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Opinion: How China’s fingerprints are all over Talisman Sabre

25th July 2019 - 08:26 GMT | by The Geobukseon in Indo-Pacific

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This month more than 34,000 troops completed Exercise Talisman Sabre. Apart from its sheer scale, what is remarkable about the biennial exercise is the degree to which China is influencing these medium-to-high-intensity wargames between Australia, the US, New Zealand and now Japan.

Although Beijing goes ballistic – literally, with the recent launch of six anti-ship ballistic missiles into waters north of the Spratly Islands – whenever foreign warships pass through the South China Sea and n even when they transit the Taiwan Strait, the country is totally unashamed to send spy ships into foreign EEZs.

Thus, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) despatched a Type 815 auxiliary general intelligence vessel to Australia to suck up as much electronic intelligence as possible. The ship was in position in time for Talisman Sabre 2019 commencing, just as it was two years earlier in Australia.

When The Geobukseon asked about the presence of this ship, Col Matthew Sieber of the USMC responded: ‘Look, this is a free and open Indo-Pacific region, and so we’re here to do Talisman Sabre and we’re going to continue to do the exercise.’

However, while Australia and the US did not indulge in histrionics about the PLAN vessel’s presence, it did doubtlessly influence the running of the naval and perhaps air components of the exercise. One source confirmed that participating warships take countermeasures to avoid giving out actionable information to the Chinese, but this must also mean they cannot rehearse tactics to the extent that they would like.

Another indication of the recognised Chinese threat was evident in a scenario that kicked off the land portion of Talisman Sabre. During a live-fire demonstration of the M142 HIMARS, the notional target was specified as being an HQ-9B surface-to-air missile (SAM) system.

Of course, only one country is confirmed to be operating this latest version of the HQ-9, and that is China. Furthermore, the US confirmed last year that HQ-9B SAMs had been stationed on three of China’s reclaimed island reef bases in the Spratly Islands, along with YJ-12 anti-ship missiles.

Normally, Talisman Sabre scenarios revolve around a notional enemy that uses Soviet/Russian equipment. The actual naming of an important Chinese weapon was therefore a significant step in highlighting what threats Australia and the US are prioritising.

US Army and USMC HIMARS, which performed HIMARS Rapid Insertion (HIRAIN) missions during Talisman Sabre, played a critical role in the scenario. They appeared in places as diverse as Bundaberg, Shoalwater Bay and Proserpine as they were rapidly moved around Queensland.

The whole premise of HIRAIN was developed in response to China’s anti-access area denial strategy. The idea is that transport aircraft could deploy multiple HIMARS into locations beyond the forward line, perform fire missions against high-value targets, and then quickly retreat.

These are exactly the kind of missions that could be used against China’s reef bases or to threaten PLAN warships passing through chokepoints in the South and East China Seas.

Additionally, Japan’s 2019 involvement represented a major, major step up compared to previous years, when just 40-50 troops participated in very minor ways. This time the country sent two amphibious warfare ships (JS Ise and JS Kunisaki), multiple AAV7s plus a sizeable Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade contingent. This unit was formed last year specifically to defend and retake Japan’s far-flung islands in its southwest archipelago, where China blusters and threatens.

Sieber commented: ‘That’s a great capability and it’s the first time we’ve put them together with the US and Australia in the same amphibious objective area. So it’s an excellent opportunity for that growing capability as we integrate with these forces.’

The Japanese detachment performed two landing operations during the exercise. It was without doubt an important learning experience for the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force, believed to be its first amphibious landing in the Southern Hemisphere. It is China’s actions that directly propelled Tokyo into creating its own ‘marines’ force.

Indeed, the amphibious component of this year’s exercise was important in terms of scale, multilateralism and complexity. Sieber noted: ‘The objective of the exercise really is to develop interoperability between the nations, and to walk away having strengthened that relationship, and to demonstrate to our partners, our would-be partners and any would-be adversaries the strength of this alliance.’

Australia’s amphibious capability has come a long way. The Geobukseon remembers how the Australian Army used just a couple of landing craft and a Mexeflote from HMAS Choules as its main landing force in 2013. Now the Royal Australian Navy has two LHDs, multiple landing craft and the ability to fly all its principal helicopters from LHD decks.

Another Chinese influence is seen in the US Navy’s upgunned Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG), which was first developmentally tested in Exercise Talisman Saber 2017. The initiative takes an existing three-ship Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) with an embarked Marine Expeditionary Unit and adds three cruisers, destroyers or frigates to protect the amphibious ships and to add new capabilities.

The full upgunned ESG employs USS Wasp with F-35B fighters, and such a combination was put through its paces this year. The F-35B, used in Talisman Sabre for the very first time, adds new capabilities in terms of surveillance and the ability to share data with other platforms. New concepts of operations are being explored, with a vessel like the Wasp able to carry around 40% of the strike power of a supercarrier if it were heavily loaded with up to 20 F-35Bs, giving rise to the term ‘Lightning Carrier’

The USMC said in its 2017 Marine Corps Aviation Plan: ‘While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary if employed in imaginative ways…A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities.’

ADM Scott Swift, former commander of the US Pacific Fleet, introduced the upgunned ESG concept in April 2016 to help reduce pressure on the USN’s carrier strike groups. Swift said, ‘It’s not the same as a strike group. It doesn’t have that depth the strike group brings, not the same number of aircraft and capability, [but] if you look at the demand signal for carrier strike groups from a COCOM [combatant command] perspective from around the world, it’s 15 carrier strike groups.’

Clearly an upgunned ESG was necessitated by the growing might of the PLAN. Future USN naval dominance is no longer assured in the region and, against a peer adversary such as China, the US must therefore alter its approach and beef up protection of its ARGs.

Moving on, Talisman Sabre is but one exercise in the US Indo-Pacific Command’s (INDOPACOM) Pacific Pathways series that kicked off in 2014. This sees the US Army Pacific progressively deploying around Asia-Pacific to take part in short bilateral exercises in a manner akin to the USMC. Pacific Pathways was adopted to keep the army relevant in the region, and to rehearse deploying quickly over long distances.

The series is developing even further, with units deploying for periods of up to six months at a time under Pacific Pathways 2.0. The concept has already been tested in a four-month deployment to Thailand, the Philippines and Palau.

Pacific Pathways-type expeditionary employments give the INDPACOM commander more options in a time of conflict, with North Korea and China being the most likely culprits in a region that possesses seven of the ten largest armies in the world.

Elsewhere, as China roves more widely in the South Pacific and wields ever more influence diplomatically and economically, Australia and the US belatedly realised they had been overlooking the region.

One response is the planned creation of a new Australian expeditionary training force to work with countries such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanuatu. This Pacific Support Force will be headquartered in Brisbane as part of the army’s 1st Division. It could receive a dedicated vessel to enhance naval engagements with Pacific partners too.

Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said: ‘The Pacific Support Force will employ a mobile training team approach to strengthen capacity, resilience and interoperability throughout the region in areas such as security operations, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping.’

In its Defence White Paper released on 24 July, China specifically called out Australia for criticism: ‘Australia continues to strengthen its military alliance with the US and its military engagement in the Asia-Pacific, seeking a bigger role in security affairs.’

This was a major change, because previous white papers mentioned Australia only in the context of cooperation.

China is obviously concerned about Australia’s military growth, its longstanding alliance with the US and also growing cooperation with Japan. Indeed, Talisman Sabre bears many Chinese fingerprints as the aforementioned countries and others grapple with how best to handle China and a more belligerent PLA.

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