In the blue skies above the pristine waters of the Coral Sea, four Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets slide into formation off the left-hand quarter of the Airbus KC-30A tanker, circling at 26,000 ft (7,924 m) approximately 120 miles (192 km) northwest of the city of Brisbane, capital of the Australian state of Queensland. Taking turns refueling off an aircraft type more commonly used as an airliner, the Super Hornets take on 5,000 lbs (2,268 kg) of aviation fuel each by flying a retractable probe into a basket at the end of a hose trailing from a cylindrical pod hanging off the tanker’s wings. It is an extremely delicate aerial ballet conducted at a few hundred miles per hour which is surprisingly quick to complete. A mere 20 minutes elapses between the first sighting of the fighter jets from on board the tanker to the last one breaking formation with the tanker having taken on the requisite amount of fuel.
The jets, all belonging to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and flying from RAAF base Amberley, located approximately 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Brisbane, are taking part in Exercise Talisman Saber 2013, a biennial combined exercise between the armed forces of Australia and the United States, held mainly on Australia’s mainland and surrounding waters/airspace between July 15 and August 5. The primary objective of the exercise is to improve interoperability between the armed services of both countries. After the midair top up, the Super Hornets head north to the vast Shoalwater Bay training area in Central Queensland to support Australian ground troops and American Marines carrying out maneuvers below.
This year’s exercise, the fifth since the series began in 2005, is the largest Talisman Saber to have been held to date, with the United States alone contributing approximately 20,000 personnel participating in the exercise. A wide variety of personnel and equipment, drawn from disparate units from all over the U.S. military’s various Pacific bases and the United States proper, are involved in the exercise. At sea, these included a three-ship Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) centered on the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship carrying the first squadron of US Marine Corps Boeing MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft to be based in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the Japan-based nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS George Washington, along with her air wing and escorts.
On land, Australian forces trained alongside their U.S. Army and Marine counterparts in various combat scenarios ranging from Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) to Special Operations. The Marines were mainly drawn from the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and the (currently) small detachment in Darwin, while an Alaska-based airborne battalion from the U.S Army’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division staged a dramatic entrance into the exercise, parachuting into Shoalwater Bay Training Area after a 6,500 mile (10,461 km) flight on six U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters in a demonstration of the U.S. Army’s ability to deploy globally.