated force in Filipino waters.”
The combined force sailed from Darwin, Australia to the Philippines on HMAS Canberra, while integrating tactics, techniques, and procedures in preparation for a series of amphibious assaults. MRF-D complemented the capabilities of the ADF and AFP by embarking four MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft and a contingent of ground combat forces on the ship in support of the ship-to-shore movements of personnel and equipment from the three nations.
“It’s quite significant, having the MV-22s on board, as it is the second time they have been on board, the first time being as part of RIMPAC last year,” said the commanding officer of HMAS Canberra, CAPT Brendan O’Hara. “It shows the real interoperability between the U.S. and the Australian Navy, but also demonstrates the flexibility of our amphibious capabilities in order to support other nation’s aircraft, and as we are seeing in Exercise Alon, other nation’s personnel as well.”
What began as a series of deck landing qualifications more than two years ago, has now evolved into the full embarkation of four aircraft and necessary maintenance personnel on HMAS Canberra.
“We came to Exercise Alon with a more robust footprint, applying lessons learned on what it takes to sustain a detachment of Ospreys aboard HMAS Canberra and ensuring all necessary logistics requirements were met,” said Lt. Col. Joe Whitefield, commanding officer of VMM-363 (REIN), MRF-D. “Having our aircraft on board increases flexibility in ship-to-objective maneuver and adds to the capability of the combined force.”
With the exercise beginning in Darwin only a week prior to embarkation on HMAS Canberra, the combined force worked quickly to integrate tactics, enabling seamless coordination throughout the exercise. The Marines (U.S. and Filipino) and Soldiers conducted urban combat, communications, and medical training events and daily wet and dry embarkation rehearsals, referred to as WADERs, to increase speed and efficiency of boarding air and surface connectors such as the MV-22B Osprey and the LHD Landing Craft used for maneuvering to objectives.
COL Douglas Pashley, Commander of the Landing Force, spoke to the significance and complexity of integrating the combined force to accomplish the objective, "The job of an amphibious force can range from base-level engagement and partnering with friends and Allies to humanitarian assistance, to disaster relief in response to a natural disaster, to something more serious, such as a security and stability operation or evacuation, up to high-end warfighting."
The contingent of ground-combat Marines and Soldiers used inflatable walls to practice close quarters combat on the ship’s heavy vehicle deck, moving through a series of obstacles with airsoft weapons that added realism to the simulated urban combat.
“We've got to prepare and train for a lot of different things, and we have a lot of people coming from different backgrounds, so it's a real challenge to bring that team together in short order to make sure they can operate effectively,” said Pashley.
Training complete, the landing force set their focus on the initial assault on Palawan. Waves of the combined force assembled in the ship’s light vehicle deck and conducted final gear inspections before making their way to the flight deck for the over-the-horizon aerial assault on MV-22B Ospreys.
Inspired by the moment, Sgt. Marcos Romeroflores, a squad leader with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (REIN), MRF-D, recounted his feelings while standing on the flight deck,
“It's not every day that you realize the importance of your profession; boarding an Osprey on an Australian ship to conduct an amphibious assault with Australians and Filipinos is awe inspiring.”
Once ashore, the combined force established security around an airfield and set conditions for a subsequent movement through the town of Rizal to a fortified position occupied by a contingent of Marines from the Philippine Marine Corps who were simulating the enemy force.
“It was a pleasure to serve with our counterparts in the ADF and Philippine Marine Corps,” said Romeroflores. “While similar in many ways, they [AFP, ADF] have their own unique way of tackling problems which I have added to my toolbox as a tactical leader. Both militaries are extremely professional in they way they conduct business, and I could not be prouder to serve alongside them."
After seizing the fortified position, the combined force participated in a “Boodle Fight” hosted by the Philippine Marine Corps contingent; an AFP tradition in which warfighters gather around a banquet table to feast in celebration of recent victories.
CPL Mary Joy Hayahay PN(M) said “Boodle Fight is a form of camaraderie – every time we celebrate something we gather to build on our strong relationship.”
Reconstituting on HMAS Canberra, the force began preparations for the second assault while sailing North to the Zambales area. The second assault saw an increase in size and scope, with the addition of three LHD Landing Craft delivering forces and equipment ashore, including an Australian M1A1 Abrams main battle tank. In addition to delivering forces ashore from HMAS Canberra via MV-22B Osprey and LLC, the Philippine Navy delivered their Marines using the Tarlac-class landing platform dock BRP Davao Del Sur and two Assault Amphibian Vehicles. The assault was supported by a free-fall landing, led by the Philippine Marine Corps, and two RAAF F-35A Lightning II aircraft that provided close air support.
“The highlight for me is the opportunity to deepen relationships strengthen partnerships with our really important friends and Allies in the region,” said Pashley. “We can do really unique and meaningful international engagement activities because about 70 percent of the stuff we do for a humanitarian assistance or disaster relief mission, which is realistic, contemporary, and meaningful in the wake of a natural disaster, can also be applied to more challenging situations like security and stability operations.”
As a subset to the exercise, MRF-D sent a headquarters element to the Philippine province of Cebu, to establish communications and conduct scenario-based training evolutions that challenged the staff in applying command and control for a combined force operating across vast distances.
“The mobility of the MRF-D team is vital to providing our Allies and partners with the support necessary to respond to crisis and contingency in the region as a combined force,” said the MRF-D operations officer, Lt. Col. Philip Flambert. “Our participation in exercises such as Alon, builds repetition in our ability to exercise mobility. We are continuing to learn new ways to integrate with our friends in the region and are gaining efficiencies in doing so.”