EXERCISE TALISMAN SABER 2013 – PART 1: ON LAND
Byline: Gordon Arthur / Queensland
Kamarian soldiers, wearing clothing remarkably similar to Australian Disruptive Pattern Desert Uniforms, had chosen their ambush site well. The location was a ridgeline overlooking a main road, with a stream and marshy ground preventing cross-country vehicle movement. Elements of the ambush included Javelin anti-armour missiles, main battle tanks and 8×8 armoured vehicles.
The vanguard of the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade, part of a UN-sanctioned task force mandated to rid Legais of its Kamarian invaders, cautiously nosed up the road. The 120mm main gun of a Kamarian tank boomed and an Australian M1A1 Abrams shuddered to a halt. Within seconds, another Australian tank was knocked out, as were supporting M113AS4 armoured personnel carriers (APC). Soon the road was chock-a-block with destroyed vehicles, stalling the Australian advance.
The Kamarians on the ridge scrutinised their handiwork and consulted maps as they prepared to move to their next ambush point. The Australian Army had been inexorably pushing them back, but the Kamarians were making their foe pay heavily via a series of raids that targeted the logistics tail of 3rd Brigade. Without, fuel, food, water and ammunition, the Australian advance would falter. The Kamarians were employing the same hit-and-run tactics against US Army and Marine Corps (USMC) forces that were part of the bilateral effort to liberate Legais from Kamarian forces…
Of course, the ‘Kamarian’ adversary and sovereign territory of ‘Legais’ are fictitious. Instead, the above was one event witnessed by Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter at Exercise Talisman Saber 2013. (Yes, we know ‘saber’ is spelt funny! This is because the exercise is alternately led by the USA and Australia, and this time it was the American turn.) The scenario played out on the tableau of the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) in central Queensland, with the author enjoying an exclusive ‘enemy’ perspective of how the war was being waged.
Simultaneously, US Navy (USN) and Royal Australian Navy task forces incorporating 16 and 11 ships respectively, and numerous aircraft, were supporting this massive exercise. Occurring every two years, Talisman Sabre / Saber is the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) largest training activity, as well as its biggest bilateral event with the USA. TS13, held from 15 July to 6 August, involved some 28,000 participants, of which 21,000 were American. Interestingly, 400 of these American visitors – from the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division – parachuted into the SWBTA after a 15-hour nonstop flight aboard five C-17 aircraft from their base in Alaska!
APDR embedded for part of this year’s exercise, but prior to TS13 kicking off, the author met Major General Stuart Smith, commander of 1st Division, at his high-tech Deployable Joint Force Headquarters (DJFHQ) facility at Gallipoli Barracks in Brisbane. The $60 million DJFHK building opened on 10 August 2012, while MAJGEN Smith assumed command on 31 October 2012. He leads 760 soldiers, a number that can grow if the HQ is assigned combat forces for specific operations or missions.
MAJGEN Smith described the HQ’s role as follows: “It can be used as a base to run operations from, but the real requirement of our headquarters is to be able to step forwards if required as a deployable joint force headquarters, and to command operations from the field under canvas.”
He described the 18,000m² building’s capability. “It has the utility to command and control, from a communications fit-out perspective, from a workspace perspective, but most importantly, from a joint operations room perspective. It’s configured to monitor operations and, from three separate battle labs around the building and a full theatre, allow collaborative planning to occur.” MAJGEN Smith said the building was superior to the old one in terms of capacity. “I suggest it has a 50% greater capacity than the previous one, and our capability electronically and technologically to conduct collaborative planning and link in to joint forces is much more enhanced here.”
The DJFHQ has a mission to rapidly deploy overseas for contingency operations. “I can send, according to mission requirements, a small element of the headquarters underneath a colonel-equivalent rank with a small staff to support him, or I can send my entire headquarters, which would be supplemented by navy, air force and, most importantly, from other government agencies to assist us in a joint-agency operation,” explained the general. Thus, TS13 was an ideal opportunity for the ADF to rehearse its “habitual relationship” with such agencies as the Australian Federal Police, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Attorney-General’s Department, AusAID and Australian Civil-Military Centre.
MAJGEN Smith outlined three focus areas of his command: to perform operations and prepare forces assigned to it; developing an amphibious warfare capability; and international engagement. The latter was an obvious aspect during TS13, with Gallipoli Barracks almost ‘overrun’ by American personnel. “Talisman Saber rehearses us once more in that DJFHQ role, and it forces us to combine with US forces and form a combined headquarters and to lead a security operation in our region,” stated MAJGEN Smith. He described it as a “wonderful rehearsal opportunity” for the DJFHQ to exercise its command-and-control capacity. The HQ has permanently embedded staff from New Zealand and the USA too. It builds “habitual relationships” with numerous regional militaries such as Papua New Guinea and Timor-Leste through exercises, and the two-star general highlighted international engagement as an important role of the DJFHQ.
Traditionally, Exercise Hamel, the army’s annual certification exercise conducted by a brigade prior to it becoming the ready brigade as part of the Force Generation Cycle, has occurred upon the conclusion of Talisman Sabre. However, this year it was “nested within TS13”, according to MAJGEN Michael Krause, Exercise Hamel’s senior evaluator, for reasons of efficiency and cost. Thus, the main TS13 effort was conducted by 3rd Brigade, which is the formation that will take over from 1st Brigade as the ready force later this year. When queried on 3rd Brigade’s performance in its certification process to date, its commander, Brigadier Shane Caughey, replied: “Look, I’m very comfortable with where the brigade’s at right at the moment. There’s been a lot of good work, a lot of hard work.”
There were a couple of significant aspects to 3rd Brigade’s role in the war game, namely the employment of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) as the army’s Amphibious Readiness Element (ARE), and the field trial of a new formation known as the Armoured Cavalry Regiment (ACR). Both these developments are directly linked to Plan Beersheba, the army’s ten-year restructuring programme. The amphibious capability will be addressed in detail in the next APDR issue, so we will leave it untouched for now.
Armoured Cavalry Regiment (ACR)
In April, 1st Brigade in Darwin despatched armoured vehicles and personnel to Townsville to create the first ACR. Its components were a battlegroup HQ (drawn from the RHQ of the 1st Armoured Regiment); a tank squadron of M1A1 Abrams (A Squadron, 1 AR); a cavalry squadron of ASLAVs (C Sqn, 2nd Cavalry Regiment); a newly formed M113AS4 squadron (based on A Sqn, 2 Cav); and a technical support squadron (from TSS, 1 AR). These formed a makeshift ACR, with workup training in April and brigade-level Combined Arms Training at Townsville’s High Range in May. The ACR’s involvement in TS13 as a fully-fledged manoeuvre unit of 3rd Brigade was the concept’s first tactical field test within a so-called Multirole Combat Brigade (MCB) organisation. The aim of Plan Beersheba restructuring is to produce three brigades of similar structure.
BRIG Caughey commented on his experience with the ACR: “In fact, they almost feel like part of the brigade. They’ve integrated extremely well.” He described the complementary combat power of the ACR – whether tanks, armoured reconnaissance or mounted infantry soldiers – augmented by the flexibility and agility of existing light infantry forces, as “a real combat multiplier for both our brigades”. He also revealed the ACR would be disbanded immediately after TS13, its assets and personnel returning to their parent organisations in Darwin.
He praised the flexibility the ACR offered the brigade, illustrating it by referring to a complex night-time operation in TS13 where he had conducted an armoured manoeuvre to distract the enemy, while a battlegroup conducted a night-time airmobile assault on the enemy-held Raspberry Creek township. “It shows the complementary capabilities you’ll have in an MCB,” he related. “I’m very pleased with where we’re at just now, both from what I’m seeing from the training benefit all the soldiers are getting, and the way we’re given the opportunity to employ the vastly different capabilities set within the trial structure of the MCB.”
The ACR has the capacity to lift an entire infantry battalion in armoured vehicles. Within an MCB, this mounted battalion would sit alongside two standard infantry battalions. BRIG Caughey described the ethos behind the ACR: “The concept is that it can be grouped more tightly in its own right, so you might give it some infantry to go off and use its own capabilities. Or you can disaggregate it so you can give it some armoured effect to the other battlegroups.” An armoured effect could likely be only achieved in two battalions, leaving one as a light infantry unit within the MCB construct. “Or you could use the ACR to reinforce armoured reconnaissance assets,” BRIG Caughey continued. “And depending on where you are in any phase of the battle, you can change the structure across the MCB to best suit the operational phase you’re in. So the concept is that it will be highly adaptable in the operational battlespace. It maximises our ability to put combat power in the right place at the right time to achieve a decisive outcome.”
BRIG Caughey highlighted another benefit of the MCB. He said it was useful from a ‘raise, train, sustain’ perspective because soldiers need to be comfortable working in light, mechanised and motorised formations so as to be ready for any real-world contingency. Having MCBs allows soldiers to train and rehearse in these different environments and groupings on an everyday basis. “It gives you great flexibility when it comes to training your force better.”
Both TS13 and Exercise Hamel were an important test of the ACR concept, along with a series of other experiments that are ongoing (e.g. studies relating to logistics and sustainability). When quizzed on whether the MCB was the correct way to go, BRIG Caughey noted, “I’m certainly finding it so, and I’m very committed to what Plan Beersheba offers us. It enables you to have access to continually train all your forces in that seam between mounted and dismounted combat.”
Fine-tuning of the structure is to be expected, and the MCB construct will roll out first to 1st Brigade, to 3rd Brigade in early 2015, and subsequently to 7th Brigade. “What it will mean is that, instead of having three very different brigades, we’ll have more alike brigades in each location. I won’t call them identical because there are geographical idiosyncrasies,” outlined BRIG Caughey. The commander said his brigade would undergo training adjustments and shifting of equipment in 2014 as it prepares to restructure into an MCB the following year.
Elements of 7th Brigade, from Brisbane, played the Opposing Force (OPFOR) in TS13. The ‘Kamarian force’ also included a couple of USMC platoons from Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, and the battlegroup was commanded by 2/14 Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry) and equipped primarily with ASLAVs and Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles (PMV).
The OPFOR had a major advantage this year, since 7th Brigade was able to employ Elbit Systems’ Tactical Operational Command and Control Headquarters (TORC2H) Battle Management System (BMS). This system had been extensively field-trialled for the first time in TS11, and this year’s Kamarians said it provided them with an excellent advantage in terms of knowing where forces were deployed on the battlefield. However, the BMS has not been fitted to ASLAVs yet. The digitised system has not yet rolled out to 3rd Brigade, so the latter was actually working at a technological disadvantage in the fight against Kamaria.
Red Force soldiers said they enjoyed playing the enemy as they had more freedom in terms of tactics. “It’s more fun,” one soldier enthused. However, they could not stray too much from their own standard operating procedures otherwise they would not receive maximum training benefit from the event themselves. This year, the 3,000 soldiers of 3rd Brigade were given a hard time by the OPFOR, despite the latter being about one-third in size and possessing one-fifth of 3rd Brigade’s equipment levels.
One difficulty with this simulation was that Australian Blue and Red Forces used identical equipment such as M1A1 tanks, Bushmasters and ASLAVs. One way of trying to get around it was to use large amounts of camouflage on Red Force vehicles to try and differentiate them. Personnel from both sides wore Tactical Engagement Simulation System (TESS) vests and carried weapon-mounted lasers as the whole of the SWBTA is instrumented. Such digital technology removes the element of subjectivity in engagements. In TS13, about 2,500 entities were fitted with TESS gear. A further 160 umpires and 130 Observer Trainers (OT) helped adjudicate the hard-fought campaign.
On 31 July, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, the commander of the USN’s 7th Fleet, which is headquartered in Japan, handed over the reins to Vice Admiral Robert Thomas aboard USS Blue Ridge in Cairns. This change-of-command ceremony was significant as it occurred on Australian territory, making it an apt reflection of Australia’s close alliance with the USA. The ceremony’s poignancy was underscored by the fact that the 7th Fleet was actually given birth in Brisbane during World War II.
While on this nautical theme, in next month’s issue we will visit HMAS Choules and 2 RAR as we examine Australia’s nascent amphibious capability.
APDR is grateful to the ADF for the opportunity to embed with and visit units during this year’s exercise. Special mention goes to the PAOs, Major Michael Brooke and Captain Bill Heck, for their fantastic assistance.
(Part II of Exercise Talisman Saber will appear in the October edition of APDR)