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Talisman Sabre: When the environment becomes collateral damage

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Military equipment used in the TS21 exercise is causing damage to the surrounding environment (Screenshot via YouTube)

A major military training exercise being held in Queensland could spell long-term disaster for the environment, writes Rita Camilleri. Readers and contributors to Independent Australia, a proud partner of IPAN, are invited to respond and join this urgent national conversation.

TALISMAN SABRE 2021 (TS21) is a biennial combined Australia-U.S. training exercise for interoperability in warfare, often including other allied forces, being held in Australia currently and will reach its peak at the end of the month.

TS21 is designed to train the respective military force elements in planning and conducting Combined Task Force operations to improve the combat readiness and interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and its allies.

This year, New Zealand, Canada, the Republic of Korea, the UK and Japan are taking part in the exercise. France, India and Indonesia will serve as observer nations. The exercise is expected to see the participation of around 17,000 personnel.

The initial justification for these exercises was the so-called war on terror. However, with the Pacific Pivot of the U.S. military forces to the Pacific region, Talisman Sabre and other such operations are aimed at China. Australian Government rhetoric critical of China over the past years has led to widespread anxiety about China in the Australian community.

Talisman Sabre involves thousands of troops on land, sea and air along with warships, fighters, bombers, helicopters and artillery. Local communities are also involved, to a degree. The complex military exercises tend to get bigger every year.

Since its inception in 2005, Talisman Sabre has become a fixture on Australia’s military calendar. This year’s TS21 is the ninth collective training exercise conducted in Queensland, Northern Territory and parts of New South Wales. It is said that these operations will be in line with the Australia-United States Joint Statement of Environmental and Heritage Principles for Combined Activities (2005).

However, according to the TS19 Environmental Report Response, there is much in these operations that is cause for concern. Shoalwater Bay Military Training Facility, where much of the action takes place, contains some of Australia’s most pristine coastal regions. Here, defence training can cover naval, air and sea units, as well as the capacity to conduct large scale live-fire training exercises.

Other waters include the Coral Sea and other habitats for endangered species such as turtles, dugongs and migrating whales. Other areas could have ‘intangible cultural heritage importance to local Aboriginal people’, yet there is no sign that any attempt until now to identify and protect Indigenous heritage has taken place. These areas cover an extensive list of endangered species of flora and fauna which either live or breed there, or where migratory birds spend a significant part of their lives.

All military operations include the use of chemicals, many of which are toxic. TNT and heavy metals including mercury seriously affect the well-being of whatever they come in touch with. Contamination is a serious spin-off as is the case in many of the U.S. military sites.

The effects of air and ground pollution from industrial activity can cause whole ecosystems to collapse. Heavy military vehicles and machinery moving around Queensland over land and sea beds can also be lethal.

What all this tells us is that the Australia-U.S. alliance carries with it not just financial and military costs, but also serious long-term environmental costs. These can no longer be swept under the carpet.

It is time for a nationwide discussion on the future of Australia’s place in the world, in which environment is given the attention it deserves. It is not just war but the preparation for war that leaves an enduring and destructive carbon footprint. A thoughtful and well-informed public and political debate on this issue is well overdue, one that the People’s Inquiry, which explores the costs and consequences of the U.S. alliance, seeks to have.

Submissions can be made through the IPAN Inquiry website via the online form.

Rita Camilleri BA; BEd; MA (education) taught in private and public schools and is involved in a wide range of organisations around issues of peace and social justice.

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Talisman Sabre: When the environment becomes collateral damage

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