A ‘highway on water’ is taking shape off the North Queensland coast as the US military attempts its largest ship-to-shore logistics operation to date. 

The small fishing and farming town of Bowen has become the command and control centre for the Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore (JLOTS) maritime operation. 

It’s one of dozens of military scenarios playing out across regional Australia as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre (TS23).

More than 30,000 members from 13 nations are participating in the exercise at large with the JLOTS one of very few involving only Australia and the United States, relying heavily on Australian agencies due to the various customs, government, and legislative requirements.

Task Force Commander, Colonel Samuel Miller told the Caller planning and ongoing liaison with civilian authorities began months in advance with a strict requirement to meet all relevant requirements in accordance with Australian law.

“Any interaction with the police, government or border force in and around our operation, sometimes we find we need to go to our ADF counterpart to help facilitate that,” Col Miller said.

The area of operation has an added complexity due to zoning within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and is subject to Queensland’s Reef Regulations. 

Col Miller said extra precautions were in place to meet the requirements, which are enforceable by Australian law.

“With the environmental piece we have one particular individual as an advisor who is instrumental and we have now two Australian counterparts and another US counterpart,” he said.

More than 700 US soldiers and sailors have been working 24-hour shifts on the ships and on the beach to manually construct the almost 600m long pier which will be used as a ‘highway’ to transport military equipment from the ship to shore. 

The large-scale mission, which has been mastered by very few militaries internationally, has been most commonly used to resupply and assist during humanitarian operations and recovery efforts after natural disasters, which have left coastal communities isolated without critical infrastructure and food or water.

The operation has more recently been relied on in Antarctica to get supplies and cargo in and out of the region when sea ice has melted.

It’s the first time this training has occurred in Australia and while it’s typically designed for safe environments, it can be conducted in combat, according to Col Miller.

“I think we have to recognise in today’s world that there’s a lot more competition – we’re cognisant of the area that we’re operating in. 

“Even back in the United States, we’ve kind of changed our way of thinking a little bit to where you could link it to cyber for example, your competitors can reach further distances. 

“Part of the capability we’re going to demonstrate is you don’t necessarily need a fixed port, you can operate in a degraded port from a typhoon all the way up to entering a shoreline at different locations.”

Achieving it requires a truly joint effort between many arms of the US military with personnel from the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.

Soldiers taking part in the Joint Logistics Over-the-Shore maritime operation. IMAGE: Supplied

The use of JLOTs dates back to World War II, but with much of the focus on rail, long haul and airlift logistics for the past two decades, maritime has been less common.

With more than two decades and multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as a logistician, Staff Sergeant Arcelia Staggers conceded there has been a shift in how, where and what kind of logistics operations are prioritised amid competition for power globally.

“If you look at Russia and the war in Ukraine, one of Russia’s failures was that they didn’t understand logistics sustainment,” SSgt Staggers said.

“It’s the first time we’re executing this here and it’s really critical not only for our partnerships here in Australia but our combatant commanders who we’re providing the doorway for them through JLOTS.

“It’s another way to enter into any theatre (of war).

“We’re here posturing ourselves, exercising our equipment and exercising our capability, allowing our soldiers and our partners to get the hands-on training to become more proficient and effective with their equipment.”

Executing the maritime logistics operation is best described as the creation of Lego pieces which are able to be reconfigured into different shapes and sizes to suit the environment and equipment while being held in location largely by tug boats. 

A larger ship, in this case ‘The Fisher’ is used to carry the deconstructed pieces of the pier and larger equipment such as cranes and tug boats are needed to build it. 

Once these are unloaded and the ‘highway on water’ starts taking shape the tug boats drag it to a second ship known as ‘The Bob Hope’ which stabs the pier into the beach as part of a precision manoeuvre.

As part of TS23, the operation is being carried out at Kings Beach where cargo including infantry fighting vehicles and tanks will be driven ashore to support and resupply ongoing tactical missions taking place throughout Central and North Queensland.

SSgt Staggers said morale among troops was high, with everyone aware of the precarious nature of geopolitical relations in the Indo-Pacific.

“Our soldiers know how critical they are to the mission, each and every one of them,” she said. 

“Without their skill set, this mission would not be possible so absolutely our soldiers are doing an amazing job – great work, and our partners in the Navy and our Coast Guard partners as well.”

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