Talisman Sabre 2023: big lessons from a large exercise
US military vehicles use a floating pier in Talisman Sabre

Picture courtesy of Defence Images.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The biggest version of Talisman Sabre ever conducted ended on 8 August.  This high-end military exercise between Australian, US and other military forces involved over 34,500 military personnel from 13 nations and covered over 7,000km of Australia’s coastline from Western Australia round to Norfolk Island off Australia’s east coast. 

Media material from Defence gives glimpses of activities like the first firing of a Japanese Type-12 anti-ship missile outside Japan, demonstration of a South Korean military multiple rocket launch system and engineering feats like building a temporary 540m floating pier.

The large number of participants in an expanding range of activities is evidence that the Chinese Communist Party’s coercive behaviour and ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy is not having the results it seeks. Instead, nations are enhancing their cooperation to demonstrate resolve and deter those behaviours.

But despite the good news stories around tactical weapons use or coordination between the participating militaries, there are hard lessons that need to be acted upon.  Some will come from the investigations into the deaths of four aircrew in the Taipan helicopter crash during the exercise, while other lessons will have much broader implications.

Those lessons are about the limitations of Australian facilities and supply chains for supporting even moderately large military cooperation. Talisman Sabre should be providing a menu of urgent actions to reinvest in and boost Australia’s ability to host and support our own military and those of our allies and partners.  This role is key to Australia’s contribution to multilateral deterrence of an aggressive China in our region.

34,500 military personnel exercising together for two weeks is a small scale warm up for the force levels and cooperation needed should conflict occur in our region. To give some sense of perspective, by 1943, some 250,000 American troops were stationed in Australia, with over 1 million US servicemen having operated through Australia by the end of the war.

To give another point of perspective about the scale of support required for a modern military, in Ukraine between February 2022 and May this year, Putin’s forces have fired some 5,000 missiles and ‘one way attack drones’ at Ukraine. Putin has lost somewhere between 1,700 and 3,300 tanks in the war so far. Ukraine is reportedly using and losing 10,000 drones a month. By March 2023, the US had supplied Ukraine with over 1 million 155mm artillery rounds. Yet despite drawing on all available sources of munitions, both sides have been struggling to keep up with the rates of use in combat.

So, impressive as the coordination, participation and planning were, hosting an exercise involving 34,500 personnel who test fired tiny numbers of missiles, rockets and munitions and built a pier and some dry river crossings can only hint at the scale of effort required for Australia to be a strategic enabler of deterrence in our region. 

The challenge for the Albanese government and the Defence organisation is to first understand and then communicate to the defence industry, wider corporate Australia, the state and territory governments and that often forgotten ‘stakeholder’, the Australian people, what needs to be done so that Australia’s role in deterrence is made real over the next 2, 3 and 5 years. After all, this is the period that the government’s Defence Strategic Review says may be defining for our region’s security.

The menu for action is different to the usual preoccupations of defence officials, ministers and commentators.  It’s not primarily about the latest tender selection of a new weapon, ship, tank or aircraft and its cost.  Instead, it’s about the boring but important stuff that leverages Australia’s key strategic advantage for our own military and for our partners and allies–our location. 

That means overturning the long-used basis for spending in defence facilities like airbases, ports, weapons-handling facilities and storage.  For decades, Defence has calculated its expenditure on ‘the Defence estate’ by assessing what is the minimum needed to support introduction to the Australian Defence Force of a new platform–the Air Warfare Destroyers, the F-35 fighters or the huge C-17 aircraft.  And the projects for acquiring these have had parallel projects to do just enough at the bases and places they will operate from to make it work.  In other words, we’ve scaled our defence facilities and supply chains to just meet our own, current needs, just in time and with just enough capacity for peacetime exercises and operations. Moving beyond this mindset has been a laborious process, with drawn out haggling over who pays for what limiting progress—as the slow ramp up of the USMC rotations to Darwin has shown.

The result is when we host even a modest collection of partner military capabilities, we max out everything needed to operate our own forces and support these partners very quickly.

Given this, the challenge is to sketch out and address what it would take to supply our own and partner forces operating out of Australia with the volume and type of consumables they would need in a time of conflict as well as the facilities needed to enable their operations.  What port facilities, weapons handling and storage arrangements would be needed for example? What classes of supplies ranging from fuels to clothing to munitions and missiles needs to be either sourced and imported or produced domestically and moved to where they need to be? How will our own and partner and allied ships, aircraft, submarines and vehicles be sustained and maintained, where and by whom?  And, out of all this, what preparatory investment and planning do we need to get in place now, not sometime in the 2030s or 40s?

The shift needed is to invest early in scaling up Australian airbases, naval facilities, weapons handling and storage areas and all the known bottlenecks for moving, accommodating and supplying a military in a time of conflict.

Leaving such investment until a conflict begins and then ‘mobilising’ will only do two things: undercut the credibility of any deterrent message from Australia and its powerful allies and partners–and ensure that should a conflict actually occur, Australia is much more vulnerable and much less useful to our own military and our allies’ and partners militaries than it needs to be. In their Strategic Review, Stephen Smith and Angus Houston pointed to the urgent need to improve northern basing and wider infrastructure – no doubt understanding the price tag would require urgent new funding.

The big problems with this acceleration and expansion of Australian facility and supply chain capacity are obvious: even a known need like the new East Coast submarine base has been put on the backburner by the government. And investment in expanded defence facilities and supply chains beyond that already scoped and budgeted for back in the 2016 Defence White Paper isn’t affordable with the Albanese government’s defence budget projection – no new money for the next four years and then the only potential new money seems earmarked for the AUKUS submarine program.

It’s not yet clear that the government is willing to spend what is needed; while the government announced that the DSR was resulting in $3.8 billion in ‘strengthening northern bases’, in the absence of details it appears this is simply restating works that were already underway at places such as RAAF Base Tindal and Cocos Island.

There’s embarrassment looming here for the government and for Defence, because the Americans understand the value of Australia as a strategic location to operate from and they are accelerating their investment of US taxpayers’ money into what the AUSMIN FactSheet calls ‘the ambitious trajectory of Enhanced Force Posture Cooperation across land, maritime and air domains as well as Combined Logistics Sustainment and Maintenance Enterprise’.   

It won’t take long for Pentagon and Congressional figures to work out that the Australian side of this ambitious trajectory consists of tweaking, rebadging and re-announcing projects and activities that have been in the Defence budget plans since the 2016 Defence White Paper. Looking at our slow movements while they accelerate and spend downunder, our American ally is going to start applying that old Australian tourist slogan ‘Where the bloody hell are you?’ to us. If one of the goals of AUKUS is to show that US allies are moving beyond being free riders on US defence spending, it’s not a clear demonstration of resolve if Australia relies on US infrastructure investment in Australia.

The Australian Parliament and its committee system has a real role here to get the actual lessons and implications from Talisman Sabre on the table for debate, public discussion and to prompt government decision making. That’s because of the unfortunate tendency of Defence media management to want to just put out glowing reports of exercise highlights and the overwhelming reluctance of either ministers of officials to bring the Parliament or the public into their confidence about real shortfalls and what’s required to address them. The new Joint Statutory Committee on Defence (Recommendation 6 here) along with Senate Estimates, are the right places for this forensic discovery work.

Deterrence is more than even the most successful multinational exercise and much more than meeting announcements and factsheets.  Sometimes it’s about demonstration of capacity through investment in the boring and the mundane but essential things needed to support militaries in conflict. And always it’s about an informed public, defence industry and corporate sector understanding what’s at stake and what needs to be done to ensure our own and our region’s security.