Within mere hours of a group of terrorists hijacking a passenger ferry in Sydney’s Middle Harbour, Australian commandos were already above and beside their target. Six rigid-hulled inflatable boats packed with operators whizzed toward the ship. In the sky, a flock of Blackhawk helicopters circled to fast-rope additional assault teams and provide critical aerial sniper support. The terrorists, once full of macho confidence as they made their demands to the Australian government, now exchanged panicked shouts as their demise edged closer.
The operation was over in just a matter of minutes—a routine performance by the operators of the Australian 2nd Commando Regiment.
This scenario—Exercise MARS Rotor Anchor Toothfish— was rehearsed in late July by the 2nd Commando Regiment’s Tactical Assault Group–East (TAG-E), one of the Australian Defense Force’s (ADF) go-to counterterrorism teams.. Realistic training is the best preparation for real-world contingencies.
“The exercise is really about consolidating our key domestic counterterrorism skills,” said Captain N., a platoon commander of the 2nd Commando Regiment, during a review of the exercise on the Australian Army’s website. “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.”
In addition to TAG-E, based in Sydney, New South Wales, there’s also Tactical Assault Group-West (TAG-W), based in Perth, the capital of Western Australia. TAG-W is comprised of Special Air Service Regiment operators. The difference between the two, aside from the geographical focus, is that TAG-W retains priority for offshore and international counterterrorism incidents, whereas TAG-E is the ultimate solution for domestic counterterrorism emergencies.
If Australian federal law enforcement agencies are unable to deal with a situation, then the TAGs are summoned, determined by the geographical location of the terrorist incident. But federal tactical units are still the first to be called. During the 2014 Sydney Siege hostage crisis, for instance, the state tactical unit was sufficient, although the TAGs remained on standby.
Corporal B offered some valuable insight on the logistical and operational difficulties behind such a training exercise, and indeed, behind a real-world counterterrorism or hostage rescue mission. “We moved TAG-E down to Melbourne for the high-rise scenario, with some of the team driving and others flying,” he said during the review. “From there, we assaulted the building from both ends, utilizing Black Hawks to get us on top, while other call signs 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 [Central Business District]—is a real benefit.”
The 2nd Commando Regiment is comprised of four assault companies: A, B, C, and D. The companies rotate on the TAG-E counterterrorism and hostage rescue duties every few years.