War games on despite pandemic, threat to Great Barrier Reef

Australian soldiers participate in Talisman Sabre 2021. Photo: Nicolas A Cloward

Lurking off the coast of China’s eastern seaboard now are three United States aircraft carrier battle groups (each with about 30 support vessels).

They will be joined by a British aircraft carrier group and Australian and Canadian warships as part of biennial military exercises, which start on July 18 and last until the end of the month.

Talisman Sabre 2021 (TS21) will involve a US expeditionary strike group from the USS America, the amphibious assault ship based at Sasebo Naval Base in Japan, and 17,000 Australian, US and foreign troops in combined land, sea and air war exercises.  

According to , for the first time, there will be live-fire training: the US Army will fire a Patriot missile defense system from Shoalwater Bay in Queensland at a pair of drone targets on July 16.

This is within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and other environmentally and culturally significant areas.

The war games will also take place in Darwin in the Northern Territory and Evans Head, New South Wales. 

All are thousands of kilometres away from their home base, and provocatively close to the new declared enemy — China.

Forces from Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea will take part and Australia-based personnel from India, Indonesia, France and Germany will observe.

Meanwhile, the hyperventilated on July 14 that a solitary Chinese military ship, outside Australian territorial waters, poses a threat to national security.

The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) is concerned about both the war games and its impact on environmentally and culturally significant sites.

“TS21 will involve amphibious assaults, movement of heavy vehicles, use of live ammunition as well as the use of U.S. nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon capable vessels,” IPAN spokesperson Annette Brownlie said.

“These activities are incompatible with the protection of the environment and, in particular, the Great Barrier Reef.

“During Talisman Sabre 2013, the US jettisoned four unarmed bombs on the Great Barrier Reef when they had difficulty dropping them on their intended target, Townshend Island,” Brownlie said.

The objective of Talisman Sabre is to further integrate the Australian military with the US — now ranked among the world’s worst polluters.

IPAN said the ADF did not engage in a Public Environment Report process for TS21 and has yet to release an environmental assessment for the areas in which TS21 will take place.

However, the Department of Defence did produce an environmental awareness video for visiting troops that promotes the military use of the Great Barrier Reef. The video reminds troops to consider the reef and not to litter.

“Talisman Sabre is a threat to the reef and to the environment. Putting out a video is a completely inadequate response,” Brownlie said.

This comes as federal environment minister Sussan Ley is lobbying to keep the Great Barrier Reef off the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization World Heritage Committee's “in danger” list.

Despite a global pandemic, about 1800 foreign military personnel have arrived in Darwin to participate.