Contemporary Operating Environment

Fighting with Fires – Talisman Sabre 2019

By Jason Kirkham September 30, 2019


This year’s Talisman Sabre took place against the global backdrop of a resurgence in great power competition and distinct escalations in cold war activities. As Western military dominance gradually recedes, Australia looks to prepare for future threats which are likely to inhabit a multi-domain battlespace within which we have but a small, but growing, dominion. Persisting economic, recruitment and retention challenges underscore the need for Army to be selective in its modernisation priorities. To this end, Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 identified three key areas that our modernisation priorities should focus in order to optimise the Army to dominate our primary operating environment. The three areas are mobility, sensor-capable and weapons-effects education. Each will be detailed as it relates to maximising Army’s combat power within the context of joint fires and effects. 

Movement in non-permissive geography

Mobility will be the life blood of Australia’s future army. During Talisman Sabre 19 we found that enemies who fight in place will die in place if they offer the slightest opportunity for fires to be massed. Mobility is not only its own form of protection; it enables our force to capitalise on opportunities to generate tempo. If war is a symphony, then tempo is the rhythm through which battles are decided. I propose mobility not of a discriminate nature, as were the Panzer divisions relative to the Wehrmacht, but of the Army as a whole; across every function, from combat service support (CSS) through to fighting echelons.

Mobility presents opportunities for us to disaggregate key capabilities, such as logistics, thereby presenting targeting dilemmas that induce friction and indecision on the enemy. Mobility not only allows us to avoid detection, but to escape destruction by exceeding targeting thresholds upon which lethal strikes from air and artillery depend. Mobility is crucial for our infantrymen, whose combat power is rapidly absorbed by the assertive and non-permissive terrain found in Shoalwater Bay and abroad. During the exercise, artillery forward observers from 8/12 Regiment found that a target’s rate of movement drastically reduced chances of successful engagements. Threat forces who have not trained for the challenges of movement in our geography will be highly susceptible to destruction by offensive support.

Finally, a modern approach to mobility will require a mental approach that is necessary in order to convert capability into combat power. Our Army’s brand of mobility requires the force employment model of King Xerxes rewritten; that being the movement of an unwieldy conventional force through the unforgiving crevices and folds of Asia-pacific geography. Mobility does not necessarily mean buying more trucks. Instead, it may materialise in investment towards unmanned aerial systems, already in widespread testing, which allow us to bypass jungle and access crests. Irrespective of form, our approach to mobility must be centred on the essential premise of preserving combat power in order to mass it.

Sensor-capable orchestrators

Our future Army needs to grow a sensor-capable force of effects' orchestrators. The common adage is that ‘Every soldier is a sensor’; but sensors for what purpose? Individual sensors are only useful so far as they are empowered to unshackle the destructive potential of battlefield fires and effects. In other words, the purpose of sensing is to orchestrate. An army rich in the ability to target the enemy with fires, wherever they appear, is an exceedingly difficult organism to defeat. This claim is supported by history, with artillery causing the majority of casualties in many of the 20th century’s major wars.

This remained the case during Talisman Sabre, which saw the use of manned-unmanned remoting (in this case, the conduct of fire missions using drones) to highly lethal effect. Further still, the armoured crews of Battlegroup Lion, using tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and vehicle optics, were the crucial sensors that enabled the destruction of enemy tanks and dug-in platoons with aircraft and offensive support. The robust sensor-shooter link typified by Battlegroup Lion was perfected through extensive training that preceded Talisman Sabre. Unfortunately, this skill-level is not symptomatic of the whole land force.

Replication of this standard requires artillery-led training that reshapes Army’s understanding of sensing to equate to the orchestration of fires and effects. Every soldier is not just a sensor. Every soldier is an effects orchestrator, who is enabled through sensors. Realisation of this vision requires education of the Army to view themselves as an irreplaceable part of offensive support targeting. Training should be broad, from the conduct of fire missions through to the of tenants of useful battlefield reporting. Battlefield reporting can cripple command and control as much as it can enable it, which is why it must be trained to be purposeful and optimised for our way of fighting. Enhancement in sensing could be rounded out by investment in technologies that diversify and broaden our sensor capabilities. For example, unmanned ground vehicles and passive remote sensors enhance our battlefield perspective while minimising exposure.



Weapons-effects education

Our Army should look to modernise its understanding and simulation of weapons-effects. Understanding the effects of joint fires is central to our ability to fight as a joint organisation and truly practice the highest standards of combined arms. The replication of fires-effects, specifically of artillery, were lacking during Talisman Sabre, which occurred at the expense of replicating the harsh realities of joint land combat. A prime example involves occurrences of enemy forces, subjected to lethal effects of artillery and rockets, sustaining no casualties and being allowed to immediately withdraw, thereby discounting any level of neutralisation that would accompany a heavy employment of offensive support.
Modernisation and improvement in this area can be solved in multiple ways. One way is through the education of our Army to enhance our perceptions of weapons-effects to go beyond mere attrition percentages, and instead incorporate psychological and morale dimensions as well. It also can be achieved through improvements to our doctrine to incorporate the latest in weapons-effects information, such as those detailed in the 2016 Explosive Weapons Report by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian De-mining.

Finally, our Army can improve the way it replicates realistic effects when adjudicating outcomes in both simulation systems, like the Joint Conflict and Tactical Simulation (JCATS) or Steel Beasts, and in our field exercises. Our current adjudication methods are too lethality-centric and tend to have a poor grasp on how the non-lethal effects of fires serve in equal part to morally degrade and unseat the enemy. The most successful armies in history have understood the importance of fighting with fires. An army with a poor appreciation for the physical and psychologically destructive potential of our large suite of joint weaponry is an Army unprepared to judiciously employ these weapons, and have those weapons employed against it. Our current appreciation of weapons-effects, if not continually reinvigorated through education and training, will serve as an unyielding impediment on our ability to train combined arms warfare realistically.




The uncertain trajectories in global stability underline the importance that our Army selects its modernisation objectives carefully. This year, Talisman Sabre identified three areas worthy of future enhancement that will improve our ability to meet future threats in our region. Firstly, the difficult terrain of our region presents inherent mobility challenges which, if overcome with fresh approaches and capabilities, will make our force less vulnerable to targeting. Secondly, the Army should generate, through training, the ability to permeate the battlespace with sensor-capable orchestrators who can leverage off the assets of our joint organisation, and ultimately accelerate our targeting methods. Finally, our Army’s standard of combined arms training is deficient in its ability to simulate realistic weapons-effects. Improvements in our understanding of weapons-effects will prepare us as both users, and potential targets, of joint fires during high-intensity warfare.



Jason Kirkham

Jason Kirkham is an Artillery Forward Observer serving in 8/12 Medium Regiment. He participated in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 as a Joint Fires Team commander with Battlegroup Lion.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Add new comment

Cove App


Fast access to The Cove anywhere, anytime. Additional feature of receiving notifications for new content.

Reflective Journal


Record your reflections in a structured way to improve your performance.