Waking to a raucous symphony of helicopter engines, gunfire and the distant boom of mortar shells is not your everyday alarm. The weariness of a restless night’s sleep was familiar. But, rolling up off the hard uneven dirt that was my bed to the sounds of war, I was all too aware that this was very unfamiliar ground.
I’m a self-confessed “big boof of a man” who loves the challenge of a rough game of rugby that someone my age would be wise to avoid. But I was physically exhausted. Clearly the months of early morning work-outs in the Parliament House gym were not quite preparation enough for the hard reality of being embedded in Exercise Talisman Sabre 2017.
The biggest military exercise ever to take place in Australia, Talisman Sabre was the culmination of two years of planning and involved 33,000 participants, 36 warships and over 220 aircraft. Designed to advance Australian and US warfare readiness and test our ability to operate jointly with our largest military ally, representatives from 24 other nations also observed portions of the exercise.
The scale and success of the simulated war exercise is difficult to adequately put into words. Awe inspiring is an understatement.
The sheer logistics are mind-bending - a state-of-the art Comms room set up in remote bushland that would rival NASA acted not just as a command room, but as a virtual bunker for planning complex strategies; hospitals to conduct triage; three kitchens producing thousands of meals daily; troop movements on a grand scale; air traffic control of 220 aircraft; and multiple land, sea and air incursions.
Then there’s the engineering marvel of the vehicles and equipment– the Bushmaster armoured vehicle with a front end resembling the keel of a boat that can cut through any terrain; The USS Ronald Reagan - a floating city that can hold 5,000 people and 200 fighter jets; the mighty M777 Howitzer which uses a digital fire-control system to enable the use of smart and precision guided munitions.
The only thing that inspired more awe and admiration than the scale of the endeavour and the grunt of the “toys” was the stamina, smarts and capability of the personnel who were engaged in the exercise.
And the interesting fact is, for many hundreds of those taking part, this reality was as far removed from their regular 9 to 5 day jobs as mine.
There was a rocket scientist from the CSIRO, a piano tuner and every sort of tradie you could imagine. There were police, teachers, doctors, paramedics, and other public servants for whom the ring of a normal alarm was far more familiar than the artillery we experienced.
I am speaking of course of the outstanding men and women who serve in our Defence Force Reserves.
In fact, 860 Reservists personnel from the 11th and 13th Brigades reinforced the 3rd Brigade, the Deployable Joint Force HQ, Joint Operations Command and Exercise Control.
I had the privilege of meeting many of the 810 reservists who were part of Battle Group Cannan which reinforced 3rd Brigade at Shoalwater Bay Training Area during Exercise Talisman Sabre. And I’m pleased to say that around 200 of these came from the Gold Coast, Logan, Greenbank, Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba regiments that are either within or close by my electorate of Wright.
Standard reservists spend between 20 and 40 days each year training for their role, but many of these dedicated individuals committed to double that in order to achieve the required force modernisation training on the new weapons, radio systems and vehicles used during the exercise.
Anyone who harbours the notion that the Defence Force Reserves are an addendum to the forces, a “backup” to be utilised only in cases of extreme need, is way behind the times. The fact is, the Reserves are a highly professional, combat-ready force that enhances and strengthens our everyday capability and, through exercises like Talisman Sabre, is fully integrated in the operations of the Defence Force.
The Reserves are a highly professional, combat-ready force that enhances and strengthens our everyday capability.
For example, in any sustained operational deployment of an Australian Army element, Reserve participation in successive rotations is likely to rise from an initial 10 per cent of the first deployment, to 30pc, and then 60pc of the third rotation.
The benefits of being able to mobilise highly skilled people who bring unique civilian experience to the Force is obvious.
As Lt Col Mark Smith, the Commanding Officer of Battlegroup Cannan put it, “When an infantry platoon commander is also an emergency room doctor it can be most useful. This is one of the institutional strengths of the Reserves as we have 810 different methods of doing tasks with people who can leverage off their civilian skills in the military environment.”
And there’s evidence that ensuring flexibility, increasing relevance and improving opportunity for reservists to serve on active duty is attracting many people to part-time service. Two years ago the Army was barely recruiting 900 reserve soldiers a year. They are now recruiting 1,400 a year and this number is rising.
It’s an interesting aspect that many of our reservists have traditionally come from rural or regional areas – perhaps they are more used to the concept of community service, having lived in smaller tight-knit communities?
But the notion of community service and the spirit of volunteering is an Australian quality and not just inherent in those in rural and regional areas. The Army is currently actively working to recruit more people from city and urban areas.
Service in the Reserves, while certainly attractive in terms of the unique experience and tax-free payments, is still a highly dedicated and selfless act. People don’t do it for the money. As in the standard forces, it’s more about service to the nation and it requires sacrifice – of family time, of leisure time, of the comforts of home while on weekend training, and the sacrifice of workplace time as well. (Which in many cases means working longer so things are done before you leave and then working harder to catch up when you return.)
It’s worth mentioning the many employers across our nation who help facilitate their employees’ reserve participation. In accommodating the demands of military service for their employees, they too are “sacrificing” and being prepared to “give back in service to the nation”. Businesses often cop a bad rap these days – but so many are actually happy to do the right thing and contribute in this way.
Exercise Talisman Sabre was indeed an exercise in capability, in working with our allies, in ensuring we have the systems in place to protect our nation and/or our allies in times of conflict. But for me, the exercise is also about the men and women of our Reserves who proved themselves more than capable of keeping up with their full-time colleagues and who really embody the notion of the everyday Australian asking what they can do for their country.
From what I saw at Shoalwater Bay the answer is “a bloody lot”.
I encourage all Australians – and our young people in particular – to take a close look at what the Defence Force Reserves have to offer. Not many Australians get to wake to an alarm of artillery fire. Those that do know they are serving their nation in a long standing tradition of excellence, professionalism and mateship.
It’s an honour to have witnessed it in action.
- Scott Buchholz MP