With the practiced steps of a choreographer, Australian Army Col. Ben McLennan traversed northeast Queensland, careful not to crush the enemy at his heels. Striding across an 8-by-16-meter map dotted with red and blue plastic models of tanks, warships, aircraft and troops, McLennan outlined the unfolding maneuvers of Talisman Sabre to Warrant Officer Ken Robertson, the senior enlisted advisor to the Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief. It was late July 2023, midpoint of the “Olympics of war games,” a watershed exercise that drew 34,500 troops from more than a dozen nations to Australia for live and simulated drills across warfighting domains.
“Like any military activity, we are treating this as a rehearsal,” McLennan told Robertson, who leaned forward in one of the chairs arrayed along the mock conflict zone’s perimeter. “We are rehearsing key aspects of what it would take to operate and fight as a coalition. This is a demonstration of collective commitment, of collective resolve, of collective collaboration to train together, to be better together and, if required, to act together to ensure the peace and stability of our region.”
Unrivaled in scale and complexity, the 10th iteration of the biennial Australia-United States exercise largely reflected geopolitical realities in the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing’s rapid military buildup, Pyongyang’s destabilizing missile launches and Moscow’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine have stoked tensions, while reinvigorating a focus on fortifying partnerships among like-minded nations. That was evident in the roster of first-time Talisman Sabre participants — Fiji, France, Germany, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Tonga — as well as in the inaugural observer status of India, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
For a developing nation such as Tonga, the two-week exercise was an invaluable opportunity to be “part of the regional security arrangements,” said Lt. Col. Tau Aholelei, commander of the Pacific Island Country’s 40-member contingent in Australia, which represented about 7% of its Armed Forces. “We all have our various respective security interests. At the same time, we also have common security interests,” Aholelei told FORUM at the ADF’s Townsville Field Training Area in Queensland, a 2,300-square-kilometer facility that is three times larger than Tonga. As “one of the smallest participants, we also want to show our security partners that we can contribute, and not only contribute but contribute so we add value to operations, we add value to the partnership, and that we are a reliable and trustworthy partner when it comes to security operations.”
The incorporation of Tongan and other forces into Talisman Sabre was “remarkably smooth,” said McLennan, commander of the ADF’s Combat Training Centre and a veteran of the first exercise in 2005. “The fact that in less than 20 years we’ve gone from two nations through to 13, and likely 17 next time, is really incredible,” he told FORUM. “The integration is across people, process and platform. I think our people, coming from like-minded countries, integrate pretty well. There’s an earnestness there, and there’s a real desire to cooperate, to collaborate, to team together … and so these types of activities are fantastic to help develop common processes that work for people from multiple nations.”
In tents and trailers a few dozen strides from McLennan’s map at Townsville Field, military and civilian analysts sat at banks of computer monitors below screens busy with video feeds and digitized renderings of troop movements. The mission: evaluate operational performance in real time, down to the individual level. Did the coalition forces’ feint at a river crossing elicit the expected enemy countermove? How could the gleaned data inform subsequent moves that keep the adversary off balance while concealing the true target?
The customized assessment incorporated GPS trackers, mobile devices and embedded coaches. Think professional sports, McLennan said. “Instead of waiting until the end of the activity to give people feedback, we provide feedback during the game; so, it’s for the next play, not for the next game next week,” he told the Stars and Stripes newspaper. “It’s all about learning and thriving through feedback, through our coaching network with feedback that this fusion cell provides.”
The melding of high-tech and human analysis played out elsewhere, too, as U.S. service members tested the Health Readiness and Performance System, which includes a cellphone-connected device worn over the heart to monitor pulse oxygen level, heart rate and other physiological metrics. Using a predictive algorithm, the technology can alert medics and squad leaders to signs of heat stress, which can cause injury, hinder decision-making and diminish performance.
Military health professionals also worked in multinational teams to care for Talisman Sabre participants across the Australian continent, while enhancing their own operational readiness. “Our goal is to have interoperability, to be capable to deploy together,” Australian Army Capt. Jonathan Polasek, a pulmonologist with the 3rd Health Battalion, told FORUM at Rockhampton Army Reserve Depot, or “Camp Rocky,” about 520 kilometers north of Queensland’s capital, Brisbane. “Australia and America have been long-term partners in [dealing with] multiple problems in the world, and we find that we all share a perspective and a similar type of practice of medicine and nursing, and we can very quickly relate to how each of us operates and very quickly fit in with each other to provide that type of capability.”
“Just being able to be adaptable and collaborate and communicate has been great,” added Capt. Anndrea Boyer, a physician assistant with the Utah National Guard’s 144th Area Medical Support Company, which had nearly 50 members at the exercise. “We have been able to work together and run through different trauma scenarios, go through different equipment and medical supplies, and really become a seamless machine. … We’ve learned so much with each other.”
Such collaboration and innovation permeated Talisman Sabre, which also included nearly 30 ships and submarines, and more than 50 aircraft conducting over 500 missions. Among the accomplishments:
The ADF and U.S. military employed the Army Tactical Missile System, which has a range of 300 kilometers, to strike a target as part of a multidomain strike capability.
The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force conducted the first live-fires of its Type 12 surface-to-ship and Type 3 Chu-SAM surface-to-air missiles in Australia.
The Republic of Korea (ROK) Armed Forces deployed K239 Chunmoo self-propelled, multiple-launch rocket systems and K9 Thunder self-propelled howitzers to Australia for the first time.
The U.S. Army and Navy established a 3-kilometer, ship-to-shore petroleum pipeline in north Queensland to demonstrate force sustainment in remote locations.
The ADF and U.S. military erected a 540-meter-long floating pier at Bowen, Queensland.
Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A multirole aircraft and U.S. Air Force KC-46A Pegasus tankers provided coordinated air-to-air refueling operations for the first time.
Exercise goals extended beyond interoperability among multiple forces. “Where we’re really trying to progress to is interchangeability, which is kind of the next step, [so] that any one of us, regardless of the flag that we fly, can perform a mission for the other partner,” U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Chris Stone, commander of Expeditionary Strike Group 7, Task Force 76 and Amphibious Force 7th Fleet, told U.S. Naval Institute News. “We’re really trying to progress to where we can plug and play with each other, where we have similar tactics, techniques, procedures, doctrine, understanding, training, proficiency.”
At the terminus of a 25-kilometer gravel track through cattle country — a tortuous washboard that is the bane of shock absorbers and lidless drinks — Australian Army Lt. Gen. Greg Bilton watched from atop the dunes as U.S. Navy hovercraft landed German, Japanese and U.S. forces on Langham Beach. The sweep of golden sand fronts Stanage Bay, about 725 kilometers southeast of Townsville at the head of a peninsula that juts north into the Coral Sea like a cassowary’s casque. On a horizon made hazy by scudding storm clouds, a warship was barely visible in silhouette as it steamed east. The roar of U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Ospreys rose to a crescendo as the tiltrotors shadowed the shoreline. At Shoalwater Bay to the southeast, Indonesian and U.S. paratroops conducted tactical insertions from C-130s, and ROK Marines secured another beachhead.
The amphibious assault drill encapsulated Talisman Sabre’s multinational nature. “There’s evidence of that today with the Japanese,” Bilton, the ADF’s chief of joint operations, told reporters. “There is [also] strong European interest in the region. They see these exercises as an opportunity for their militaries to operate in this environment.” German Navy Sea Battalion Capt. Jonas Linke was on his first deployment to the Indo-Pacific with more than 200 German airborne and infantry troops who had traveled up to 15,000 kilometers. Cultural differences were erased by a shared mission and mutual trust, he said at a Stanage Bay staging area. “Participating with U.S. Marines and Japanese forces has been a great training opportunity. We each speak a different language, but we all speak the same military language and make it all work out, achieving the same goals and objectives.”
Indonesian Army Lt. Col. Arief Widyanto led a raid with more than 30 paratroopers during the amphibious assault as part of the Southeast Asian nation’s inaugural deployment of more than 100 personnel to Talisman Sabre. “We already learned so much from the beginning of the exercise, even from the planning of the exercise,” Arief, commander of the 501st Airborne Battalion, told FORUM. “This is a great experience for Indonesian troops to be able to join such a large exercise outside our country. … It brings much benefit for us, not only for the staff who work side by side with other staff so they can build good relationships, but also for the troops on the ground to be able to know the capabilities of the allied forces and to learn so much more about them.”
Lessons were learned and shared in the bush and at the barracks. “We discuss concepts about what the future looks like, especially in organizing each respective military, looking at various areas we can help each other in,” Aholelei said, sitting with Arief at a folding table near the Townsville Field mess tent and field kitchen, where the aroma of grilled lamb and steak tempted as a midwinter dusk descended. “It’s about partnership and fostering those relationships. It’s one thing sitting in a conference room being formal and saying the right things, but person-to-person there’s a natural connection and, from there, that’s where trust and respect builds.”
Water splashed to window level, darkening the ochre that dusted the white Toyota Land Cruiser, as U.S. Army Col. Bryan Martin maneuvered through a gully at Townsville Field, his command of the 4×4 outranking its disputatious transmission. Martin, commander of the Hawaii-based Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center (JPMRC) and a Talisman Sabre deputy exercise director, was surveying the immense battlefield, confirming his position via map and handheld radio as he analyzed operations. Leaving the Land Cruiser to navigate the unforgiving terrain on foot, he noted the spacing among a handful of vehicles camouflaged amid heavy brush and trees. “You don’t want to be in the burst radius of a 155 mm round,” he told FORUM. “It’s pretty good dispersion; still a little tight over here.”
In another Talisman Sabre first, the JPMRC and the ADF’s Combat Training Centre merged capabilities for the 10-day joint forcible entry operation, in which largely overmatched coalition forces protected an island republic against an invading enemy. The adaptive, contest-of-wills scenario allowed planners to “induce the fog and friction of stress,” Martin said. “This is a demonstration of like-minded countries coming together, working toward a common military goal and showcasing what is in the realm of the possible from the aspects of projecting power and conducting decisive land power in the Pacific.”
From planning to execution, the exercise was a potent symbol of the expanding Australia-U.S. military partnership, which dates more than a century to the trenches of the Western Front during World War I and was cemented with a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951. Just months before drills began, Canberra unveiled its Defence Strategic Review, a comprehensive assessment of security challenges facing Australia that calls for the 85,000-member ADF to be able “to hold an adversary at risk further from our shores.” Among its recommendations: develop long-range strike capabilities, such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS); integrate long-range antiship missiles on fighter aircraft; enhance military planning with the U.S.; and increase rotations of U.S. forces to Australia.
As Talisman Sabre entered its second week, the defense and foreign ministers of Australia and the U.S. met in Brisbane, agreeing to deepen cooperation, including longer and more regular visits of U.S. Navy submarines, and rotations of U.S. Army watercraft and U.S. Navy maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft to Australia. The allies also agreed to establish a combined intelligence center within Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation by 2024 and co-produce a guided multiple-launch rocket system in Australia by 2025, while saying they would enhance collaboration with partners including India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea to bolster regional security and stability.
“I was never in combat when I didn’t turn to my right or left and see Australian Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, as well as many of the allies and partners that are represented here today,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who served 41 years in the U.S. Army, told exercise participants during a visit to Lavarack Barracks in Townsville with Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles. “This is what we’re about. We’re about interoperability. We’re about working together. We’re about promoting a common vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”
The gritty dust kicked up at Townsville Field by tank tracks, aircraft propellers and boots on the ground will barely settle before McLennan, Martin and their counterparts begin planning for the next Talisman Sabre in 2025. It’s an almost continuous endeavor that an Australian might liken to “painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge,” but one that promises yet another major stride forward for multinational partnerships.
“Overall, I think it’s been a remarkable achievement,” McLennan said, the battlefield map at his feet a manifestation of the scale and scope of a historic mission. “And I think it’s testament to that common, unified resolve and commitment to operate together, to train together and to be better together to potentially fight together. … When everyone’s pulling in the same direction, success takes care of itself. As we all know, it’s relationships that will keep us together in a crisis.”