The last Talisman Saber ever…?

Exercise Talisman Saber 2017  took place at multiple locations across Australia last month. I couldn’t even tell you what its official dates were, as it’s a kind of nebulous affair that requires a lot of build-up in intensity before it picks up momentum.

There was a lot to say about this year’s event. It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the series of seven eponymous exercises. It involved more than 33,000 troops, primarily from Australia and the US, along with a sizeable (relative to its strength) contingent from New Zealand, and smatterings of Japanese and Canadians.

Talisman Saber 2017 also witnessed the largest Australian Defence Force (ADF) amphibious assault since World War Two. I mean to say, it featured no fewer than four landing craft disgorging troops onto the beach at the same time. Obviously Australia has not conducted many amphibious landings in the past 70 years!

Nevertheless, HMAS Canberra did not break down, and the ADF managed to get a battalion ashore by landing craft and helicopter. It’s still problematic that the Canberra class cannot land an Abrams tank ashore because they’re too heavy for its landing craft, but let’s not diminish the accomplishments of the Australian Army’s maturing amphibious capability.

As Greg Colton remarked in the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter, ‘This year’s exercise has shown that the ADF can now project a combined-arms battlegroup over the shore and sustain it during mid-intensity warfighting. A significant role of any defence force is to act as a deterrent and to do so it must be capable against a range of high-end threats. The ADF has demonstrated that it is now able to conduct major amphibious operations throughout the region, either unilaterally or as part of a coalition with the US or New Zealand. As such, for the first time in three decades, Australia now has the military capability to back up its stated defence strategy.’

The US Army had a much larger presence than usual, with an Alaska-based Stryker battalion and Hawaii-based combat aviation unit from the 25th Infantry Division participating as part of the Pacific Pathways series of exercises. This saw US Army Apaches and Black Hawks appearing for the first time, as well as Gray Eagle UAVs.

The USMC performed a typical ‘kick down the door’ amphibious assault too, landing ashore near the end of the free-play exercise to act as the anvil to destroy the last resistance of the opposing force. Also on the American side, the USN and USMC flew media by MV-22B Osprey and hosted them aboard USS Bonhomme Richard for a ship tour and interview with navy commanders.

I’m not sure why Australia didn’t do the same with HMAS Canberra. Perhaps they were afraid it might break?

The exercise was so interesting that China sent one of its Type 815 spy ships to hang out on Australia’s periphery too. Oddly enough, Australia and the US didn’t throw a tantrum or stamp on the floor as China does when it sees foreign naval vessels pass through the South China Sea. It seems China has not seen the irony in the situation yet.

With so many accomplishments to trumpet, why then the headline of this piece asking if this is the last Talisman Saber ever?

Well, it just may be my final Talisman Saber ever. After covering the past five exercises, the frustrations have built up to the point where I must question the expense and time necessary to attend, especially when flying from overseas.

You see, the ADF really dropped the ball in terms of media relations this year. Before the exercise began, media support was almost non-existent. Even after an application was lodged, there was no acknowledgement, no contact person available to answer queries. A simple question such as, ‘What date is the exercise?’ went unanswered, making it impossible to book air tickets until the last, and most expensive, minute.

Then, all information about what activities media wished to cover disappeared into a black hole, never to be seen again. It was only after US public affairs officers (PAO) hit the ground running at the start of the exercise that any kind of information started flowing.

Even then, there were frustrations. Without explanation I was bumped off the list of media attending the said amphibious assault – the largest since WWII, did you know? – because it was preferable to give seats to VIPs and senators. It seems the parachute drop on the same day was a bust too, as media only saw it from a kilometre away behind the treeline.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are some fantastic PAOs on both the Australian and US sides – and I met many of them this year, and I had a great time with Battle Group Cannan, the Kiwis, the Japanese, the USMC and USN – but the overall coordination this year was poor. Embeds seemed to be organised ad hoc at the last minute, even though they had been requested weeks, nay months, in advance.

There were so many good stories that Shephard would have loved to tell: Australia’s biggest amphibious assault since WWII (hadn’t you heard?), UAVs, helicopters, the ASLAV surveillance vehicle, urban operations, development of 2 RAR’s amphibious capability, upgrades of M1A1 Abrams tanks, organisation of armoured cavalry regiments, etc. Sadly, they just weren’t possible.

Yes, I understand that the tactical exercise is a complex jigsaw of working pieces and that not all media requests can be accommodated. I wasn’t even angry that my RAAF escort and I got abandoned on the side of the road for seven hours at one stage! However, careful planning and organisation could have made things a lot smoother for all media. And incidentally, this is not just sour grapes from me, because every media counterpart that I spoke to had a similar tale of woe.

And then, alas, Virgin Australia hit me with an A$70 excess baggage charge for being 2kg over the limit when departing from Rockhampton Airport. That was perhaps the straw that broke this long-suffering camel’s back.

So, yes, it might well be my final Talisman Saber…Even if the ADF could entice me back in 2019, I certainly won’t be flying Virgin Australia.

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