Australia hosts exercise Talisman Sabre – hosting NATO nations in the Pacific

The Australian Defence Force is currently hosting exercise Talisman Sabre.  This is a large biennial exercise that involves Australian allies and partners. Talisman Sabre is a regular activity but is worth reporting and drawing attention to because this year’s exercise helps to demonstrate the growing role of Australia as a military ‘hub’ in the Pacific and Melanesia. 

This year’s Talisman Sabre involves about 30,000 soldiers, sailors and aircrew from 13 different nations. Most are from Pacific nations including the United States Japan, South Korea, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Indonesia and Fiji. The United Kingdom and France are also participating but both have a long history of involvement. France still has military forces permanently based in the Pacific.  

Interesting newcomers are a ‘company group’ (about 170 soldiers) of German paratroopers.  Germany is a key member of NATO so deployment of even a relatively small force is worth noting because it demonstrates the alliance’s interest in this region. The German contingent commander Lieutenant General Alfons Mais stating that “We want to send a message that we are interested in what’s going on here, we want to portray ourselves as a reliable partner, where we share common values with Australia and other partners in the region.”  

Essentially, NATO is following through on the commitment in its current Strategic Concept to develop its relationships in the Pacific and to confront a potential Chinese threat to the international rules-based order.  In recent Pacific Briefs we have noted NATO’s increasing interest in the Pacific; and Australia’s development as a regional ‘hub’ for potential future deployments of United States or European forces into the Pacific.  

Talisman Sabre involves Australia hosting, organising and providing logistic support to a large military force.  It also includes practicing the ‘integration’ of smaller Pacific contingents into Australian combat groups.  The exercise provides observers with a clear picture of the type of NATO – United States military organisation that is being built in the South-West Pacific to deter possible Chinese military aggression. 

Australia providing the ‘hub’ into which the United States and NATO can deploy plus relationships with smaller Pacific nations. NATO and the United States providing higher end military capabilities like long-range precision-strike, space control (satellite intelligence) and very well-trained and technologically sophisticated forces. 

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United States developing airbases in Palau 

This week it was reported that the United States is currently re-activating and extending military facilities in Palau. Although part of Micronesia, the island group sits approximately 800km north of the island of Papua (the island shared by Indonesia and Papua New Guinea) and 800km east of the Philippines.  

The island group was an important link in Japan’s Pacific defence network during World War Two and currently the United States is busy strengthening extending existing runways and preparing them for future activity.

Local politicians reported that roads being built by the United States are designed to military specifications with bridges strong enough to take the weight of tanks. The redevelopment includes a recently built radar station. 

None of this activity should be a surprise, Palau’s location allows it to dominate sea routes that either China could use to support forces in Solomon Islands; or vice versa could be a logistics chain from Australia to Philippines. A route that would be especially important to secure if the United States and its allies were supporting an operation to protect Taiwan or South Korea.  Australia provides a safe base for rear area logistics because it has lots of space to disperse facilities, the civilian infra-structure to support many soldiers and is close enough to support the battle but far enough away to not be easily targeted.  This activity is another example of United States and allied planning and preparation for future conflict in the Pacific.  

Fiji coup rumours

Last week, rumours of a potential coup in Fiji circulated on social media.  Major General Ro Jone Kalouniwai, Fijian Chief of Defence Force responded on 20 July stating that the rumours are not true and that the military will abide by the law and respect the democratic process.

The Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka is also keen to confirm that there is no political instability in the small nation. 

Unfortunately, Fiji has a history of military coups and the current rumours are supported by a set of apparently leaked documents.  Fijian police are currently trying to track down the documents and over the next few weeks more detail will emerge. Hopefully, the rumours will be unfounded and Fijian democracy remains strong.  Any coup is de-stabilising, under-mining trust and confidence in the institutions of the state and empowering military leaders to become politically engaged.  A trend that weakens governance and military capabilities.

Solomon Islands plans to create a defence force 

Currently, Solomon Islands does not have a defence force relying instead on the Royal Solomon Island’s Police Force to maintain security within the nation and to patrol its territorial waters.  Until recently the location of Solomon Islands and the nation’s lack of resources meant that building a military was an un-necessary expense.  Australia, New Zealand and the other states of the Pacific Islands Forum providing security support when required.  

However, last week the nation’s Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare made and interesting announcement, that Solomon Islands needs to develop a defence force to augment its inadequately resourced police force. Prime Minister Sogavare said that the “Time has come for Solomon Islands to empower its police force, invest in stability, and break the dependence it has on external security arrangements.”  He also stated that China is responding to Solomon Islands security needs. 

Prime Minister Sogavare’s statement is interesting, Solomon Islands does not appear to have a significant external threat and has a history of strong support from other Pacific nations.  It seems more logical to focus on the development of its police service rather than building a new defence force, a difficult task that does not seem to be justified by Solomon Islands current level of threat.  

Further, this decision will raise concerns across the Pacific because many nations will be concerned about the potential for Chinese involvement in the new force.  Australia has already offered its assistance, probably a way of registering its concern and seeking to be Solomon Islands partner of choice. Another concern is that a military without an external threat or foreign policy objectives to pursue may instead focus internally; and in a poorly governed or politically unstable nation could become a tool of oppression.  Based on the current political climate, it does not seem likely that Solomon Islands will want Australian assistance building a new defence force.  It seems more likely that they will work with China, possibly creating more Sino-Australian and American tension in Melanesia.  

Nuclear tension in Korea

USS Kentucky, an Ohio Class nuclear powered submarine visited South Korea last week, setting off a series of North Korean missile tests. Further, the United States and South Korea’s Nuclear Consultative Group had its first meeting last week. The topic planning a strategy for nuclear deterrence against North Korea, the White House unequivocally stating its position after the meeting as follows “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its allies is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime, and the US and ROK sides highlighted that any nuclear attack by the DPRK against the ROK will be met with a swift, overwhelming, and decisive response.” 

This activity follows the United States, South Korea and Japan conducting a series of naval exercises after the test launch of a North Korean inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) in the middle of July. The test demonstrated that North Korea’s Hwasong-18 missile could travel more than 6,000km putting Japan and South Korea within range of a possible nuclear attack.  The Hwasong-18 could also hit some American Pacific territories. 

USS Kentucky’s visit is a strong ‘show of force’ because the vessel is nuclear ICBM equipped. Launching missiles from submarines close to an intended target reduces flight times to targets, increasing the threat to an enemy.  By deploying ICBM equipped submarines close to North Korea the United States is sending a strong deterrent message.  A message that North Korea does not like and responded to last week by launching more missiles over the Sea of Japan. 

The geo-politics are complex because North Korea exists at the indulgence of China. Its economy is tiny and the nation is collapsing after generations of dictatorship so it relies on Chinese economic support. This makes it unlikely that North Korea will act without Chinese approval.  And; although China’s patronage provides a useful check on the situation, Sino-American competition remains intense and North Korea could serve as useful proxy to draw the United States into a conflict. Although the situation is increasingly tense, China’s behaviour during the Ukraine War suggests that it does not want to engage in direct conflict with the United States. However, the situation is worth monitoring because it provides useful information about wider Sino-American interactions in the region. 


Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger 

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