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Issue #1486      26 January 2011

Talisman Sabre 2011

Strong reasons to oppose war games

Talisman Sabre involves 18,000 US and 12,000 Australian troops, Talisman Sabre 2011 (TS11) is the next in the series of about nine US/Australian military exercises starting in 1994. It is to take place in the NT, north and central Queensland, the Coral, Timor and Arafura Seas, and the USA. In its Public Environment Report for TS11 (, the Australian Department of Defence lists TS11 activities as including firing of live ammunition and explosive ordnance; amphibious landings; artillery, armour and infantry manoeuvres; urban operations; air combat training; low-flying of helicopter and fixed-winged aircraft.

Also the use of unmanned aerial vehicles; air-to-air refuelling; special forces operations; ship-to-shore transfers and replenishments at sea; gun and missile firing; anti-submarine warfare, including use of high-power mid-frequency active sonar and sonobuoys to locate submarines; mine clearance; and science and technology projects (such as testing vehicle prototypes and communication systems) and advanced maritime operations. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and several submarines will be used; carriage of nuclear weapons will be neither confirmed nor denied.

The Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) in central Queensland is pivotal to the Talisman Sabre military exercises not only because of its size and coastline, but because it has facilities of the Joint Combined Training Capability, a US/Australian network of management systems, headquarters and training areas (virtual and live). However, SWBTA’s environmental value is pivotal too, highlighted by its inclusion on the National Heritage List, the Register of National Estate and the Commonwealth Heritage List, and by the international recognition of its wetlands under the international Ramsar Convention.

Undermining national security: The object of TS11 is to “improve training and interoperability between the Australian and US Armed Forces at the operational and tactical level” (Public Environment Report TS11), that is, to increase the combined capacity of the two nations to project military power beyond their shores. With this object, and in the context of the US/Australian military alliance and the aggressive defence policies of both nations, TS11 can afford no benefit to our national security. The exercises are a display of military power, provoking other nations, including China, to build up their arsenals and war preparations. Such displays increase the likelihood of war and undermine the international cooperation urgently needed to curtail the risk to human welfare of global warming. Increasing arms races and the risk of war are sure ways of increasing risks to human and environmental wellbeing. Security comes with jobs, homes, education, health care, food, clean water, eco-integrity and democracy.

Indigenous rights: The land and waters of the SWBTA are traditional country of the Darumbal people. According to Defence’s SWBTA State of the Environment Report 2008, it was not until the mid-1990s that Darumbal people were given limited rights to visit the SWBTA: ... “up to 12 access opportunities have been offered each year, although in some years of extended military training, that number has been much less”.

Social and health risks: Military exercises involving large numbers of visiting troops can have serious health and social impacts on hosting communities. Increases in violence, drug taking, sexual assault, sexually transmitted disease and road accidents have been reported. Australian examples are assaults by US MPs on Aborigines in Ipswich during the 1997 Tandem Thrust war games and the case of two US servicemen tried for rape in Darwin in February 2004.

Economic impacts: The estimated cost to Australia of conducting TS11 is over $100 million. The drain on the public purses of both Australia and US of these biennial war games deprives areas of essential social need of resources, as does all excessive military spending (2010 saw Australia’s military spending grow to over $S70 million a day, the USA’s over $US1.8 billion a day). Military expenditure reduces public and private investment, including in civilian R&D, increases the current account deficit, and creates fewer jobs than does equivalent spending on civilian projects.

Environmental impacts: The waters of the training areas on the Queensland coast are contained by the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, habitat for many protected species: the humpback whale, dugong, six turtle species, the estuarine crocodile, grey nurse shark, whale shark, 13 species of birds and several fish species. Defence is not legally obliged to undertake a formal environmental impact assessment for TS11, only an internal self-assessment.

Defence admits that, even after mitigation measures, risks remain: 26 remain at medium level and four remain high (the latter being risks to marine life from accidental exposure of a nuclear powered vessel’s reactor core; to migratory species and roosting birds from aircraft movement; to marine habitat and species of a major oil spill; and to flora and fauna from out-of-control hazard reduction burns).

Defence accepts that the biggest environmental risks of its activities are quarantine issues, particularly “the potential for introduction of exotic marine pests”, yet for TS11 we are expected to be confident in the capacity of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to assess every lunch box, shoe, Velcro fastener, tyre tread, engine, ship hull and piece of equipment of the 30,000 troops.

Defence insists the US military is environmentally responsible and appears to be ready to permit US units to self-monitor their environmental performance during TS11! Given its global reputation, the US military does not warrant this level of trust. It has successfully sought exemptions to several US environmental laws and, according to media reports, has attempted to avoid clean-ups on 129 of its most heavily contaminated decommissioned home bases.

Defence states that the results of research on sonar effects on marine mammals are too nebulous for the precautionary principle to be relevant. Authors of a 2008 paper cite mounting evidence that cetacean behavioural responses to levels of sonar previously thought safe have the potential to produce detrimental effects that may be lethal and cause population decline.

Under Australian environmental legislation, Defence is not required to have its environmental management systems and its environmental performance monitored and verified by independent civilian bodies. Defence environmental assessments are undertaken long after they can influence decisions and planning. The public consultation processes for major procurements and activities is selective, often nominal, and the public is denied details of military decisions likely to effect public well being.

Talisman Sabre 2011 will be conducted from July 18-29. To become involved in the campaign against it phone Denis, 0418 290 663.  

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