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Details emerge in Great Barrier Reef bomb drops

Aug. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard transits the Philippine Sea on July 1. Two American fighter jets launched from Bonhomme Richard dropped four unarmed bombs into Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park when a training exercise went wrong, the Navy said.
The amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard transits the Philippine Sea on July 1. Two American fighter jets launched from Bonhomme Richard dropped four unarmed bombs into Australia's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park when a training exercise went wrong, the Navy said. (MCS Seaman Apprentice Edward Guttierrez III / Navy)
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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — While investigations by Australian and U.S. authorities are still underway and a final report has not been released, several key details have emerged surrounding the jettisoning of weapons on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef last month.

Two inert and two live bombs were jettisoned in a designated area away from the main reef on July 16 after two Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers failed to release them on an Australian weapons range in the lead up to Exercise Talisman Saber.

It is believed that the Harriers launched from the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard in the Coral Sea before the range was cleared for use. Why this occurred is at the center of the investigations.

“The range was fouled and in the interest of safety it was determined by the Australian range personnel that conditions had not been met to allow the safe release of those weapons,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, then-commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet and exercise commander for Talisman Saber, shortly after the event.

Once it became clear the Harriers had launched, efforts were made to quickly clear the range but could not be accomplished before they became fuel-critical.

“In the configuration those Harriers were in they were unable to recover aboard ship with that load, so they were going to transit to a jettison area that had been pre-designated,” Swift said. “But because of some other instances, there was not a tanker available; they worked hard to release those weapons on the range. They took as much time as they could and as a result were not able to reach that release point.”

The Harrier pilots then contacted authorities to select an emergency jettison area in deep water, away from the reef and in a channel with a sand bottom to minimize risk to shipping that may transit the area. The weapons, two inert BDU-45 bombs and two live GBU-12 500-pound bombs, were dropped in a “safe” condition and the Harriers returned uneventfully to the ship.

“With our Australian counterparts we were able to immediately respond, we were able to quickly put out information about safe navigation in the area. The individuals found a safe spot, appraised the situation and informed all the appropriate people,” said Navy Capt. Heidi Agle, deputy commodore of Amphibious Squadron 11.

“As unfortunate as that incident was, at the end of the day it really flexed our teamwork and gave us an opportunity to do something quite appropriate.”

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is about half the area of Texas and managed by the Great Barrier Reef Maritime Park Authority (GBRMPA), which is now monitoring the recovery of the weapons.

“We take incredible care in terms of environmental measures when we run Talisman Saber and there is a huge emphasis on the environment during the exercise and we work very closely with GBRMPA to make sure they’re comfortable,” said Brig. Gen. Bob Brown, Australia’s spokesman for Talisman Saber 2013.

“After the incident we worked closely with them and they are comfortable that there was no damage to the reef at all.”

The four weapons were located by a joint Australian-U.S. recovery team on Aug. 16 and recovery efforts are now underway.

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