This year, visitors heading north to watch the annual whale migration along Australia’s northeastern seaboard may be forgiven for thinking they have stumbled into a remake of Apocalypse Now.
Australian yachtsman Brad Stephenson and his family had a studio audition last year. A helicopter, hovering only 20 metres above his deck, menaced he and his family as they took shelter from an approaching storm in Shoalwater Bay. When he managed to look away from the machine gun facing him and his terrified children, he saw a sign saying “Military Live Firing - Get Out”.
He was forced to turn and sail back into the dangerous seas. After local press coverage, the Australian Defence Force offered an apology, saying they didn’t know the sea was rising - an implausible excuse as weather is vital in military manoeuvres, and the ADF have excellent access to meteorological information systems.
After a media kerfuffle, Colonel Bill Byrne, reassured the family that being terrified of armed troops on board the chopper was not necessary as, after all, it is standard practice for troops to have their weapons on their laps and to have machine guns fixed to the fuselage, even when confronting civilians in distress.
Welcome to Shoalwater Bay on Australia’s tropical coast, close to Rockhampton and gateway to the magnificent fringing reefs and islands of Australia’s north. The bay could be the poster child for a tropical holiday campaign, with its azure waters, secluded “let’s go in the nuddie” beaches, and proximity to the famed Great Barrier Reef.
Instead it is the stage set for the wild world of Talisman Saber, said to be an integral part of that great commercial venture, the War on Terrorism. While the civilised nations of the world have biennial film festivals and music spectaculars, Australia has biennial war simulations: but at over $60 million, it is hard to see what sort of show the tax payer will get.
Between May and June of this year some 12,000 Australian, 14-15,000 US and various Singaporean troops, will converge on this pristine wilderness region, home to endangered marine species like the dugong, and literally bomb the hell out if it.
Vice Admiral Archie Clemens the Commander of the US 7th Fleet, recently told Global Security that “One of the greatest thing that we lost in the Philippines (after huge public pressure to oust US bases) were bombing ranges to train. You have to have places to bomb, you have to have places to shoot live weapons. Places to fly planes over that make noise, places you can really test … your capabilities. I think Australia in the future is going to be the place … ”
He and the Australian government had agreed on an extension to the Lancelin Training Area, West Australia, and its use by the US. While the Admiral sounds alarmingly like Dennis the Menace, the agreement shows that prime defence real estate is just another commodity to be traded for favours and patronage.
The nearby town of Yepoon will be inundated by ground forces and noise. But Department of Defence promises that drowning a town in khaki is good for local business are not borne out by actuality. The US forces bring all their supplies including the stuff that passes for US beer. Local businesses note that in the past only a marginal increase has been noticed as most service people on R and R tend to be shipped to Sydney or Brisbane to reduce their density.
Steve Bishopric a local businessperson and activist fervently opposed to Talisman Saber, only noticed a 0.5 per cent improvement during the 2005 exercises, which in no way offsets the atmospheric rise in testosterone.
My own experiences with US bases in Asia leads me to believe, however, that some businesses will do very well. Free lancing drug dealers and hookers will be in the pink. The police and casualty departments will rake in lots of overtime dealing with the odd drunken soldier who ploughs into a tree during R and R, or picks a fight with Aboriginal Australians - US forces not being noted for their cultural sensitivities. They may even get some prime time “just like on the telly” drama if, like happened in East Timor, a drone happens to get out of control.
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