Sailing through Sydney Harbour, the first sign things were amiss was the dull thump of helicopter blades, barely audible over the water rushing past the bow of the ferry.
Seconds later, 2nd Commando Regiment soldiers disembarked from rigid-hulled inflatable boats (RHIB) and climbed over the side rails, while their comrades fast roped on to the deck from a hovering Black Hawk, supported by snipers in another Black Hawk providing aerial fire support.
They stormed through the ferry and subdued all the threats they met. Within minutes they had the ferry under control, the threats neutralised and the hostages saved.
The scenario was part of Exercise MARS Rotor Anchor Toothfish (RAT), a key exercise for the Sydney-based Tactical Assault Group – East (TAG-E) – the ADF’s “in extremis” counterterrorism force drawn from 2nd Commando Regiment .
Along with the maritime counterterrorism exercise on Sydney Harbour, MARS RAT also included a ship-at-anchor recovery of a large merchant vessel off Port Kembla, New South Wales, and a coordinated split assault on two linked strongholds: a high-rise in Melbourne’s CBD and shipping facility in Hobart.
Lead-up component and refresher training meant the commandos were “fully versed” in the activity, according to Corporal B, who said increased access to training resources was great for the team.
“We moved TAG-E down to Melbourne for the high-rise scenario, with some of the team driving and others flying,” he said.
“From there, we assaulted the building from both ends, utilising Black Hawks to get us on top, while other callsigns moved up through the building’s stairwells.
“This sort of training only happens once or twice a year, usually during these big exercises, but having real infrastructure to train on – like a high-rise building in the middle of Melbourne’s CBD – is a real benefit.”
The regiment's HR/CT (hostage recovery/counterterrorism) company that makes up TAG-E includes a RHIB boat team, commando assaulters, commando snipers, a dedicated medical team, and is supplemented by Navy clearance divers.
This mix of skills gives ground commanders many approach options, with Captain N saying the addition of Navy clearance divers added flexibility.
“The exercise is really about consolidating our key domestic counterterrorism skills,” Captain N said.
“Part of that is the maritime counterterrorism piece, where we have a remit out to 200 nautical miles/ We covered off on ship-alongside and ship-underway assaults, including sub-surface approaches with our divers.
“We were also working on force projection, using helicopters to launch us into top-down assaults to achieve vertical envelopment and using Royal Australian Air Force assets to deploy interstate.
“2nd Commando Regiment companies rotate onto HR/CT duties on TAG-E every few years at the moment, so it’s a good opportunity for us to consolidate our core skills.
While MARS RAT gave the company an opportunity to hone its maritime counterterrorism and aerial insertion skills, it’s not the culmination of their training program.
Because of their unique mandate, it has to be prepared for any eventuality.
“TAG is basically the Australian government’s fix for any situation that is beyond the capability or capacity of the state police,” Private R said.
“I can put my hand on my heart and say the guys I work with are the best. You want to come to work every day and you want to push to achieve your goals because you’re with like-minded people.”