Exercise Talisman Sabre is an important biennial exercise between Australia and the United States that is designed to train the planning and conduct of combined operations set in the Pacific Area of Responsibility (AOR). The exercise tests interoperability and the combined force projection throughout the AOR to defeat a ‘near peer’ adversary.
In the context of the Command Post Exercise within the Combined Air Operations Centre, exercise play quickly revealed the significant geographical challenges to force projection in this AOR, particularly in relation to air power. The area between the United States and Australia is characterised by small archipelagos and island groups, and the vast distances are likely to strain the force projection ranges of the combined forces.
In the exercise, air power projection relied heavily on the security and viability of bases in Northern Australia, and US territories in the AOR. Maritime air power, particularly US aircraft carrier availability, was also central to the combined force ability to assert control of the air, even for brief periods of time, to enable maritime or land based forces to achieve key objectives against enemy forces.
It is obvious that access to, and protection of, bases for the projection of air power to support maritime and land forces is an essential line of operation for mission success within the AOR. What happens when there is limited apportionment of carriers or other maritime platforms? What happens if air basing in third countries is not possible? These are questions that have been asked before in the context of allied air operations in the South West Pacific during World War II. The work of EG Keogh and Peter Dean, for example, provide insight into the challenges of operating in this theatre with limited access to carrier based air power or secure air fields [i]. General Macarthur and his staff overcame these challenges through the development of a scheme of manoeuvre that exploited the geography of the region:
The general scheme of maneuver is to improve all presently occupied forward air bases; occupy and implement air bases which can be secured without committing large forces; employ air forces from these bases to soften up and to gain air superiority over the initial attack objectives along the two axes; neutralize with appropriate aviation supporting hostile air bases and destroy hostile naval forces and shipping within range; move land forces forward covered by air and naval forces to obtain first objectives (existing and potential hostile air bases) and consolidate same; displace aviation forward onto captured airdromes.
This process is repeated to successive objectives, neutralizing by air action, or by air, land and sea action, intermediate hostile installations which are not objectives of immediate attack [ii].
The last 16 years of Australian and US air power experience is largely focused on the ‘close air support’ or ‘CAS-centric’ nature of air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Exercise Talisman Sabre represents an opportunity to reframe our thinking about air power to an entirely different context that is within in our own region and a problem set that is distinct from our operational experience. The exercise scenario poses significant challenges to force projection due mainly to the geography of our region. The exercise also poses the question of what happens when we don’t have control of the air, and we don’t have ready access to bases in the region. What do we do then? How do we project air power in a contested airspace, with limited reach and support to maritime and land forces?
The exercise challenges the ADF to look deeply at how we plan to conduct expeditionary joint operations, including identifying our dependencies, and the challenges of our geography. Fortunately, the lessons from the South West Pacific provide us with a historical background that can form the starting point for addressing these issues.
[i]. See EG Keogh. South West Pacific 1941-1945. Melbourne: Grayflower Productions, 1965. Peter Dean, Australia 1943. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
[ii]. General Headquarters Southwest Pacific Area, ‘Elkton’ III – Plan for the Seizure and Occupation of the Lae Salamaua Madang Western New Britain Solomon Areas, 26 April 1943.
See US Army in World War II – The War in the Pacific. ‘Strategy and Command: The First Two Years’, Appendix V: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-P-Strategy/Strategy-V.html (accessed 06 August 2017).