Talisman Sabre


Major Leigh Perkins, commander of Charlie Company, conducted his morning briefing that outlined the scheme of operations for an upcoming attack. A three-dimensional terrain map had been created on the ground, and his platoon leaders were gathered around to hear how the impending assault was to proceed that afternoon and on through the night. Their dust-caked faces were daubed in camouflage cream, and although they had been sleep-deprived for several days because of ongoing operations against the enemy, they listened with careful attention.

The first objective was a pair of features overlooking an inhabited town suspected of harbouring a large number of armed insurgents. The operation was complex, with numerous obstacles, minefields and enemy positions to overcome along Route Steel, but combat engineers, tanks, artillery, mortars, a US Army PSYOP (Psychological Operations) team, military police, armed Tiger helicopters and F/A-18Fs were to be fully utilised. Once the features had been secured, the operation to clear the town scheduled for 0800 hours the next morning could commence. By that time, a field hospital being set up further back near the Brigade Maintenance Area (BMA) should be ready to receive casualties and to handle internally displaced persons (IDP).

MAJ Perkins of 8/9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (8/9 RAR), finished his thorough briefing with the exhortation, “Crack on, men.” The orders group over, his men moved away to their respective platoons and attached elements to make the necessary arrangements, and the map tableau on the ground was kicked into the dust so it would not give any clues to enemy reconnaissance…

The above was just one event being played out at the Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) northeast of Rockhampton in central Queensland. Simultaneously, throughout this vast training area and much further afield, plans were being formed and implemented by the coalition force that consisted of Australian and US air, ground and naval forces. This was the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) largest training activity of the year, Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011 (TS11). Incidentally, it was immediately followed by Exercise Hamel, which witnessed live-firing of personal weapons, Javelin missiles, vehicle weapon systems, artillery, tanks and helicopters.

Held from 11-29 July in various Queensland and Northern Territory locations, TS11 involved 22,500 servicemen and servicewomen, of which 14,000 were American. At one point it was uncertain whether the exercise would even proceed because of ground conditions at the SWBTA. Queensland’s devastating floods had produced a high water table. However, the exercise did go ahead, and Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter spent nearly a fortnight embedded with Australian units to experience firsthand the level of training undergone by modern-day servicemen and women.

Exercise scenario
The TS11 scenario was based around a fictitious country somewhere to the north of Australia that had experienced a coup d’état and installed a puppet government in a neighbouring territory. The stricken territory was overrun with foreign troops as well as militia-style Islamist fundamentalist groups. A UN Security Council resolution had given Australia and the USA a mandate to enter this country and set security conditions for a transition to free elections. While it was a fictitious situation, it is similar to the kind of real-world operations that have already occurred in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. Various elements were injected into the scenario to make it more realistic. An example is participation of a United Nations representative who ensured the correct implementation of procedures for such a UN mission. Other government agencies such as police participated as part of the transition from military to civilian rule.

The majority of ground forces were centred at the SWBTA, while air operations by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and US Air Force (USAF) focused on airbases at Amberley, Tindal and Darwin. Approximately 25 aircraft participated. For example, the Task Unit Headquarters (TUHQ) of Blue Force at Amberley included a B-737 Wedgetail, C-130H Hercules, two AP-3C Orion, six Hawk Mk.127 and four F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft from the RAAF, as well as two P-3Cs from the US Navy (USN) and a C-17 from the USAF. Missions included strategic insertion by parachute drop, reconnaissance, surveillance, close air support, bombing and air-to-air combat.

Naval operations by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and USN, which included a total of 18 surface vessels, submarines and an aircraft carrier, took place in the Coral, Timor and Arafura Seas. However the US Marine Corps (USMC) contingent was severely reduced in size after the amphibious-assault ship USS Essex was forced to abort its voyage to Australia and return to Japan after suffering mechanical problems. This meant USMC airpower was notably lacking. Nevertheless, much of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) based in Okinawa was still able to participate in the exercise, including an amphibious landing at Freshwater Beach in the SWBTA on 19 July. With negligible amphibious capabilities at present, the RAN could not really contribute to amphibious operations as it did two years ago.

The coalition ground force was made up mostly of the Australian Army’s 7th Brigade, while elements of the 1st Brigade played Red Force. In Gallipoli Barracks in Enoggera, Brisbane, the 7th Brigade totals about 2,500 soldiers, but for TS11 its several battle groups expanded to some 3,100 personnel thanks to extra elements incorporated for the exercise.

As mentioned in the opening narrative, one of the exercise’s key events was to secure a town harbouring enemy insurgents. The town was inhabited by civilian role-players as well as by insurgents played by US Army soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment (2-23 IN), 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Fort Lewis, Washington. This occurred at the high-tech Urban Operations Training Facility (UOTF) located at the attractively but misleadingly named Raspberry Creek (there were no raspberries there except for the ones the insurgents were blowing!).

This mock town managed by Cubic Defence Australia consists of reconfigurable buildings made out of shipping containers. Personnel from both sides, plus the civilian role-players, wore Tactical Engagement Simulation System (TESS) vests and carried weapon-mounted lasers. The complete town was monitored digitally so soldiers’ movements and firing of weapons could be tracked and recorded by Calytrix Training Systems (CaTS) for effective after-action reviews. Bravo and Charlie Companies, 8/9 RAR, were tasked with capturing and securing the town. This they did but at the price of heavy casualties in the urban environment. Combat engineers used equipment such as iRobot PackBots and bomb-sniffing dogs to defuse hidden improvised explosive devices (IED), a weapon of choice for the Taliban in Afghanistan as well as SWBTA insurgents.

As well as needing to differentiate between civilian and insurgent targets, soldiers had to win the hearts and minds of the populace. Immediately after the bitter room-to-room and house-to-house battle, Civil Military Liaison (CIMIC) teams moved in to liaise with the townsfolk. As a free-running scenario, the situation changed depending on the particular actions of soldiers. For example, the accidental killing of a civilian would result in unrest in the town. Or compensation offered for damage done to crops after tanks had driven over their plots would influence how the population responded to the Australian ‘intruders’. These are precisely the kind of incidents Australian soldiers routinely conduct in Afghanistan (minus the tanks).

“The digitised spear tip of the Australian Army”
One of the key technologies introduced into this exercise was the new Tactical Operational Command and Control Headquarters (TORC2H) Battle Management System (BMS) supplied by Elbit Systems. In fact, this was the first large-scale field testing of the Israeli-produced system, previously trialled at Puckapunyal in 2008. The 7th Brigade is the first to be equipped with this BMS, and reconfigured Bushmaster Command Vehicles, each equipped with three BMS terminals, did not arrive until just one and a half weeks before Exercise Talisman Sabre started! These refurbished vehicles are a quantum leap forward compared to incumbent command vehicles that still carry paper maps pinned to map boards and sets of coloured pens. In addition to the Command Vehicles, troop-carrying vehicles were also supplied, each fitted with a BMS terminal for the section commander.

This Battle Group and Below Command, Control and Communications (BGC3) system being introduced under Land 75 Phase 3.4, Land 125 Phase 3A and Joint Project 2072 Phase 1 provides up-to-the-minute automatic updates even when on the move. As well as vehicle-mounted systems, the Australian Army is also obtaining man-portable pared-down version called BMS – Dismounted (BMS-D). The Elbit product is designed to operate on the existing backbone of Harris radios and the Raytheon Enhanced Position Locating Reporting System (EPLRS). Only about ten BMS-D units were used at the brigade and battle group level as a confirmatory activity prior to serialised production. However, new equipment will be gradually rolled out to the 7th Brigade and the process should be complete by early 2013.

Brigadier Paul McLachlan, the 7th Brigade commander, is extremely enthusiastic about the new capability BMS provides. He commented that TS11 demonstrated the 7th Brigade’s coming of age. “We are the spear tip of the army’s digitisation programme,” he enthused. By way of example, information time lapses in some areas have been reduced to 40 seconds from the previous 30 minutes. BRIG McLachlan calls it a “game changer”. “It completely revolutionises the way a commander controls his forces as he no longer needs to fight for information,” he explained.

As well as improving combat capability, TORC2H also enhances logistics management. Previously, units reported their requirements at the end of each day, but now logistics personnel have an instantaneous picture of the supply situation. However, the induction of such a complex system was not without problems. It entailed steep learning curves for all system users, and logistics personnel complained of information that was not getting through, for example.

TORC2H contributes greatly to network-centricity, the ‘N’ element in the Hardened and Networked Army (HNA) initiative. However, to be a true network there needs to be interoperability with other systems already in use with the ADF and its allies. Currently, coalition systems have a variety of manufacturers, implement a variety of Military Standards (MIL-STDS) and operate across a variety of bearers (for example, satellite, UHF, VHF or fibre-optic). The challenge of tactical-level networking is passing relatively small amounts of agreed data, at an agreed rate, across an extremely small data ‘pipe’. What adds complexity is that some coalition systems are not optimised for use across low-bandwidth bearers such as VHF radio. Encryption and frequency hopping, where applied, further constrain bandwidth.

The Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery (RAA) is a good case in point. During TS11, A Battery, 1st Regiment RAA, was employing the Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System (AFATDS) with four M777A2 howitzers for the first time. However, AFADTS was not able to interact with TORC2H as interoperability is contingent upon the American system’s implementation of MIL-STD-6017, 47001 and 188-220. Interoperability with the legacy American FBCB2 Blue Force Tracker (BFT) system, which uses a SATCOM bearer and a different implementation of VMF (Rev 5), is also vital for coalition operations in theatres such as Afghanistan. Currently, both TORC2H and AFATDS use an air gap to operate with FBCB2-BFT. It is a requirement that BMS be able to exchange data using a specified set of Variable Message Format (VMF) messages; this activity is scheduled for completion post-TS11.

TS11 was a particularly important exercise for the 7th Brigade, since it is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan towards the end of this year. Training at the section and platoon level began at the beginning of 2011, and the tempo and level has gradually built up to the culminating brigade-level exercise conducted at the SWBTA. The brigade will also conduct Mission Rehearsal Exercises (MRE) at the Combat Training Centre (CTC) in Townsville prior to its overseas deployment.

New artillery pieces
One new piece of equipment participating in TS11 was the M777A2 lightweight 155mm towed howitzer. BAE Systems has delivered five guns to the Australian Army so far via a Foreign Military Sale (FMS). Four howitzers participated in TS11 with A Bty, 1 Regt RAA, the army’s oldest regular unit being the first chosen to receive this new gun. The weapons performed live-firing as well as simulated fire missions, and one crewmember enthusiastically said, “These weapons are a leap forward, plus they help us to keep up with our allies like the USA.” As the M777A2 is introduced, the army is benefitting greatly from American experience with the same system. Indeed, an American soldier with M777 experience was embedded with the unit. This was also the first time to have a full digital linkage between forward observer, artillery command post and gun line.

The M777A2 has not fired the Excalibur round in Australia yet, but this type of ammunition is available. With the old M198 howitzer, each weapon was operated by a crew of ten men. However, a decision was made to reduce the crew of the M777A2 to seven men. This has created problems, for by the time crewmen are allotted roles such as sentry, driver and reconnaissance, this leaves a shortage of men on the gun line. Experienced members of the artillery expressed the hope that each howitzer would return to a ten-man crew in the future. A Bty, 1 Regt RAA is well endowed with Bushmasters, which allow gun crews to travel in protected comfort around the battlefield.

The M777A2 is 4 tonnes lighter than the M198, which offers a significant mobility advantage. However, the howitzers are still being towed by ageing Mack R-series trucks that are due for replacement under Land 121 Project Overlander Phase 3. The artillery is seeking a DROPS-type truck with an armoured cab, as this would considerably speed up the process of ammunition handling. Because of its digital fire control system, the M777A2 requires a decent amount of power to operate, and issues such as finding a suitable generator still need to be resolved. Another item for remediation is cross-country tyres for the howitzers to enhance off-road mobility.

The artillery is extremely pleased with its new weapon system, and the guns can set up and fire much more quickly than the M198 thanks to digital systems that incorporate GPS and inertial navigation system (INS). This reduces the time-consuming task of plotting grid references and the need to arrange a single firing line. The M777’s initial operating capability (IOC) is scheduled for November/December this year. The Land 17 Phase 1C programme has recently been reinvigorated and procurement of a self-propelled howitzer (SPH) is now the focus for government approval within the next 8-12 months. Old M198 howitzers have been withdrawn, but at this stage there their fate is unknown.

New air assets and enlarged levels of scale
The RAAF’s new F/A-18F Super Hornet participated in TS11 for the first time, too. The air force has so far received 20 Rhinos of its 24-craft order. F/A-18F aircraft from No.1 Squadron at Amberley supported activities at the SWBTA by dropping dumb bombs as well as guided munitions. Wing Commander Clive Wells, commander of the Blue Force TUHQ, reported TS11 was the RAAF’s biggest and most significant exercise of the year. It was designed to enhance interoperability with the USA and it covered the whole spectrum of aircraft operations. The exercise included simulation injections such as surface to air missile (SAM) attacks.

WGCDR Wells concluded, “It’s a valuable experience. Very few staff have had this kind of experience before, not at this level nor in this kind of environment.” C-17 and C-130 aircraft were tasked with transportation, but the first newly delivered KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTT) belonging to No.33 Squadron did not participate. The fact that the C-17 is now just about the oldest aircraft based at RAAF Base Amberley serves to illustrate the impressive rate at which new equipment has been inducted into the RAAF in recent years.

Another important piece of equipment used during TS11, although it is not brand new, was the Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH). The 1st Aviation Regiment from Robertson Barracks near Darwin supplied a complete squadron of eight Tigers. Transported via C-17 transport aircraft, this was the largest ever deployment of the ARH to date. What was perhaps even more significant was the level of integration achieved with combined-arms battle groups.

While the ARH programme was beset by difficulties early on, this capability is beginning to prove itself. One pilot insisted the ARH is “a sheer pleasure to fly”. “They’re now fully certified and there are no gaps in its certification,” he added. Mechanics and maintainers also praised the reliability of the Tiger helicopter. One example of its utility is that it can be prepared for flight less than two hours after being disembarked from a C-17. Tiger helicopters are undergoing a constant process of software upgrades. The TopOwl helmet is proving very effective too, while pilots were wearing their new Air Warrior ensemble. Air Warrior is an FMS acquisition from the USA, and they had been delivered just a couple of months earlier.

During TS11, Tiger helicopters flew with a firepower configuration for 90% of their missions. This fit-out includes 33 70mm rockets, four Hellfire missiles and 450 rounds for the 30mm cannon. A. spokesman from Australian Army Aviation (AAAvn) commented, “The Tigers performed very, very well. They met and exceeded expectations.” Another pilot voiced his support: “The maturity of the Tiger is where it should be.” The Tigers were accompanied by OH-58A Kiowa and Black Hawk helicopters, but the MRH 90 did not make an appearance. An unfortunate security breach occurred when a well-known peace activist illegally gained access to Rockhampton Airport and used a mattock to damage a Tiger ARH. He was detained by police and was facing criminal prosecution for the damage caused.

An eyewitness perspective
Serving with the ADF is a unique calling. Few jobs require their employees to work 24 hours a day, to eat food that come in plastic bags, to sleep on dew-laden grass under the stars every night, to be sleep-deprived for long periods, and to go without a hot shower for days on end! These hardships are all incumbent on the Australian ‘digger’. Yet so much more is asked of them too. These same people are also required to go overseas at the behest of the government, to enter dangerous warzones, and to risk their very lives. This is a lot to ask of anyone, but it is what Australia requires of its servicemen and women.

The process of equipping these same soldiers with the most appropriate equipment costs money. Soldiers are very pleased with assets such as the Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle (PMV). 8/9 RAR is a motorised battalion primarily equipped with Bushmasters and it is proving an ideal vehicle. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kahlil Fegan, pointed out his unit had received about 70 Bushmasters thus far, but with a full complement the total would rise to 100+. “They do give the infantry far greater mobility. Previously we only had a couple of Land Rovers and we marched everywhere on foot,” he elaborated. Another 8/9 RAR soldier pointed out that not one fatality has occurred within a Bushmaster in Afghanistan, despite more than 30 vehicles having been hit by enemy weapons. While armour-protected vehicles do give greater mobility and protection, they can have a double-edged effect too. A vehicle requires one or two soldiers to guard it when a section dismounts, which tends to eat up some of the battalion’s combat power. Other equipment such as the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagon is also coming on line, but replacements for 30-year-old Mack R-series and Unimog trucks is an area needing attention.

Training events like Talisman Sabre cost money (for instance, approximately 1.8 million litres of diesel was consumed in the four back-to-back exercises that involved some 1,500 vehicles), but this type of training opportunity provides vital preparation before operational deployments to Afghanistan, where mistakes can be deadly. It could be argued the type of mechanised warfare practised in TS11 is not exactly the same as occurs in Afghanistan, East Timor or the Solomon Islands, but this biennial exercise does require the ADF to use the full spectrum of capabilities at its disposal. There were areas open to improvement, with one USN corpsman pointing out that OTs (Observer Trainers) were too quick to ‘kill’ people with their “God guns”. This led to a disproportionate number of dead compared to wounded, meaning Australian and US medical personnel were never truly tested by mass casualty drills.

Spending a sustained amount of time with troops in the field gave Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter a deeper appreciation of the challenges and difficulties soldiers face. Whether patrolling at night over rough terrain whilst wearing night-vision goggles, or driving a vehicle tactically in complete darkness, or wearing sweat-inducing body armour and carrying a heavy pack on your back, these are everyday activities for Aussie soldiers. Because a series of four exercises were conducted back to back, many personnel spent a month, and some even two months, in the field. Despite such long periods away from home and family, the author was impressed by the dedication, proficiency and professionalism of those he spent time with. “At the end of the day,” as one soldier put it, “you do it for your mate next to you.”

BRIG McLachlan said the exercise from his point of view was “very successful”. The brigade integrated a broad range of elements (including tanks, helicopters, ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and F/A-18 Super Hornets) that gave key effects at critical times. “It was absolutely fantastic,” he concluded.

The author is grateful for the opportunity to visit the RAAF and to embed with the 7th Brigade during TS11. Commanders and soldiers without fail were welcoming, and it was a genuine pleasure rubbing shoulders with these servicemen.


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