During the conduct of Exercise Talisman Sabre 17 (Ex TS17) the Composite Force Support Battalion provided petroleum operators (Pet Ops) to the Williamson Airfield Refuelling Point Aviation (RPA). Whilst deployed, the section of operators conducted rotary wing refuelling operations by day and night of Australian, United States (US), New Zealand (NZ) and civilian air assets including; ARH Tiger, UH-60 Blackhawk, MV-22 Osprey, CH-47 Chinook, Navy Bell 429, MRH-90 and a civilian search and rescue.
It was beneficial for members to have the opportunity to integrate with American refuelers from 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment and also to have an insight into the equipment they use on operations world wide. As petroleum operators in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) there are little to no opportunities to deploy within our job role, therefore, the ability to learn from US assets provided on Ex TS17 was invaluable. The opportunity to refuel US and NZ airframes are infrequent and after exercising with coalition partners to refuel them, some key observations were made.
We as qualified petroleum operators must adhere to refuelling standards that are strictly enforced by both civilian and military aviation authorities. The standardisation of petroleum equipment throughout the industry definitely helped as the US and NZ airframes utilise the same connections as ADF assets. This assisted in the quick, safe and efficient refuelling operations conducted during the exercise. Our operators were able to refuel the non-ADF airframes without undergoing an excessive amount of training. It was refreshing for us and provided evidence that with a commander’s risk assessment and well constructed soldiers five from the loadmasters and authorised refuelers, a supervised refuel could be conducted. This sparked the debate whether the ADF currently has too many restrictions for ECN 269 refuelers on airframes? Let us look at the MRH-90 as an example: Army petroleum operators (ECN 269) cannot refuel Royal Australian Navy MRH-90 unless they hold the naval MRH-90 authorisation. Is this evidence that the ADF holds itself back with excessive governance or risk thresholds held at too high a level?
During the exercise there were various issues with accounting processes for the fuel with so many receipts and issues. This highlights the requirement for equipment modernisation within the petroleum trade. The acquisition of gauges and meters would help solve this problem and save money for Defence by reducing the amount of unaccounted stock. The current accounting process, particularly for hot refuels is too inaccurate as it requires conversions of fuel holdings from volume to mass and does not include the burn rate whilst refuelling.
Another recommendation that would enhance ADF capability and environmental safety is to increase the use of dry break fittings in place of quick acting fittings. The use of dry break fittings within an RPA is normally reserved for the nozzle end of a hose to enable the fast disconnection and replacement or reconfiguration of a nozzle for different airframes. As quick acting fittings can not regulate the flow of fuel, changing a damaged or faulty hose currently requires the fuel lines to be decommissioned. This has a negative impact on capability as the RPA is offline until the changeover is complete. Using dry fittings, the US were able to change out hoses quickly and with minimal risk to the environment from spillage, even if they contained fuel. This dry break system could be used throughout the Pet Ops trade, not just for RPAs but for other capabilities as well.
The exercise was a great experience and all members involved enjoyed their time operating alongside coalition nations. Working with the US again in the future is something we look forward to, not just on TS but whenever an opportunity arises. Having the chance to build inter-service relationships and share ideas and equipment configurations is important and something that petroleum operators should be offered more often. It is a great way to generate positive discussion with the platoons and places the trade in the best position to enable change that will benefit Army capability in the future.