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US-Australia exercise shows cultural alignment, different approaches

Petty Officer 1st Class Lee Harstad, assigned to the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, fires a .50 caliber automatic machine gun during Talisman Saber 2013.

YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Ask a group of U.S. military officers why they like working with their Australian counterparts, and a similar answer generally arises: we get each other.

Vice Adm. Scott Swift picked up on it while walking around Perth and talking with people who reminded him a lot of the folks he grew up with in San Diego.

“It struck me how culturally aligned we were,” Swift, the U.S. 7th Fleet commander overseeing the bilateral Talisman Saber 2013 exercise, said in a phone interview with Stars and Stripes. “Having said that … we look at the same problem and offer a different set of solutions.”

Exercises like Talisman Saber — which includes about 20,000 U.S. servicemembers and 7,000 Australians — pay off when the next natural disaster occurs, or when a government collapse leads to humanitarian need, Swift said.

In such situations — which are a big part of the exercise’s scenario — the two countries must obey a United Nations mandate, which requires them to follow the very subjective language of international law. For example, the two nations have to find a common interpretation of what to provide detained prisoners and how to best provide access to the International Committee of the Red Cross — and they might have to do that while coming under fire.

“We look at those [detainee] mandates from a U.S. perspective, but my Australian partners look at those mandates in a slightly different way,” Swift said. “I use that as one example where we need to come to consensus as combined force.”

The Australian military capability, relative to the region, and the affinity the two militaries generally have for each other have led to increased partnerships on Asia-Pacific issues in recent years.

The Marines are rotating more troops to Australia annually, while Australian Navy ships are now embedding with the USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group.

The moves have come in an increasingly tense regional environment. The threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s tense dealings with U.S. allies in the region and America’s increasingly important economic ties have led to the administration’s emphasis on a strategy known in government circles as the “rebalance” toward Asia.

“Concerns in the region are certainly increased over what they were two years ago, when I first took over the fleet,” said Swift, who has been nominated for a new posting at the Pentagon.

As sequestration and other budgetary pressures rein in the Pentagon’s budget over the next few years, everything from jobs to planes to large-scale military exercises like this one are drawing more congressional scrutiny.

That said, operations in the Western Pacific — a region the Obama administration says is its top long-term global priority — have been largely spared from cuts.

“I’m not sure if that’s going to be the case in the future,” said Swift, echoing concerns of other top military officials over the long-term effects of across-the-board sequestration cuts.

However, the Pentagon, for the time being, is “planning very carefully to make sure that whatever cuts may be coming … are minimized here in the Pacific.”

slavin.erik@stripes.com
Twitter: @eslavin_stripes

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