The Guardian • Issue #1971

Stop Talisman Sabre war games!

US-Australian war games, currently being played in Queensland, should be cancelled for compelling security, environmental, economic, and health reasons. Shoalwater Bay must be handed back to the Darumbal people and US military bases, marines, ships, and planes must be expelled from Australia.

Talisman Sabre 2021 (TS21) is a joint United States-Australian military exercise that has taken place every two years in Australia, primarily on the central coast of Queensland at Shoalwater Bay, north of Rockhampton, within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This year Talisman Sabre will run from late June to mid-August, peaking during 14-31 July.

Though significantly down-sized due to the Covid pandemic, Talisman Sabre has 17,000 US and Australian troops engaging in combined land, sea and air war games. The exercise includes the use of US nuclear-powered and nuclear weapons capable vessels, urban warfare, sonar, amphibious assaults, parachuting and land force manoeuvres. Live firing is likely to occur either before or after the official dates.

In addition to the US and Australia, this year’s exercise involves forces from Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, and the United Kingdom and observers from India, Indonesia, France, and Germany.


The Talisman Sabre exercises deepen Australia’s military involvement with the world’s most aggressive nation, the US. Australia can no longer operate independently of the US in military matters.

US and Australian battle fleets conducting nuclear-capable military exercises during these war games will set off political alarm bells in our region and remind the world that Australia is deeply involved and supportive of US military activities.


Talisman Sabre sends a clear message to China that if conflict breaks out between the US and China, Australia will take part with the US.

Australia has sent troops to US-led conflicts around the world and allows the US to use its military and civilian infrastructure, including communication stations, ports and airfields. Australia houses one of the US’s key satellite war-fighting bases, Pine Gap, which helps guide US weaponry in the Middle East and is part of its missile defence system.

There are up to 2,500 US troops stationed in Darwin, strategically close to China and the South China Sea. Australia allows US planes deployed from Guam to fly over the Northern Territory to drop bombs. Australia allows the US to conduct troop changeovers in Western Australia, and US troops to deploy from Fremantle. Australia hosts about thirty US war-fighting bases.

Australia and the US had announced plans to test hypersonic missiles in Australia this year. On 16th July, during Talisman Sabre, the US and Australian military completed the first ever Patriot surface-to-air missile firing on Australian soil. US soldiers based in Japan and Guam successfully engaged drone targets with the Patriot missiles.


In 2005, Australia made a long-term agreement with the US, turning Shoalwater Bay into a Joint Combined Training Centre and the first biennial Talisman Sabre took place. Glossy Public Environment Reports and fact sheets are written for each Talisman Sabre, but they are a public relations exercise. Written by private consulting firms to assuage public concern, they downplay any potential environmental impacts and fail to address social, broader environmental and political impacts of the war games.

This year, the ADF did not engage in a Public Environment Report process. However, Defence has produced an environmental awareness information video for visiting troops, promoting the military use of the Great Barrier Reef.

With many environmentally significant sites, species of birds and turtles, RAMSAR Convention listed wetlands key to international migratory birds, critical sea grass beds, diverse flora, coastal shores and waters protected as part of a world heritage site, dugongs and migrating whales, let alone protected coral reef and all its inhabitants, Shoalwater Bay should never be used for any military training.

This is even more true of these war games, which include the use of nuclear powered and nuclear weapons capable vessels, noise of low-flying planes and helicopters, maritime surface to surface, surface to land and surface to air live firing of missiles and torpedoes, the use of sonar and experimentation with new weapons.

On 22nd June, the United Nations World Heritage Committee announced that it would recommend that the Great Barrier Reef be listed as “World Heritage in Danger.” The Committee identified the need for greater commitment to “countering the effects of climate change, but also towards accelerating water quality improvement and land management measures.”

The objective of Talisman Sabre is to increase interoperability with the US military whose environmental footprint is appalling. The US military is ranked among the world’s worst polluters and greatest consumer of oil. It has a legacy of leaving bases contaminated and radioactive.

In 2013, during earlier Talisman Sabre exercises, the US jettisoned four bombs on the Great Barrier Reef when they had difficulty dropping them on their intended target, Townshend Island.


No official reports of the costs of the Talisman Sabre war games are provided by the government except in 2009 when a figure of $100mil was made public. The games have grown in size and the weapons systems increasingly complex so it is reasonable to assume that costs have also escalated.

This is underscored by the increase in Australia’s overall military spending to $44.6bil for 2021-22. This could and should be better spent on organising the economy along sustainable lines, protecting us from the pandemic, providing good jobs, education, health, welfare and much more. Australians would undoubtedly benefit from this as history teaches us that buying ever larger quantities of guns and bombs is no guarantee of security.


Bringing in thousands of troops from overseas poses a severe health risk for the people of Australia. Despite quarantining, the threat of spreading the Delta Covid variant from thousands of troops and observers is considerable.

Despite thousands of Australians not allowed to return home, military personnel from the US, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Korea, the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, France, and Germany have been allowed into our country to play war games.

The Australian government has insisted that the coronavirus, which led to the cancellation of exercises in the Philippines, will not derail Talisman Sabre.

The Talisman Sabre war games should be cancelled and never be held again. And we should be fighting every day to change the government and the system which depend on exploitation, war and destruction.

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