Sabre rattling off the Queensland coast

Aug 3, 2017

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.

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