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.
If there was a sign of the military portion of the United States’ pivot to the Pacific (or rebalance, depending on your point of view) in action, this exercise would be it. Australia is a military ally of the United States in the Pacific, and it is not surprising that the country has been at the center of news on the pivot. Despite Australia’s very strong trade and economic relations with China, there is definitely a growing unease in its security establishment regarding China’s rise as a regional military power, with Beijing’s increasingly belligerent approach to its territorial disputes with other Asian nations prompting increasingly furrowed brows in the region.
In November 2011, then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and United States President Barack Obama announced enhanced Australia-US defense cooperation. The agreement called for a gradual increase of six month rotations of Marines to northern Australia beginning in 2012. A 250-strong rotation of Marines arrived in Australia’s Northern Territory last year and again this year. The deployment will increase to 1,150 personnel and four heavy lift helicopters for the 2014 deployment cycle, before increasing again to 2,500 in 2016, when the Marine Corps’ Australian contingent will grow to a full Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in the form of a MEU-strength detachment to be located in Darwin during each dry season.
The troops will come from the forces currently stationed in Okinawa, where there is strident local opposition to their presence and there are plans to permanently move 9,000 Marine personnel from the island. However, further details on the future MAGTF deployment to Australia are scarce, such as whether the Marines will have the amphibious ships of an Expeditionary Strike Group nearby for support as is normal practice. (Currently the nearest ESG, consisting of four amphibious ships, is based in Japan)
Similarly, the U.S. Air Force has also started releasing details of its plans for the pivot, with four star General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, chief of USAF operations in the Pacific, revealing during a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington on July 29 that there are plans afoot to deploy "fighters, tankers, and at some point in the future, maybe bombers on a rotational basis," to Australia, with jets likely starting their Australian presence sometime in the next year at RAAF base Darwin before moving to nearby RAAF Base Tindal.
The main attractions of Australia as a location to base U.S. forces are manifold, not least being the vastness and remoteness of northern Australia, known locally as the Top End, giving plenty of room to conduct maneuvers at the excellent training areas set aside by the host country. The dry season weather, which runs annually from April to September, is also a big boon for military training. These factors also bring a large number of foreign military visitors to the area, including numerous friendly air forces that descend on the Top End every two years for a multinational air exercise codenamed Pitch Black (of which the United States is already a regular participant). Last but not least, even though there is already local opposition to the upcoming American military presence, it is nowhere near (or likely ever going to be) as vociferous as that in Okinawa. All in all, a good deal for both sides.
Mike Yeo is a journalist at Baseleg Aviation News and Photography.