As the biggest and most comprehensive of the five biennial iterations of Talisman Saber, the 2013 exercise going on now across the east coast of Australia involves about 20,000 U.S. troops and 15 ships, and — for the first time, — the “game-changing” MV-22 Osprey hybrid aircraft.

Portions of the exercise thus far have featured U.S. and Australian forces liberating a fictitious occupied country, according to participants.

Army paratroopers from the 501st Infantry Regiment, which joined in as a quick reaction force after years downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, parachuted into northeast Queensland on Saturday after a long flight from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. At the same time, a full-scale amphibious assault was taking place.

“This year we’ve expanded our mission,” said Capt. Chase Spears, spokesman for 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division. “We’re kind of at a turning point in brigade history. Now, we’re training to be the force of choice for the Pacific commander.”

About 400 paratroopers hit the ground, up from 300 during Talisman Sabre 2011, Spears said. The soldiers landed, seized territory, expanded it while coordinating with Australian forces and traveled to and seized the airfield. Each company had separate military and humanitarian missions.

The soldiers also will participate in similar operations in Thailand’s Cobra Gold next year.

“This has been validating for us,” Spears said. “We’re doing everything you would do in an actual combat scenario minus shooting live rounds.”

It was equally validating for Marine Corps Capt. Travis Keeney, operations officer of VMM-265 and an MV-22 pilot who landed the first Osprey in Australia before the exercises started. The Ospreys are on their first Pacific deployment aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard.

“I don’t think people realized how useful it is [in this region],” Keeney said of the Okinawa-based hybrid aircraft.

The MV-22 was integral to the success of Saturday’s amphibious assault, Keeney said. It featured about 600 U.S. servicemembers — mostly Marines — in support of Australian forces. Most of the Marines were ferried ashore in armored personnel carriers and Navy landing craft. About 180 were dropped in via helicopter.

Due to its larger capacity for both servicemembers and fuel, the Osprey delivered the Marines in half the number of flights of a conventional helicopter and from a greater distance, with the Bonhomme Richard positioned farther offshore.

“There’s been some pretty good success in the opening stages [of the exercise],” said Keeney, who has been flying Ospreys for six years, including deployments downrange.

Keeney and the MV-22 will continue ship-to-shore maneuvers and non-combatant evacuation operations until the end of the exercise, Aug. 5.

Capt. Tad Drake, commander weapon’s company, 2nd battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, had a different view of the amphibious assault, riding in on the first wave of Navy landing craft.

Drake’s job was to make sure laser and GPS-guided ordnance had the desired effect in preparation for the assault. He directed naval and mortar fire once the Marines hit the beach. They then went inland and secured several objectives.

“For the MEU this is huge,” he said. “The opportunity to practice without people shooting at you is a great opportunity… It’s more valuable than a lot of guys probably realize.”

In the face of a resurgent China and provocative North Korea, coupled with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama announced a Pacific pivot in 2011. Since then, the U.S. military has strengthened alliances and beefed up its presence in the region, including rotational Marine deployments to Australia.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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