Australia’s largest warfighting exercise Talisman Sabre 2021 (TS21) will officially open today with a ceremony at Amberley RAAF Base, 50km east of Brisbane.
Though significantly down-sized due to the Covid pandemic, Talisman Sabre will see 17,000 US and Australian troops engaging in combined land, sea and air manoeuvres inland and along the Queensland coast. Key components of Talisman Sabre take place at Shoalwater Bay, north of Rockhampton, within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
Environmentalists and peace groups are alarmed at the ongoing use of these environmentally and culturally significant sites for warfare practice.
On June 22, the United Nations World Heritage Committee released a draft report on the state of the Great Barrier Reef announcing that it will recommend that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “World Heritage in Danger” at its upcoming meeting in China. The Committee identified the need for greater commitment to “countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures.”
Talisman Sabre involves the use of US nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons capable vessels, the practising of urban warfare, the use of high power sonar, amphibious assaults, parachuting and land force manoeuvres. Live firing, if not explicitly part of the exercise, is likely to occur either before or after the official dates.
These activities are incompatible with protection of the Reef.
This year, the ADF did not engage in a Public Environment Report process and has not publicly released environmental assessment for the areas in which Talisman Sabre will take place It did, however, Defence produced an environmental awareness information video for visiting troops which promotes the military use of the Great Barrier Reef.
The video reminds troops to consider the Reef and not to litter, a far cry from the active environmental management required to protect the vulnerable reef and incongruous with the dramatic messaging around live firing exercises in Shoalwater Bay in early June this year for Exercise Diamond Walk.
The objective of Talisman Sabre is to increase force inter-operability with the US, a military whose environmental footprint cannot be ignored. The US military is ranked among the world’s worst polluters and is the world’s greatest organisational consumer of oil. It has a legacy of leaving bases contaminated and radioactive. In 2013, the US jettisoned four bombs on the Great Barrier Reef when they had difficulty dropping them on their intended target, Townshend Island.
Talisman Sabre rotates with the RIMPAC exercises based out of Hawaii as the two major US-led combined forces training exercises in the Pacific. The Pacific Peace Network will be hosting a webinar during Talisman Sabre – on July 24 – to explore the impact of Talisman Sabre ongoing US military activity in the Pacific on Pacific communities.