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Talisman Saber 2019: Defend the environment from Defence

Friends of the Earth Brisbane - ban the bomb!

In July this year, Australia will once again host huge joint US – AUS military exercises primarily along the Queensland coast, mainly within or traversing the Great Barrier Reef.  

Talisman Sabre 2019 will bring 25,000 US and Australian troops to the Shoalwater Bay, Bundaberg Region, Rockhampton, Capricorn Coast, Stanage Bay, the Duke Islands, Mackay, The Whitsundays, Bowen, Proserpine, Gladstone, Townsville, Amberley, Evans Head, NSW and their surrounds.

Talisman Sabre 2019 is the 8th iteration of these joint combined air, sea, and land exercises and the continues Defence’s push to expand its footprint into non-Defence areas, explicitly using both Defence and non-Defence sites in NSW and new coastal and inland Queensland non-Defence locations at:Midge Point, Sarina, Proserpine and the Duke Islands.

As elections excitement fades and we struggle to get politicians to commit to immediate environmental targets, such as reducing carbon emissions, committing to renewables and local goals such as stopping Adani in Central Queensland and stopping gill net fishing in the Great Barrier Reef, it is also a good time to challenge the ongoing militarisation these precious regions.

Talisman Sabre’s key location, Shoalwater Bay, is part of (or within) the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The wetlands at Shoalwater Bay are Ramsar listed wetlands significant to migratory birds.  The sea grass beds at Shoalwater and other Talisman Sabre locations are critical to Dugong.  Only recently identified as a unique species, the Snub-Fin Dolphin have been found in these waters.

Who or what else lives or passes through there?

 The Shoalwater Bay Training Area (SWBTA) provides habitat for:

  • “Thirty-six water bird species including eleven species of migratory shorebirds, particularly in Port Clinton, southern Shoalwater Bay and Island Head Creek.
  • The largest Dugong population in the southern Great Barrier Reef since 1987 with a Dugong Protection Area covering the SWBTA waters;
  • Important feeding habitat for Green Turtles,
  • One hundred and one listed marine species; and
  • Large numbers of whales and other cetaceans, migratory waders and shorebirds.

A previous survey concluded that SWBTA provides critical habitat for migratory shorebirds and supports more than 20,000 water birds…” Talisman Saber 201721-Feb AECOM PER Appendix O O-4

In April, the Department of Defence published its Environmental Report for Talisman Sabre 2019 on its website. The report is authored anonymously by Defence for Defence.  It estimates that “significant impact to the environment is not likely as a result of TS19.”  Environmental Report Exercise TalismanSabre 2019 Pg i

It is significant that unlike previous Talisman Sabre’s, Talisman Sabre 2019 is stated to be absent “of any live fire activities. This will result in the use only of dummy or blank ammunition and certain pyrotechnics in order to generate the necessary effects. Consequently, there will be no underwater demolitions/detonations, naval gunnery, aerial bombardment or live fire from indirect and direct fire weapons systems.” The absence of live firing during the official exercises should greatly diminish some aspects of Talisman Sabre’s environmental footprint and is a move in the right direction.

However, it is also clear that live firing will take place at Shoalwater Bay and possibly other locations in the lead up to and after Talisman Sabre, which are not assessed as part of Talisman Sabre because they fall outside of the official exercise dates.  “A number of activities will occur in advance of and following execution of the FTX…Unilateral training activities on SWBTA occurring prior to TS19 will involve live fire exercises (LFX)… After the conclusion of TS19, it is probable that further unilateral training on SWBTA will be undertaken. (ER p24-25) It is also notable that Defence includes possible inclusion of other country’s forces in what it refers to as unilateral training. (ER, p. 24)

Further to the training locations identified in the Defence Environmental Report, a number of Defence bases and other locations will be used to support the exercise. We can also expect training activities not mentioned in the Environmental Report to take place.  

In 2017, new locations:  Upstart Bay and Kings Beach, were added to the exercises or their preparations, in June, a month before Talisman Saber 2017 commenced, well after the Public Environment Report process has concluded.  Also in 2017, a US Osprey crashed off the Rockhampton coast, killing three service people, during "regularly scheduled operations" after the official end of Talisman Saber 2017.

In the lead up, during and beyond Talisman Sabre, we can expect military vessels from the US fleet, including a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and its battle contingent, to traverse the Great Barrier Reef and visit Australian ports. We will see civilian infrastructure, such as Brisbane port and airport used to support military activity. Most of these military actions will undergo minimal environmental and social impact assessment, if any. 

The diversion of some of Talisman Sabre’s “regular” activity to regions outside Shoalwater Bay may minimise some impact there, while spreading the potential risks to new environments, with small towns encouraged to welcome the military as a boost to their economies. 

The social impacts of hosting some of the world’s largest military exercises go beyond short-term gain from potential military tourism dollars, however. Along with the obvious facet of ongoing invasion-  the military controls First Nation peoples’ access to their land inhibiting their right to be on and practice culture on their land, there is the grief associated with destruction of our habitat, the environment and its unique spaces, such as the Great Barrier Reef. And priming our population to depend on the war economy is a dangerous trajectory.  

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, originally a collaboration of scientists who worked on developing nuclear weapons, uses the Doomsday Clock to represent their expert’s calculation of our proximity to global catastrophe.  With 12 being the apocalypse, the hands of the clock are set forward or back depending on their assessment of geopolitics and environmental factors.  Set in 2016, at a perilous 3 minutes to midnight because of the combined threat of climate change and nuclear weapons, the Trump presidency has seen the Doomsday Clock moved forward to 2.5 minutes to midnight.  

There are over 15,000 nuclear weapons on the planet today.  It is 2.5 minutes to midnight.  The threat of large or small scale nuclear war is as high as it has ever been… 

Is waving the nuclear sword at China, Australia’s best political option? Is engaging in huge nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapons capable military exercises, with one of the world’s largest polluters and the world’s number one consumer of fossil fuels, the US military, in the midst of World Heritage listed environments the best we can do? 

In the 90’s the Australian public was sold the idea that removing pastoralists and turning the Shoalwater Bay region into a military training area that would have the dual purpose of defence and conservation – would be better for the environment than farming. And so it possibly was. But it was not best for the environment. 

What’s best for the environment is protection of Shoalwater Bay from both militarism and pastoralism. What’s best for the Great Barrier Reef is complete demilitarisation and denuclearisation of the entire ecosystem. What’s best for our community is to redress aspects of military colonialism by returning militarised spaces to their Traditional Owners. What’s best for our environment is respecting it for its intrinsic value. 

It’s time to defend Shoalwater Bay from Defence. Stop Talisman Sabre.

Please feel free to contact us via [email protected] for more information or to join us in taking action for peace and the environment.

Read Friends of the Earth Brisbane's submission on Talisman Sabre 2019 here.

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