Monthlong Talisman Saber drills conclude with ceremony aboard USS Ronald Reagan

By MATTHEW M. BURKE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 25, 2017

U.S. and Australian forces wrapped up their largest joint, biennial war games Tuesday during a ceremony aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan near Brisbane.

The monthlong Talisman Saber drills involved more than 33,000 troops, 26 ships and 200 aircraft taking part in “high-end warfighting scenarios” to “innovatively prepare for regional and global security challenges,” the Navy said before the exercise kicked off aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard near Sydney on June 29.

Coalition forces — including Canadian, Japanese and New Zealand troops — then spent the next month battling a free-thinking, unencumbered and fast-moving foe modeled after China and Russia. The mock enemy was played by Army National Guard soldiers and other coalition actors.

Talisman Saber was highlighted by real-world warfare problems like cyberattacks, ambushes, improvised explosive devices planted in roads, enemies out of uniform or near civilian centers and GPS jamming. Naval assets tracked highly capable enemy submarines throughout the drills.

“In every domain, we’ve had those simulated threats throughout the exercise,” said Navy Rear Adm. Marc Dalton, commander of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike Group. “When I talked about the complexity of the exercise this year, that is what has created that.”

Before the ground portion kicked off in earnest on July 13, naval and air assets practiced electronic warfare, acts of deception and bombardment, commanders said. The Reagan carrier strike group provided the protection necessary to perform amphibious operations, including the largest amphibious landing by Australian troops since World War II. Then, in the final weeks of the exercise, there was a significant land battle at Shoalwater Bay Training Area in eastern Queensland.

In Talisman Saber’s closing days, coalition forces pushed the opposition to the west. Borders were re-established, and the land was handed over to a United Nations’ peacekeeping force for rebuilding.

Dalton said coalition partners worked well together during the naval portion of the drills.

“We seamlessly integrated with the Australian military,” he said. “That’s exemplified by not only the Australian and New Zealand ship that we operated with, but by the fact that [Australian] Capt. Guy Holthouse and his team embarked onboard Bonhomme Richard and acted as one of my warfare commanders for the surface and undersea domains.”

Dalton served under Australian Commodore Mal Wise, commander of Talisman Saber’s maritime component, who said coalition forces did more than just defend against threats on the sea and in the air — they also took the fight straight to the enemy.

The integration between coalition partners began at sea, but extended onto shore with the Okinawa-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit working closely with the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade.

Reports of a Chinese spy ship monitoring the exercise in the area meant that the nations targeted by the Talisman Saber scenario had taken notice.

“It was a really fantastic exercise,” Dalton said. “It gave us tremendous confidence in our ability to operate together in a range of contingencies. This was very much a complex, high-end scenario, but the things we demonstrated we can do in moving equipment and people ashore is applicable in anything from a natural disaster up to a high-end scenario like this.”

Wise agreed, adding that Australia’s amphibious-capable ships have come a long way in the three years since they were first fielded.

“Being able to work side by side with a partner is not only showing us other [amphibious] capabilities, but it’s also allowing us to realize the full potential … being able to integrate quickly and exploit the maximum potential of all of the assets in that combined force is our professional responsibility,” he said.

Wise added that lessons learned during the exercise will help them improve in the future.

“That is what Talisman Saber is all about,” he said.

During this year’s exercise, the Navy was able to test a concept in development called the “up-gunned expeditionary strike group,” which attaches cruisers, destroyers or frigates to the traditional three-ship strike group template, Dalton said.

“We’ve used this exercise to work concept development, especially for the cruiser, destroyer, frigate integration into the force as we build toward adding the F-35B,” he said.

Dalton said the USS Wasp will deploy to Sasebo, Japan, early next year to replace the Bonhomme Richard with a complement of F-35B stealth fighters. After that happens, the full “up-gunned” concept can be tested for the first time, he said, adding that the exercise offered an important initial test.

“We’ve gotten a tremendous amount of insights into how we can take full advantage of that integration between the amphibious capabilities and the surface combatants,” Dalton said.


A Japanese soldier protects a crossing point during Talisman Saber drills at Shoalwater Bay Training Area, Australia, July 14, 2017.

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