R.T. Menhinick Commodore, RAN
Extracted from: The Royal Australian Navy Leadership Ethic, 2010
In 2001 HMAS Warramunga was on a south-east Asian deployment, her first since commissioning. Leaving Vietnam and en route to Singapore for Exercise Bersama Lima, the ship was diverted to Ashmore Reef off Northern Australia in response to events involving MV Tampa off Christmas Island.
Whilst the Tampa incident (see glossary) unfolded, Warramunga was directed to board SIEVs, turn them around and set them on a return course to Indonesia. Preparatory to this mission, the ship made a four hour logistics visit to Singapore, arriving off Ashmore Reef a few days later.
Focussing on the mission at hand, the ship worked through a range of “what-if” scenarios and Rules of Engagement issues. Throughout this planning, the Command was very mindful that Warramunga had no helicopter embarked and that the ship had not received boarding training as part of the basic mission readiness evaluation in June/July.
Nevertheless, the ship focused on the task at hand. Two boarding party trainers were embarked from Sea Training Group, and an effective operational plan was established.
Upon intercepting SIEV 1, Warramunga realised the waters of the task were not merely uncharted – they were very confronting. Following three attempts to turn SIEV 1, the boarding party overcame a riot onboard and eventually managed to transfer people from SIEV 1 to Manoora, where they joined illegal immigrants embarked earlier from MV Tampa en route to Nauru.
Warramunga refected upon the lessons of this experience. Command observed the nature of the SIEV, the vulnerable and upsetting nature of the human cargo, and the inexpert quality of the crew. These factors were weighed and built into operational planning.
On the 9 Sep 01, now with HMAS Newcastle also in area, Warramunga detected SIEV 3 north west of Ashmore. SIEV 3 was tracked covertly as it entered the contiguous zone. (see glossary)
SIEV 3 was carrying over 154 illegal immigrants. She was a sizeable vessel with very high freeboard. Warramunga boarded as the SIEV crossed into the contiguous zone. After boarding, SIEV 3 was steered towards Indonesia before the boarding party disembarked. After release, Warramunga tracked SIEV 3 as she missed Ashmore Island to the west. Warramunga was unsurprised to observe the SIEV appeared lost. This opinion was underlined by the facts that during the boarding no navigation equipment had been observed, and the crew had appeared clearly to be inexperienced and untrained.
As Warramunga observed SIEV 3, lessons learned from SIEV 1 were recalled, and “what if” scenarios were considered. The safety of life at sea (SOLAS) emerged as the most signifcant likely concern - apprehension being amplifed by understanding that SIEV 3 carried no lifejackets, and that at least 50 small children were among those onboard.
Warramunga determined the most prudent course of action was to send a boat alongside SIEV 3 and pass her a rough chart indicating their present position, and showing where Indonesia lay.
Rather than laying a course for Indonesia, SIEV 3 turned towards Ashmore. When again she entered the contiguous zone she was re-boarded. In accord with tasking an attempt was made to turn her north, toward Indonesia.
Predictably, a riot erupted as SIEV 3 turned north. Without the beneft of a security team, and unable to retain control, Warramunga’s boarding party was evacuated for safety reasons.
By this time SIEV 3 was south of Ashmore. Despite warning of the dangers of the reef which lay on the southern shore, the SIEV ignored all advice and turned north. As darkness fell, SIEV 3 was headed for the dangerous southern shore of Ashmore Island.
Despite the very dark night and the ineptitude of her crew, SIEV 3 persisted in disobeying instruction from Warramunga, where the central concern was for SOLAS.
Warramunga’s boats, with the XO embarked, were in the water. The boats were carrying lifejackets and following the SIEV closely. Observations from the boats revealed considerable discord onboard SIEV 3, where the leadership element was seen to be inconsistent and volatile.
Onboard Warramunga, scenarios were played out and courses of action formulated. SOLAS remained the single greatest priority, the erratic uncooperative behaviour of SIEV 3, and the vulnerable condition of those embarked, remained the single largest concern.
Planning potential courses of action, Warramunga was mindful that the Rules of Engagement did not allow for illegal immigrants to be embarked onboard a warship, or for such people to be disembarked by force. Cognisant of her mission to turn the SIEV toward Indonesia – which was the point of embarkation, the ship observed additionally that the high freeboard of SIEV 3 presented a signifcant obstacle to reboarding in anything other than a benign situation. Accounting for the riots which had earlier overwhelmed our boarding parties, this factor weighed heavily against any further attempt to reboard.
Surf hitting the reefs of Ashmore was now clearly visible on Warramunga’s radar and the sound of surf could be heard onboard. Newcastle, north of the Island, launched her helicopter. Warramunga’s boats continued to warn SIEV 3 of imminent danger. Heading north at six knots, SIEV 3 refused to stop.
CO Warramunga made request ashore to take the illegal immigrants onboard, as command, including the XO who remained with the boats, thought this was the only way to avert disaster. The request was forwarded up the chain, but no reply had yet been received.
Sensing imminent tragedy, and without authority, CO Warramunga offered to take the illegal immigrants onboard– if and only if they would stop. The XO, from the boats, passed the message with increasing urgency. SIEV 3 maintained course and speed – principally due to the fact that Warramunga was not trusted. Warramunga prepared for a SOLAS situation.
SIEV 3 fnally agreed to Warramunga’s offer and stopped.
Warramunga informed shore command of events and received direction to take only half of the illegal immigrants onboard.
The CO did not feel however, given the circumstances with which Warramunga was confronted, that conformity with this direction was sensible or ethically prudent. In consequence, all of the illegal immigrants were taken onboard.
By this course of action, an humanitarian catastrophe was avoided by only six cables. Around 100 adults and 50 children were safe. The entire incident had lasted 54 hours.
Refecting upon this incident I recall a ‘whole crew’ effort – the XO and the entire team saved these lives and they should be justly proud of their efforts.
I think the incident illustrates how our sense of duty, our readiness to accomplish missions and follow directions and our conscience are in a complex web. We need the courage to make decisions which will likely have very signifcant consequences. In positions of leadership, we must face the fact that there are no ‘staff answers’. The only certain thing is the importance of acting with integrity and in good conscience. I think our nation, our people, and our senior leaders expect this.