Ex HAMEL 18 Writing Competition Runner-Up: Transitional Leadership - Lessons Learned from Ex HAMEL 18By Chris Harder August 29, 2018
“There is no security on this earth, there is only opportunity” - D. MacArthur
Ex HAMEL 2018 provided ideal conditions to shape junior non-commissioned officers (JNCO) into more demanding command roles, revealing opportunities to lead and shoulder increased responsibility. This piece details from my own experiences in the field how the Australian Army has extremely capable JNCO’s who, when thrust into higher command, have the ability to not only complete the mission but thrive in the circumstances. During the events of HAMEL, I was given the opportunity to command and lead in a capacity that is highly irregular for a JNCO. Due to unfortunate circumstances, my platoon staff found themselves unavailable to deploy for a period of time and subsequently I found myself, as a corporal (CPL), given full tactical command of 4 Platoon, Bravo Company, 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR). I will describe a few key events that taught me several valuable lessons; how being adaptive to your environment is paramount to success, that leadership requires constant self-reflection, and that decisive action ultimately proves pivotal in achieving the commander’s intent.
Before providing specifics of success and failures, I’ll offer some insight into the shaping of my platoon. 4 Platoon is a mechanised infantry platoon operating from M113AS4s. At the beginning of HAMEL, due to the platoon sergeant’s (PL SGT) absence, a senior private stepped up to fill the void. Two of the platoon’s section commanders were lance corporals and the role of section second in command (2IC) fell to three unsuspecting privates. As Bravo Company is spearheading 6 RAR’s transition to mechanised infantry and with little corporate memory residual within the unit, we deployed into the field for only the second time using the M113AS4 platform. My four crew commanders had only recently conducted their qualifying courses and none had been in the Battalion longer than 12 months. To summarise, 4 Platoon (I21) was transitionally led at all levels.
To say I wasn’t nervous in the days leading up to the exercise would be a lie. I had the challenge of commanding more troops than I had ever previously done, on a vehicle platform I had little exposure on, with a young core of men who evidently were expecting a bumpy ride. The one saving grace was my platoon commander. Lieutenant (LT) King invested in my development and gave me the chance to understudy him as the PL SGT in lead up training. With some previous experience, I observed and extracted all I could as he manoeuvred the vehicles and troops in a wide variety of scenarios. I watched the idiosyncrasies of each crew commander, the section’s strengths and weaknesses, and juggled personnel accordingly. It was time. Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) beckoned and I21 was as ready as it ever would be.
Monday 18th June we deployed into SWBTA. Within minutes of arrival, I received news I21 was to move out before sunrise the next morning. Under torchlight I received battle group orders. I had to disseminate what I could from the battle group (BG Warhorse) commanding officer (CO) and develop my plan. I was to liaise with an American light infantry company commander and provide him with security for a 15km move east to the first battle group objective. Early into the move we were engaged by enemy reconnaissance forces. Instinctively, with a series of manoeuvres, all of my armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were in line and engaging, bounding forward to close with the enemy. The enemy had sighted a series of key delay lines trying to slow our penetration into the area of operations (AO). As timings dictated action, I ordered my crew commanders to no longer halt and manoeuvre but to maintain contact and pursue. This tactic would deny the enemy time to move into and sight their subsequent positions, winning us the initiative back. A cat and mouse chase ensued and the enemy were forced to conduct a full withdrawal. The task was complete. The Americans secured their objective which was a landing zone (LZ), neighbouring BG Ram began their ‘sea to shore’ operations, and we pushed off north and south to provide a screen. This was my tactical decision. For the next 12 hours our screen provided security and disrupted any and all enemy reconnaissance. The following morning with a barrage of enemy artillery and an armoured assault, the American force occupying the LZ was rendered combat ineffective. I was isolated forward of all friendly forces and with the main body 48 hours behind I had no option but to adopt irregular tactics.
For the next two days, implementing a series of Fabian tactics and asymmetrical warfare, I exploited our strengths of being highly manoeuvrable, with tracked vehicles and without restrictive boundaries. I seized every opportunity presented to us. One key engagement that showcased this occurred whilst conducting an Observation Post task. We observed six BRDMs halted on a major track. Using two of my APCs and one anti-armour section, I chose to forgo our commonly used 3:1 assault ratio and planned a surprise quick attack with vehicles in support by fire. It was highly successful. All enemy vehicles and personnel were destroyed with no friendly casualties. Later in the exercise, it was passed on to me that due to this and other minor engagements, the enemy believed that on the opening days of HAMEL they faced what was assessed as a mechanised company, not a single platoon and henceforth avoided unnecessary action in that AO. We had adapted as a fighting force, used hit and run tactics, acclimatised to our environment and it paid dividends. Our irregular war was successful.
It had not been completely smooth up to this point. I found that the most friction I encountered came not externally, but internally from subordinate commanders. Whether it was having a first year corporal commanding a platoon, being so isolated from the main body or just a sheer lack of confidence in the plan, there were some who differed in opinion and made it known actively. This was a new challenge to me, to find a way to have individuals with influence buy in to my command decisions. After all, they were my peers and with no platoon sergeant to enforce discipline, that burden fell to me. I decided to have a closed-door meeting with the command team, to give those in doubt a forum to openly express any doubt towards my decision making and leadership style with no repercussions. My foundation going into HAMEL was to foster a cohesive team through mutual trust, be clear of my intent, to have a shared understanding, and that I would accept all responsibility. I took on all that was communicated to me and rather than give rebuttals to their offered improvements, I attempted to understand their point of view and put it into action. From this point forward, there was a marked improvement in the morale of the commanders and all in 4 Platoon benefited from this. This would ultimately prove more vital than any skirmish we would win.
As HAMEL’s battlefield evolved so too did I21’s role within it. We were integrated back into a combat team which would require us to be far less independent but our role would be no less critical. Rapidly combat-teamed into a tank squadron we had a new pivotal role to play. They had attempted to cross a major ford but before doing so encountered heavy resistance on the opposite bank. The enemy had dug-in multiple T72s and other armoured vehicles, using this key choke point as their main effort to stifle our ability to cross and continue our advance to the Raspberry Creek township. A long stalemate occurred. Positioned at key points concealed on the ford, I began to orchestrate a plan to assist in clearing the enemy off their positions. I took decisive action and being the only qualified person in the combat team to do so, I deployed and piloted my Black Hornet (UAS) to begin a thermal scan of key locations. Unbeknownst to the enemy, it wasn’t long before I had 10-figure grids to more than six dug in vehicles and was reporting directly to the combat team officer commanding (OC). Coupled with another infantry callsign conducting similar reconnaissance from another position, we coordinated a full artillery fire mission with precision-guided ammunition and successfully cleared the enemy with our only casualty a single M113 track damaged in a mine strike. To think that a single drone weighing 6 grams and smaller than 10cm was able to provide the ability to destroy multiple armoured fighting vehicles! I would pilot the Black Hornet countless times during the final week of HAMEL to provide incredible reconnaissance and intelligence otherwise not made possible. But it was the decision to take decisive action without prompting that ultimately won the day.
The trust shown to myself and other JNCO’s throughout HAMEL to step up and shoulder more responsibility was a colossal success. When given opportunity, JNCO’s are highly proficient at understanding their commander’s intent and achieving mission success. What began as a series of unfortunate events placing me in command, led to the most critical and important lessons I have learned thus far in the Army. I was required to overcome internal conflict, an enemy that overmatched our combat power, and had to position myself to play an active role at all times. I walked a fine line of corporal and platoon commander. With an absence of direct supervision, I adapted and made the best of every situation. I took decisive action and always maintained the initiative. Transitional Leadership offered me, and the other junior leaders in my platoon, a welcome opportunity that will have an enduring influence on my career.
 - On exercise, 'enemy' vehicles are played by Opposing Force vehicles decorated with Red Triangles. Various vehicle types represent specific enemy vehicles, in this case enemy reconnaissance vehicles known as BRDMs.