A public meeting in Brisbane was told today about the largest military exercise in Australia this year: Operation Talisman-Sabre 2007 (TS07) at north Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay. Kim Stewart from Peace Convergence told the meeting TS07 will involve nearly 14,000 US troops and over 12,000 Australian personnel, according to a Public Environment Report released last year.
The exercise is designed to improve combat readiness and interoperability. The field training portion of TS07 will be conducted from 19 June to 2 July, with force preparation and deployment of forces during the week of 12 to 18 June. Current planning shows Australian forces likely to participate are 20 ships and 25 aircraft while US forces likely to take part are 10 ships (including a carrier Battle Group) and 100 aircraft. Shoalwater is the major location with some events taking place at Townsville and Bradshaw (NT) bases.
This is the second major war games exercise in two years at Shoalwater. The purpose of Talisman Sabre 2005 (TS05) was to train American and Australian military in “crisis action planning for execution of contingency operations. TS05 brought together 11,000 US and 6,000 Australian under the command of Vice Admiral Jonathan W Greenert, Commander of the US Seventh Fleet. They practiced joint operations, test interoperability and also what was called “refined procedures and doctrines”.
Local residents are worried by the scale of these exercises and have complained about ongoing abuse of the Shoalwater Bay marine environment by military personnel. Local fishermen claim Army engineers used heavy explosives to blast a hole in the dunes on Freshwater Beach, lowered the local water table by 3 metres and drained a swamp into the sea. They also complain of heavy artillery firing in the water catchment, decimation of mangroves, deaths of dugongs due to bombings, and blasting of the Great Barrier Reef.
A local action group the Shoalwater Wilderness Awareness Group (SWAG) prepared a response (pdf) to the Department of Defence’s Public Environment Report for TS07. SWAG has five major concerns with the exercise. It claimed there was little public consultation, has serious omissions related to environmental impact, water catchment damage and lack of clean-up, identified risks in the document related to road damage and accidents, pointed out the dangers of nuclear weapons and depleted uranium to be used in the exercise, and lastly the failure to produce an Environmental Impact statement.
Shoalwater Bay is a wetlands of international importance. Vast mangrove forests, mudflats, sandflats and seagrass beds have formed on the sheltered western side of Shoalwater Bay. Half the wetland types found in Queensland exist in the Shoalwater and Corio Bays area. Threatened species which live in or visit these waters include dugong, saltwater crocodiles and various types of turtles including green, loggerhead, hawksbill and flatback. Almost half of Australia's recorded mangrove species are found in this area. They provide a nursery for fish and sheltered roosts for birds.
Australia is a signatory of The Ramsar convention on wetlands (signed in Ramsar, Iran in 1971). The convention is an intergovernmental treaty which provides the framework for national and international action for the use of wetlands. Shoalwater Bay is one of 64 Australian sites (pdf)registered with Ramsar and the fourth largest protected wetland after Coongie Lakes (South Australia), the Coral Sea islands territory and Kakadu.
Situated between Mackay and Rockhampton, the Shoalwater Bay area is a relatively undisturbed habitat area with significant flora and fauna. The mangrove, tidal mudflats and saltflats are internationally important habitats for resident and migratory waterbirds. The site regularly hosts over 20,000 birds. The entire 240,000 hectare area is within the Mackay-Capricorn Marine Park. The Shoalwater Bay Training Area has been listed on the Register of the National Estate since 1980 but is managed by the Department of Defence.
Dr Zohl dé Ishtar addressed the public meeting on the wider context of the Shoalwater Bay military exercise. dé Ishtar is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. She has wide-ranging experience in dealing with cross-cultural research and project collaboration with Indigenous Pacific and Australian women/communities. dé Ishtar recently returned from Guam where she observed first hand the US military influence on the island.
dé Ishtar explained how the US military now sees the North West Pacific region as its highest risk area with the ongoing tensions between China and Taiwan and to a lesser extent between the Koreas. The US intent to increase their military presence in the North Pacific but preferably in US controlled territory not in allied territory. The favoured locations are Alaska, Hawaii and Guam. As the commander of Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base said Guam is “big lily pad for leap frogging people, supplies, aircraft -- anything we need to sustain a conflict -- into the [Southwest Asia] region."
Not everyone in Guam is happy about the US presence. Guam is the southernmost of the Mariana Island and is four hours flight north of Cairns. It is a small island and an “unincorporated territory” of the US which means Guam residents don't vote for the US President and have no voting representation in the US Congress. Guahan (Guam) was settled by the Chamorros people at least 4,000 years ago and colonised by Spain in the 17th century. The US took control of the island after the Spanish-American war of 1898. It was captured by Japan for three years in World War II. Since that war, Guam has been vital in securing American military and economic interests throughout the Pacific and Asia.
The US Department of Defence occupies 30% of the island with the potential to expand. It is rapidly increasing the offensive capability of both the Air Force and Navy on the island. There are plans to establish a Global Strike Force on Guam, involving rotating 48 F-22 and F-15E fighter jets, six B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers, adding another three nuclear submarines to the three Guam already houses and plans to become the home port of 60 per cent of the Navy's Pacific Fleet in the region. It will become the "largest, most forward US military installation in the Pacific theatre," which will inevitably make Guam a first-strike target in any Pacific war.
Ishtar pointed how Guam is becoming known as the tip of the spear of US Pacific forces. Guam's new priority is a result of the "unknowns" in East Asia - code language for Pentagon concerns about the rise of China - with its claims on Taiwan and rivalry with Japan - and a region with friction over oil rights, North Korea. Logistically it is far easier to support Guam from Australia than the US.
In 2005, the Australian Government entered agreements (under the auspices of Ausmin) with the US to provide long-term access and joint use of Shoalwater Bay Training Area. This agreement ties Australia to the rapid military build up in Guam. Talisman Sabre 2007 is a result. dé Ishtar pointed out how if Guam is the tip of the spear, then Australia prepares the hand that holds the spear.