As an infantry platoon commander from Charlie Company 8th/9th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (8/9 RAR), on Exercise Hamel 2018, I conducted a mass casualty scenario as a motorised force. On reflection, I have identified four points that may help future commanders and decision makers better understand what works and what doesn’t. A caveat to this vignette is that this experience was only a training scenario. I must emphasise that this wasn’t a real operational incident and as such, this experience provides only consideration points.
Preparing for that 'if all else fails' moment
The critical issue surrounding communication in a motorised infantry platoon is the heavy reliance on utilising Bushmaster protected mobility vehicle (PMV) communication equipment. Without a doubt, the communication equipment in a PMV is substantially better than hand held 152 radios in relation to signal clarity and range. But what happens when all your PMVs have been destroyed? That is the exact scenario that I was in. Although, luckily, the majority of my soldiers were dismounted, the vehicles were still rendered destroyed. This raised the first of many issues surrounding how I dealt with the mass casualty scenario. If you can’t communicate with company headquarters (CHQ) how do they even know you need a medical evacuation? After much consideration the issue was not that the PMVs had all been destroyed, but that clear standard operating procedures (SOPs) for this type of scenario had not been created. In hindsight, every platoon must clearly have, and articulate to their superiors and subordinates, an SOP for that 'if all else fails' moment. I didn’t, and I would recommend others to clearly identify and articulate what would work for you in this situation. One practical solution that we identified is to use pyrotechnics, like star clusters, to signal to all supporting groups that an emergency situation has emerged and assistance is urgently required. This is something that all command teams need to consider.
Communicating quickly to CHQ in relation to casualties
When the mass casualty situation was unfolding I certainly was not aware of a quick and effective way to report the issue to CHQ. I found myself ineffective in how I reported information related to the casualties; there was a time delay between when the casualties were identified and when the radio transmission to notify a medical evacuation requirement was sent. The reason for this delay was the time it took to complete a full nine liner and AT MIST¹ for a medical evacuation, which was exacerbated by the fact that all communications between the Platoon Headquarters (PHQ) and CHQ were lost when the PMVs were destroyed.
After some careful reflection on what I would have done differently I would recommend the following. Prior to step-off I would advise my platoon sergeant (PL SGT) and CHQ of the transmission they could expect from my call sign if casualties were sustained. The transmission would comprise of three initial components that would be sent straight to CHQ once a casualty had been identified: the number of casualties, the category of the casualties and the anticipated extraction point. If nothing else can be communicated after this key transmission then at least CHQ has enough information to commence an extraction, noting battle management system (BMS) sends locations. If I had this clearly articulated procedure I am certain that extraction would have been quicker as I could have released this abbreviated message prior to our communications being lost (this occurred soon after learning of the first group of casualties).
I am sure that some people may squirm at the idea of not sending a nine liner or AT MIST straight away. However, consideration needs to be given to establishing an initial ‘cry for help’ so that if anything happens to the PHQ communications, CHQ and battalion headquarters (BHQ) can at the very least start preparing a battlefield clearance team. In my opinion, the AT MIST and nine liners can always be transmitted, or delivered in person, later – the conditions need to be set to prepare for sending forward battlefield clearance teams to extract the wounded.
Understand and learn BMS
There is no doubt in my mind why motorised combat teams, battle groups, brigades and even higher are committed to the Army becoming a digitised force. It makes sense; the efficiencies in battle tracking, enhanced security and other aspects that make it effective are evident. The procedures that 8/9 RAR have in place in relation to BMS focus on platoon levels fighting the fight, and CHQ command post (CP) groups translating voice communication from PHQ to BMS for BHQ. In theory this means the platoon commander can command the fight while CHQ and BHQ can effectively coordinate the reports, returns, battle tracking and command via BMS. This system is effective, however whilst the platoon commander may not be involved in translating the reporting they need to understand how BMS is utilised and how each level reports; I certainly didn’t.
It seems interesting to me when you think about it. The Army is aiming to be a modern and digitised force, but why are infantry platoon commanders lacking in the knowledge of digitisation equipment and how we utilise it? There is definitely a shortfall in training junior officers on how the digitisation process works. Although there is an element of personal responsibility that could be blamed, something like 'why don’t you educate yourself' (and this is fair), but after completing three years at the Australian Defence Force Academy, up to 18 months at the Royal Military College Duntroon (RMC-D) and then three months at the School of Infantry, why is it that the first time an infantry officer touches a BMS terminal, let alone learns about BMS, is at a battalion? Officers are consistently taught about radio communications so why not digitisation? - both radio and BMS are two key capabilities in any infantry battalion. We are expecting platoon commanders to learn on the fly, and that we will receive the training once we have joined a regiment. But is that the best way to do it? What happens when they reach captain and BMS procedures become even more critical? It seems simple to me; every infantry officer goes through the school but not everyone is going to have the same level of exposure or training outcomes in a battalion. Therefore I think the School of Infantry needs to take the lead in training infantry officers as part of their regimental officer basic course.
Separate command nets
Consistent issues seem to occur when combat teams conduct scenarios utilising the command net: which call sign has the priority on the net and how much information does the officer commanding want. These issues will always vary depending on the situation and individual commander requirements. However I can never understand why there is only one net available that is required to be used by the officers in a combat team to conduct the operation as well as the PL SGT and company sergeant major (CSM) to provide reports and returns. I firmly believe when dealing with a mass casualty situation that our company needs a second channel for administration. This would free up the command net for myself to communicate with the officer commanding and maintain battle momentum whilst enabling the PL SGT to concurrently coordinate with the CSM to ensure the battlefield clearance team are sent forward.
In my opinion it should be a standard operating procedure that all company level operations have two channels, one for commanders and one for senior NCOs. It makes sense and it’s more efficient. It also works in well with digitisation as it means that whilst the command group is communicating, the CSM can receive administrative requirements without impeding the fight at hand (and can translate the PL SGT's transmission onto BMS for the RSM and BHQ). It also creates a clear delineation and gives PL SGTs better situational awareness to be able to advise platoon commanders on administration requirements.
¹ AT MIST
Age of casualty
Time of incident
Mechanism of injury
Injuries / illnesses
Signs & symptoms