The defence of Mainlandia
South Canterbury has survived a military takeover this month, with Herald reporters following the action. Matthew Littlewood chats with those involved in Exercise Southern Katipo, the largest New Zealand Defence Force exercise in nearly 30 years.
They came by air, they came by sea, they arrived in their hundreds.
They needed to stabilise the area and win the hearts and minds of the people. The enemy had to be quashed.
It all seems a bit much. What had Timaru done to deserve such military force in its patch?
Except Timaru was no longer Timaru. It was "Mainlandia" and the focus of Exercise Southern Katipo, the biggest mock-military exercise in New Zealand in the past 20 years.
It involved more than 2200 troops from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, France, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Tonga, Britain and the United States.
Originally to be held in 2011, the Christchurch earthquakes put paid to the exercise and diverted troops to the stricken city - in a twist of fate, Hercules aircraft slated for this exercise were diverted to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan.
It's been nearly a year in the planning and cost upwards of $6 million. Funds came from the New Zealand Defence Force's existing budget.
The scenario saw Timaru become a fictional South West Pacific country - Mainlandia - which required intervention from the "League of Pacific Nations" to restore law and order. Mainlandia is based on the lower portion of the South Island. Timaru is part of the fictitious Bekaran Province.
In order to keep the scenario as "serious" as possible, the NZDF published a newspaper and posted regular updates about developments on a specially-created Facebook page.
The newspaper featured headlines such as "Shots fired at Troops in Waimate", "Soldiers blamed for brutal attack on Alparian Group" and "Three dead following overnight raids in Cave".
But is it all just fun and games? No-one was actually killed in the exercise and aside from a few sprains, bruised egos and reportedly a massive bout of hayfever that spread through the troops, most survived with their health and dignity intact.
Colonel John Howard, who was in charge of much of the exercise, said there was a serious side.
"For the troops, especially the younger ones, they would have had a lot of fun. Everyone enjoys using the latest equipment ... but for myself and the rest of the organisers, we didn't have much time for fun. If you have 2200 troops in one area, it's a lot of bodies on the ground," he said.
It came off the back of a sweeping review of the NZDF, culminating in the 2010 White Paper, which proposed a "Joint Amphibious Task Force", bringing the services of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Army and Navy under one banner for security needs.
"It's the ability to project the military element of a national power by sea and air into a sovereign space. It's a collection of capabilities," Colonel Howard said.
On November 9, up to 450 soldiers "stormed" the Timaru port. The naval ships, HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Wellington, and up to 12 aircraft, including the US C17 Globemaster, arrived on the scene.
There were also "pressure points", the NZDF needed to test - at any given moment - troops' response to a random or unforeseen conflict.
"As a soldier, you always need to have your wits about you in the field, there is no time to relax or shut off. In this sort of activity, the enemy has the advantage, because they know the area. You've got to be on your game, from the commander to the rifleman," Colonel Howard said.
Social media played a huge part in the exercise, with many of the soldiers equipped with smartphones and tracking apps.
Most of the enemy were played by soldiers from the Burnham military camp. They were based in Waimate for the purposes of the exercise. They were certainly outnumbered - there were only about 100 of them. And they were not allowed to win.
However, Major John Lawrey, who led the enemy forces, said there were advantages to being the bad guys.
"They were allowed to fraternise with the locals and drink in their establishments. They were also allowed to grow beards and grow their hair long - a bit of a novelty for military men," he said.
"Many of the soldiers who play the enemy have been involved in similarly large exercises overseas, but a lot of them have served in Afghanistan. We can't quite replicate the same sensations, but we try to get as close as we can to it," he said.
Some "civilians" also assisted with the enemy - whether providing them with a place to stay, or "running interference" to put the troops off the scent.
Opihi Services Academy student Jeremiah Torkilsen was frisked by members of the Australian Defence Force because he was suspected of being the enemy. Jeremiah was dressed in his camouflage gear - hat, top, and trousers.
On at least a couple of walks home, soldiers asked me whether I knew the enemy.
"As a member of the press, you would have been as good a source as anyone for possible information," Commander Kempster said.
"Intelligence is everything. You also learn from having so many other nations alongside each other in a small space. New Zealand soldiers are well regarded because they learn from other's mistakes. They can step back a bit."
Herald readers spotted some of "the enemy" repairing gates, and even cleaning up at local schools.
"I'm not sure if their carpentry skills are as good as their combat skills," Major Lawrey quipped.
The enemy soldiers were scripted to "give up" information, but only after being asked the right questions, and searched for in the right areas.
There have been some interesting search missions. Exercise Commander Peter Kempster recalls there were a group of soldiers who were sent on a "three-day wild goose chase" in Temuka.
"The enemy wasn't there. They had obviously been fed bad intelligence. God knows how they were in Temuka for so long.
"But that was good for the soldiers too. If they were ever sent out to an actual theatre of war, they would have remembered those three days (and what went wrong).
"The lessons they learned from their mistakes in Exercise Katipo could save lives in the heat of a real battle," Commander Kempster said.
And while troops were clearly visible on the ground, at night, there were often several helicopters whirring in the skies.
Colonel Howard confirmed there were mock "fire fights"- with soldiers pretending to tend to burn victims, bullet wounds and broken legs.
Yes, the NZDF had a makeup budget to "simulate injuries".
"We've been lucky there have not been any real major injuries. When you consider the sheer number of people involved, it's gone smoothly," Colonel Howard said.
"If you're playing rugby at night in the Waitaki Valley, then you would expect some mishaps or injuries, so put it into perspective."
For three weeks the forces have been among us, shopping at our supermarkets and eating at our establishments.
Soldiers parked outside a Timaru Herald reporter's house in the morning as part of a mission (the mission seemed to involve getting supplies from the butcher).
Road blockades have been in place, visitors to Timaru airport would have seen row upon row of tents and barricades.
Up to 750 troops were camping out at the airport over the last three weeks.
There have been several "hearts and minds" exercises, including visiting schools and other establishments.
Colonel Howard has heard stories of locals dropping off baking to the soldiers, while children have approached soldiers on the street to ask them about their fatigues and weaponry.
So it's been a busy and intense three weeks, with many of those involved working 15- or 16-hour days, with no breaks.
But by now the last of the gear will have been packed up. Timaru has returned to normality. The top brass will spend the next few months "debriefing".
It could have easily been done as a "desktop" effort, but you can't "manufacture" human error - which is why such on the ground exercises prove so vital for future preparations overseas. "People have a reasonable expectation to see their defence dollars in action. This is one of the few examples where they can see us in the field," Colonel Howard said.
"In terms of the actual political climate, South Canterbury is nothing like a war zone, of course.
"For an exercise, it's perfect. It offers a wide variety of terrain, and you have access to a port, airport, and local authorities, and a reasonable-sized population. The South Canterbury public have been so welcoming. I would love the NZDF to host something here again."
Get ready, Timaru.
They may have won this battle, but the war might yet rage again.
- © Fairfax NZ News