RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Sabre rattling off the Queensland coast.

Exercise Talisman Sabre does not address any of Australia’s main security concerns and sends the wrong messages to Australia’s neighbours. It contributes towards locking Australia into America’s wars, no matter how irrelevant to Australia’s own interests.

 Exercise Talisman Sabre is a biennial joint US-Australian military exercise carried on since 2005.  A series of massive land, sea and air-borne manoeuvres, it has connections to beach landings as practised in World War Two, and to MacArthur’s landings at Incheon during the Korean War in 1950, but almost none to Australia’s current defence concerns. Talisman Sabre proves the old adage that generals and admirals like to prepare for past wars.  Mack Williams raised some important objections to it in Pearls and Irritations on 27 July, and there are others.

How, for example, can such massive shows of force realistically address three threats to our security that our politicians are fond of enumerating: Chinese control of the South China Sea, growing Islamic terrorist presence in South East Asia, and, most recently, an unprovoked nuclear attack from North Korea?  We aren’t going to force the Chinese out of their marine redoubts without igniting a Sino-US war.   An invasion of Mindanao won’t negate the Islamic threat, but will spread it and attract more fanatics to the cause.  Nor, unless President Donald Trump is completely insane, would an invasion of North Korea incur anything but massive retaliation across the 38th parallel and the death of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Korean civilians on both sides of the DMZ.

Meanwhile, Australia willingly participates in increasingly elaborate war games which can only have two military objectives: the domination of the battle space to our north, or preparation for a combined assault on neighbouring countries.  All seven Talisman Sabre exercises have been focused on these ends.  In 2005 it involved 16,000 US and Australian troops, 25 landing craft, air-cushion amphibians and helicopter assaults to secure beaches. In 2007, 26,000 troops focused on amphibious landings from six ships.  In 2009, 30,000 troops had the same objectives.  The 2011 exercises were a bit more elaborate, with combined Special Forces Operation and parachute drops adding to the mix.  In 2013, the Australian forces were greatly excited when the United States added MV-22 Osprey V/STOL helicopters and a carrier strike group to the war games.  In 2015 the largest exercise to that time was held with more than 30,000 combined troops, including some from New Zealand and Japan.  (Japanese participation would have thrilled Chinese observers.)

And to cap the lot, the just-concluded 2017 Talisman Sabre exercises involved 33,000 troops, 200 aircraft and 20 ships, including the US wasp-class amphibious assault ship, Bonhomme Richard, plus a few Canadians, Japanese and Kiwis added to the mix.

At each exercise, environmental advocates offer their concerns about damage to the environment, to habitats of migratory birds, sea life including dugongs, sea-grass meadows, and the Great Barrier Reef, of which the Shoalhaven Exercise grounds spreading over a massive area of 4,545 square kilometres, form a part.  There is also concern over the possibility of unexploded bombs and shells left lying around, including those containing depleted uranium 238, although the US Navy and Air Force claim they don’t use depleted uranium munitions in these exercises, and that the few unexploded bombs dropped accidentally have all been retrieved and taken away.

The most insidious thing about our co-hosting of these ever-expanding military exercises is the growing probability that they will drag Australia into conflicts which may serve US interests but which have nothing to do with Australian ones.  If through ignorance or aggressive action the Trump Administration finds itself facing armed conflict with China or North Korea, it would expect Australian forces to join US forces.  Indeed our military training programs have become so tightly interwoven that it would be difficult if not impossible for an Australian government of any persuasion to refuse.  And we face what has become an almost constant stream of advice from visiting senior American military people that seeks to impose their latest strategic thinking on us.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made a tactically shrewd pronouncement during the recent fuss about  a Chinese ship observing Talisman Sabre activities. Contrary to fulminations from the right-wing commentariat, she said the ship was in international waters and had a legal right to observe what it could from there.  Unspoken was her view that Australian naval vessels can and do exercise a similar right to observe Chinese activities in international waters, including, of course, in the South China Sea.

Depressingly, there are no signs emanating from Canberra that the government is prepared frankly to acknowledge our diminishing military options, or the dangerous limitations this places on our capacity to exercising sensible alternatives in Australia’s own national interests. And the Opposition is too  afraid of the anticipated reactions of the Murdoch press to even suggest that something should be done to create some distance from the thinking of the Pentagon and the military industrial complex that supports it. The most effective way to check this process is for restraints to be imposed on the power of the Executive unilaterally to send Australian forces to war. And to have an honest parliamentary debate.

Richard Broinowski is a former Ambassador to Vietnam, the Republic of Korea and Mexico.


Richard Broinowski is a former diplomat. He was also manager of Radio Australia. After retirement he was an adjunct professor at University of Sydney in media studies. He has written four books, and is bringing a fifth out this year (2020), on the life and times of Melbourne book seller Edward William Cole.

This entry was posted in Defence/Security. Bookmark the permalink.

For questions regarding our comment system please click here to email P&I support.

4 Responses to RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Sabre rattling off the Queensland coast.

  1. Avatar Julian says:

    I am with Bruce Cameron on this.
    I am an ex-service person with a continuing interest in defence matters, and while I am very much aware of the distinct possibility of our being dragged into conflicts by our great and powerful friend, the simple fact is that we have a standing army and associated services – all of which needs to be kept in “readiness”, however silly that may sound to a disinterested civilian.
    Is there some other alternative?
    Short of disbanding our armed services, I cannot see one.

  2. Avatar Bruce Cameron says:

    Hi Richard,

    As you would know, Defence strategy starts with two fundamentals: the ‘warning time’ for enemy intentions to become clear; and the ‘lead time’ to acquire equipment and train personnel to operate and maintain it. Coupled with alliances, these considerations drive defence policy, from the size of the standing defence force and readiness levels, to industry participation and stockpiling requirements.

    Ex Talisman Sabre is obviously designed to bring ADF training and readiness levels to a standard linked to the existing ‘warning time’. Such high level exercises are cyclical, ie. they occur to complete a training cycle and bring participants to a level of proficiency which allow them to meet the Army’s contingency planning, should it be needed during the period of their ‘watch’.

    Meanwhile, as part of the ADF force preparedness cycle, new elements (ie. military personnel in all positions and at all levels) will undergo training which will result in a future high level exercise to complete their training.

    Military personnel are not like, say, staff in a bank .. who can retain their skills and proficiency for a whole career. Age is one of the factors that which demands a high personnel turnover in operational roles and necessitates a constant training cycle.

    I, for one, would like to acknowledge the proficiency levels that the ADF attain in order to meet current contingency plans. Whether or not this readiness level is justified, depends on assessments of the threat and associated warning time. I have faith in those appointed to undertake these assessments as well as those whose training levels are determined accordingly. I thank them for their service.

  3. Avatar Jim Kable says:

    It appears beyond time that we repudiate these kinds of war practice “games” foisted upon us by the US – and if we must buy WMD – then surely spreading our purchases around via other markets will not lock us into US-monitored and directed conflicts.

    Or maybe we could insist that these kinds of “exercises” take place in mainland US (not Hawai’i) and not on designated First Nations territory – let’s nominate The Hamptons of north-eastern Long Island as a pretty decent equivalent of north-eastern Australia.

  4. Avatar Mike Gilligan says:

    Once upon a time our Secretary of Defence, being responsible for proper allocation,
    of Defence monies would have stood in the way of this rot.
    Where have such people gone?

Comments are closed.