Inside the large-scale military exercise in Australia to counter China’s influence in the Pacific


(TOWNSVILLE, Australia) — For the next week 30,000 troops from the U.S., Australia, and 11 other countries will continue their joint training in different parts of Australia as part of the Talisman Sabre 2023, a military exercise that used to focus on the U.S. and Australia but now shows the growing interest other nations in the region and beyond have in countering China’s growing influence in the South Pacific.

The two-week exercise incorporates training on the ground, in the air and at sea, providing realistic training for how these militaries could work together if needed in the future.

Originally a joint U.S.-Australia exercise, it has grown in scope in recent years and is expected to keep growing in the future.

With 30,000 military personnel participating, this year’s exercise is the largest yet and reflects how countries in Asia and Europe see the importance of having their militaries train together in a region where there is a growing sentiment to counter China assertive actions.

“There really is a sense that the partner nations, the 13 countries participating in exercise Talisman Saber are building a connectedness with each other in the way in which we go about our work, which enhances the collective security of the Indo-Pacific region and ultimately that is what underpins the way our forces exist in this part of the world,” Richard Marles, Australia’s deputy prime minister, who also serves as its defense minister, said Sunday during a visit with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Townsville, Australia.

Australia’s active duty military numbers 60,000 personnel, significantly smaller than the 1.1. million who serve in the United States military, but, as Australian officials are heard to say, “we pitch above our weight” — one reason why the U.S. sees Australia as a key partner to help counter China in the region.

This week’s visit by Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for an annual meeting with their Australian counterparts reflects that commitment.

A joint statement that resulted from their meetings included a deepening in military ties between the U.S. and Australia, including U.S. access to more Australian bases, regular and longer U.S. Navy submarine stops to Australia, increased cooperation between both countries in space, speeding up efforts for Australia to develop its own guided missile production capability and working to establish deeper security relationships with other countries in the region — most notably Japan.

Austin reaffirmed the goal shared by the U.S. and Australia, exemplified by the exercise.

“We’re about promoting a common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and we will continue to stand by our allies,” Austin said in an address to some of the troops gathered at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville.

“This exercise helps us strengthen our unbreakable alliance and our vision for that free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.

This year’s exercise marked the first-time participation from countries as far away as Germany and by South Pacific countries including Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga.

“There’s a lot of things that happen here that have never happened before in the world,” Royal Australian Air Force Wing Cmdr. WIlliam Laredo said, while briefing reporters about the exercise during the stop in Townsville.

Among other things during the past week, U.S. Marines worked with Japanese and German forces on an amphibious assault exercise, HIMARS missile launches occurred in Australia for the first time, German tactical air controllers called in a U.S. AC-130 to fire live munitions, and there have been exercises at sea by warships from various countries.

U.S. Marines participating in the exercise for the first time told ABC News that they have seen the value in training with counterparts from so many countries. About 2,000 U.S. Marines were sent to Australia for the exercise to join the Marine rotational force from Darwin, Australia that is also participating in the exercise.

“I’ve never seen so many countries in one place and all working together cohesively in a good environment,” said Cpl. Jessica Perez, a 21-year-old Radio chief from Chicago, Illinois. “It’s amazing.”

Marine 1st Lt. Nicholas Pfanstiel said the shared history the U.S. military has had with their Australian counterparts has helped his Marines during the exercise.

“I think just knowing the culture and knowing the concepts, knowing how just the SOPs that a unit is already utilizing here that moves us forward. So when we come here next time, we’re not starting from scratch,” Pfanstiel said.

Col. Eric Dougherty, the operations officer for the 1st Marine Division, told ABC News that U.S. Marines are not only learning how to work with their peers from other countries but are also learning what it takes to deploy over Australia’s vast distances.

“We get to perform at distance and scale so that they have some non-defense training areas, which is literally like kind of training out in the public that we don’t have access to back in the States,” he said.

The exercise was temporarily halted following the crash of an Australian MRH-90 helicopter off the northeast coast of Australia that has left the four Australian service members aboard missing. Search and rescue operations continue in an effort to find the four missing service members.

The accident cast a pall over the exercise and both Austin and Marles expressed that their thoughts are with the families of the four service members and noted the risks military personnel take even when conducting training.

“This accident makes it very real. I know what this exercise means. The dangers that are involved, the risks that inevitably come with that,” said Marles.

“We also understand the process, the very grave significance that comes when we put on the uniforms of our respective nation,” he added.

“As we have walked around today and seen Exercise Talisman Sabre in action, the exercise that those aircrew were participating in on Friday and what becomes manifestly clear, as Lloyd said, is the sense of team and shared mission between the countries participating,” he said.

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