Lowy Institute's Military Fellow James Brown speaks to Commodore Peter Leavy who was commander of the joint task force established by the ADF to coordinate supporting military forces engaged in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Interview between Commodore Peter Leavy RAN, Commander Joint Task Force 658 and James Brown, Military Fellow, Lowy Institute for International Policy
JAMES BROWN: I’m talking to Commodore Peter Leavy, who was the commander of the Joint Task Force involved in the search for Malaysian airlines flight 370. Commodore Leavy, how did this mission come together, how did the task force stand up?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: The ADF put together a task force a couple of weeks after the aircraft itself went missing. It first went missing, as you know, on the 8th of March. Initially, as with any search and rescue activity, it was headed up by AMSA, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, from the Australian perspective working with the Malaysian authorities. There was a little delay, I guess, before the ADF got involved, as you’d understand. The initial search area was between Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, so it took some time, and some really good work from the technical analysts to work out that the aircraft was perhaps down in the Indian Ocean, and that’s when we got heavily involved.
Personally, I had about 48 hours notice to move across to Perth with a small team, and we established ourselves at HMAS Stirling over there. But we were fitting in our command structure to a wider search and rescue effort that was already in place, and it’s probably worth noting too that the Australian Defence Force was a supporting agency to AMSA in the initial part of the search. We weren’t leading it ourselves, we were providing the assets, but a lot of the legwork on focusing the search areas was actually done by AMSA. That’s where their expertise is, and that’s their remit.
(1.20) JAMES BROWN: So you’re the commander, you’re plugging into a wider civilian maritime search agency effort, what was the scale of the mission from your perspective?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: It was quite large, we had up to about 18 aircraft from 7 different nations, and at various times up to about 15 to 16 ships – a mixture of civilian ships and naval ships from 5 different nations, plus a submarine of course. So the scale there was quite significant. Diverse nations, from China, obviously a very heavy interest with the number of passengers they had on board MH370; Malaysia, heavily involved as well; and obviously Australia, being in our search and rescue zone, we were quite heavily involved.
But the coordination challenges there were, I guess, were tempered by it not being a combat operation, so that made it relatively, or took out one degree of complexity. But just the different language barriers were a bit of a challenge, but we worked through that fairly quickly.
One good thing about navies in particular is, we had as a navy, and I had personally, exercised with every nation that was participating there. So we do tend to understand how each other work, how we operate, and the various strengths that each of those teams bought to the search area. So, the coordination in a sense was a bit of work behind the scenes, but relatively straightforward, and made all the much easier by everyone having that single focus on the mission, which for us was actually finding debris floating on the surface, initially. We had, as you know, Ocean Shield doing the, part way through, start of the underwater search, but that was really only one asset. The focus for us, particularly early on, but the focus throughout, for the majority of our assets, was really on that surface search for debris that was floating which would help the drift modelling back-cast to try and pin point the crash site.
(3.07) JAMES BROWN: So give me a sense of, on a daily basis, how liaison between all these different force element works, how you’re communicating with them, when you’re bringing them all together to disseminate information – how does that work from your perspective?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: Well we had the headquarters set up, my task force headquarters established in Perth. The actual communications link to the ships was being run by, effectively, our maritime component commander, which was our Director-General of Maritime Operations for the Royal Australian Navy, over in Bungendore (Headquarters Joint Operations Command located near Canberra), which was in a joint operations command. The advantage over there was of course, the tasking was coming from AMSA, and ATSB (the Australian Transport Safety Bureau), as I mentioned. And they, being in close proximity, all based around Canberra, had very close links. So, in a sense, the tasking was being almost subcontracted, if you like, from me to the maritime component over there, who had the direct comms links with the ships.
And, importantly, the Chinese ships that were assisting in the search, you know, did a great job. Their coordination, or their communications paths, was back through our rescue coordination centre in Canberra, through to their sister organisation in China, RCC China, and out to the Chinese ships. So each of the nations had a slightly different comms path that was followed, but the coordination, effectively, the majority of the coordination was done by my team over in Perth, and then executed by our maritime component element that was over in Canberra.
(4.36) JAMES BROWN: And you obviously had a fair bit of tactical interaction between the different search aircraft and ships over in Western Australia as well?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: We did. The air task group, so all the aircraft that were involved in the search, were based in RAAF Pearce, and a couple were down in Perth airport. They would get the search areas, and they had a very robust organisation behind them, actually at Pearce, allocating search areas to aircraft on a day-by-day basis, a fairly resource-intensive task. But the advantage there is all the aircrew are co-located; they can all brief, and they were doing that daily; and they all had a very good appreciation of what each other was doing. So that was very well coordinated, and Group Captain Heap from the Royal Australian Air Force led that effort over there, did a fantastic job. On the maritime side, the coordination at sea, we did exchange liaison officers, particularly with the Chinese, so we had one of the XO’s off one of the Chinese ships join HMAS Success, which was our on-scene command ship at sea. So the tactical level interaction, and the ability to translate and the like, was very well handled both in the maritime and in their air spheres on the scene. Again, a great testament to militaries, navies and air forces, working together, a lot, in many cases, people that’ve actually known each other from other nations, which again facilitated that ease of transfer of information.
So, all in all, I think it was a really good, a very good exercise in coordinating assets at very short notice. Obviously, our major exercises we do, there’s a lot of lead up and planning, we want to get the most out of them from a military context. But in situations like this, things happen at very short notice, and the ability to understand how each other operate, it was so beneficial when we came together. It was a very quick planning process. Everyone was on the same wavelength, everyone understood the mission, and that made that Commander’s intent, if you like, very easy to disseminate, and allowed the tactical commanders on the scene to get on and do the job.
(6.36) JAMES BROWN: You mentioned before that you personally exercised with all the navies involved. So this is a situation where you’ve got warm channels of communications, you understand broadly how they work, and you can bring them together pretty quickly?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: You could. The channels of communication, I guess I’d caution against creating the impression that that was very easy. Some of the communications paths we had to fight to establish, but luckily, some of them, they had been established before the task force already stood up. They were established within a day or two of the aircraft going missing, and we dovetailed into those. So whilst in some cases the direct communications paths weren’t there just to simply turn on, but we had the right knowledge and the right skills to quickly establish a communications path tailored for what we needed to achieve. And that only comes with working together, as we had done before.
(7.23) JAMES BROWN: And just give me a sense of how difficult this part of the ocean is to operate in, I mean, you’re a long way off shore from Western Australia, what are the conditions like?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: Look, it was very very rough at times, as you know the search started up, effectively on this flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, moved to the Malacca straits, at one stage it was in the deep Southern Ocean. Very very rough. Heavy seas down there. Very windy. And of course, a lot of the searching that’s done by aircraft for instance, is looking for a visual search, looking out the windows, looking for debris in the ocean surface, floating debris. And of course the more white caps, the more waves you have, the more difficult there is to actually identify debris and wreckage. So very, very challenging conditions. And at extreme levels in the deep South Ocean, even the best, the longest ranged aircraft, would have maybe two hours on task. So, I think the statistics show that all up, about two thirds to three quarters of the flying hours that we expended were actually taken up in transit. Which leaves about a quarter to a third actually on station, doing the searching. So that gives an idea of just how remote this part of the world is, and how challenging it was.
(8.31) JAMES BROWN: I think one of the extraordinary things to come out of this, as an observer, is that people have realised that not every part of the ocean is surveilled on a constant basis, not every satellite can see what’s happening, that sometimes it’s just about, how far can you get your aircraft, and how long can you keep them on station. Australia’s got an enormous maritime search and rescue zone, what lessons have you learnt from running this task force that you think will be of enduring relevance to Australian civilian maritime agencies, or to the Royal Australian Navy?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: Oh, look, it’s probably the lessons that we always know. Communications is the big one. Establish that communications and the coordination mechanisms very early, I think we’re reasonably well practiced in doing that. This is probably the most challenging search and rescue situation that I’ve certainly been involved in. It’s probably the first time where we seem to have an aircraft that has disappeared with no May-Day calls, no electronic distress signals, no debris being found, I think that’s quite unprecedented.
So this was extremely challenging, but I think the key lessons out of this, really, is that ongoing relationships that you have with sister navies, air forces, and the ability to, or the value in working together, in an exercise environment that just brings, or provides militaries with the wherewithal to come together at short notice, for a specific task, and form up in a very coordinated fashion very quickly. So probably no new lessons there, we’re really re-learning old lessons. And I’m pleased to say there was no real show-stoppers in this situation, there was obviously a lot of low-level details that had to get sorted through, and a lot of work to keep a lot of those mechanisms in place.
But everyone was on board with trying to constantly strive for that end-state we were seeking. And that, coupled with the fact that we have worked together, with each other, even if not as individuals, certainly as navies, we do understand each other reasonably well, and that allows that coordination to happen relatively seamlessly.
(10.30) JAMES BROWN: So you ran this mission for six weeks, the result, inconclusive to an extent. We’re now in, I guess, what you’d call an operational pause, where a lot of the data is being revalidated, re-examined, reviewed. Where do you see the search for MH370 heading to next?
CDRE PETER LEAVY: Look, that’s really up to the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, who have the lead now. The Australian Defence Force commitment has effectively completed just this last weekend, with the final return of Defence vessel Ocean Shield, back alongside, and de-mounting the Blue Fin 21, autonomous underwater vehicle that many people have heard of. And the towed ping locator equipment that was given to us by, or loaned to us by the US Navy through Phoenix International. That equipment is now returning to the United States, and Ocean Shield is no longer directly involved in the search.
So the ATSB, as I understand it, are now looking at various commercial options for wider area surveillance of side-scan sonars to continue with their sub-surface search. Along the arc, the well-known now I think, Inmarsat arc, here we think is the most likely final resting place of the aircraft. But that’s a wide, wide area of water to search. Underwater searching obviously is much, much slower than the surface search for debris, which can be done largely by aircraft. So I think we’re in potentially for quite a long time here, and I think Air Chief Marshal Houston, the head of the joint agency coordination centre, has made this point time and time again. It’s, underwater searches like this, the phase that we transition to now, are generally very slow, very deliberate, but they do take time, and it’s going to be many, many months, potentially, before we see any developments. We obviously hope that we’ll get some sooner rather than later, but it’s really out of our hands now.
But in terms of the Defence force participation, the form of participation that’s really scaled right back now. It’s become a civil-agency led search and recovery operation.
JAMES BROWN: Commodore Leavy, thanks very much for your time.
CDRE PETER LEAVY: Thanks James.