Specialised bomb disposal Navy divers move carefully underwater, hoping the water masks their presence.
They search for and detonate explosives planted around Epi Island’s coastline by a make-believe armed hostile group.
This is all part of a training exercise named Tropic Major, which has been carried out by the New Zealand Defence Force.
Around 500 servicemen and women from the joint forces – Army, Navy and Airforce – are taking part in the Vanuatu simulation.
It’s an exercise that costs around $3.5 million, which also includes other side projects the NZDF is working on in the islands.
The war games start like this: A criminal with international connections has found his way to New Zealand, but then he escapes to Vanuatu and starts to grow a network of thugs on Epi Island.
They’re terrorising locals, extorting them, and they have even killed a person.
In this exercise, the Vanuatu government is unable to cope and so it calls in the New Zealand Defence Force.
As the assignment continues, the divers give the all clear and a bit later small Zodiac boats filled with ground troops leave the giant HMNZS Canterbury.
They storm a beach on Epi, in a bid to hunt down the criminals.
NH90 helicopters circle above this usually peaceful island paradise.
Epi Island itself has 10,000 people, but only one police officer.
“To me as one police officer, I think I don’t have much strength that I can deal with such issues,” says Corporal Daniel.
He, and other island leaders, say people worry about whether they’d be well protected should a gang of criminals try and take over the island.
Chief Varasliu Supapao says “The people worry a lot about criminals, so with the exercises we really like it cause this one can stop criminals and other crimes.”
The NZDF is carrying out this exercise to not only test its military might, but also to practice how it would approach a real-life situation like this.
“We conduct operations throughout the world. We've got people right now in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan… so the need for us to understand the environments we're operating in and to see how our capabilities respond there is vital to us being an effective fighting force,” says the man in charge of this whole exercise, Navy Captain Garin Golding, the Joint Taskforce Commander.
He points to Pacific Island conflicts in recent history where the NZDF responded.
Last year’s NZDF operating budget was nearly two billion dollars.
The previous government announced a 20 billion dollar investment over 15 years, but the new government is reviewing that and the findings are due within a month.
“Defence is expensive if you want to do it properly, and I think New Zealand actually gets pretty good value for the fairly modest sums that it spends on its defence force,” says Professor Robert Ayson, from the Strategic Studies department at Wellington’s Victoria University.
As the simulation continues, with fake ammunition being fired and smoke bombs hazing up the island air, the criminals are caught and arrested by the local police officer.
The make believe scenario ends well.
They all hope any potential real world conflict also has a happy ending.