AUSTRALIA will be fighting an offshore enemy alongside its foreign allies in “highly sophisticated warfighting”, using lethal weapons and equipment, as part of an elaborate mock wargames ramping up across North Queensland.

It comes as the Prime Minister confirmed this morning a Chinese spy ship was spotted off the coast of Queensland. It’s not the first time a high tech surveillance vessel has been spotted in the region during exercise Talisman Sabre, with exercises in 2019 and 2017 confirming the Chinese presence. 

Talisman Sabre remains the largest bilateral training activity between Australia and the United States, designed to test the combat readiness of the Army, Navy and Air Force troops and US Marines in a series of complex war scenarios. 

The 17,000 strong contingent is made up of troops from the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, and for the first time, the Republic of Korea. 

Defence estimates Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 delivered an economic benefit to the Queensland economy of around $20 million, and although TS21 will involve fewer international participants – the high intensity training remains.

A combined Australian-US effort will see troops close in on, and destroy an enemy force that has lodged and is defending key terrain, as part of the land component.

Other elaborate scenarios will see land manoeuvres executed with amphibious and maritime forces, supported by offensive air support during complicated beach landings.

Australian Army soldiers serving with the 2nd Batallion, The Royal Australian Regiment, approach Langham Beach, Stanage Bay, during Talisman Sabre 2019. IMAGE: Supplied

“It is exceptionally complex, there’s a lot of detail in it, and that makes the challenge of what we’ll be doing over the next number of weeks quite exciting,” said Brigadier Kahlil Fegan.

“It’s an opportunity for our soldiers right from our senior officers down to our newest soldiers, to operate with foreign forces, and understand how they work so that if we ever have to do so in a contested operational environment, we’re able to do so as effectively as possible.”

Unlike any of the previous exercises, planning for the ninth iteration of Talisman Sabre required additional contingencies due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. Something the 3rd Brigade Commander said was likely to be a factor included in military operations for many years to come.

In response, it meant some components, involving foreign maritime and air elements, will occur exclusively offshore – meaning no US sailors or marines will be allowed off their ship with a number of activities being run exclusively offshore. Isolation tents will also be set up in the field in case any Australian or foreign service member falls ill with COVID-19.

“We’re training in a COVID environment so we have to be 100% compliant with state and federal rules and regulations pertaining to mitigation of the COVID threat,” Brig Fegan said. 

“I consider that a right and proper thing to be doing but not only that, it presents us with a training opportunity because there’s nothing to say that we would not be operating, potentially, in a foreign country that has been contaminated in some aspects.

“So there’s a real training benefit for us in ensuring that we are compliant and we are safe.”

U.S. Marine Cpl. Nicholas Umbarger scans his sector near Stanage Bay, Queensland, during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. IMAGE: Supplied

The peak of the mock war-games action will occur in the Shoalwater Bay Military Training Area in Byfield, north of Rockhampton, as well as further north in Townsville and off the east coast of Australia between July 14-August 1, with smaller components anticipated to extend from Weipa to the Whitsundays and down to Evans Head in NSW.

The Australian Defence Force will have its most advanced equipment put to the test, including M1 Abrams Tanks, chinook helicopters, integrated technical systems, HMAS Choules, a 16,000 tonne 176 metres long warship capable of carrying more than 350 troops.

However, one big ticket item expected to be absent is Army’s $3.8 billion fleet of 47 MRH-90 Taipan helicopters, which has been suspended from service since May, after major safety and maintenance issues were discovered.

The Defence department said at the time the decision to suspend the aircrafts operations were “temporary”, and as a “safety precaution”.

It comes after Defence stripped its multi-billion-dollar Battle Management System (BMS) from Army equipment in May. 

Defence is yet to provide an update on the Elbit Systems BMS, or future of the MRH-90 Tapains which have been listed as a major project of concern for the ADF since November 2011.

A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries an artillery piece over Langham Beach during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019. IMAGE: Supplied
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