Major ‘war’ on Australia’s east coast
The largest military battle since World War II has broken out just a few hundred kilometres from the Queensland coast.
The Australian Defence Force has joined its US and Japanese counterparts as part of a United Nations-led initiative to liberate the Republic of Legais, a chain of islands to our northeast that was recently occupied by the central Pacific nation of Kamaria.
The HMAS Adelaide and several Australian F-A18 Super Hornets have entered into battle alongside the USS Ronald Reagan, its fleet of F-22s and Joint Strike Fighters.
United States Marine Corps Colonel Matt Sieber declared the large-scale amphibious assault had officially begun.
"The amphibious landing began three days ago with the insertion of a pre-landing and reconnaissance force surveilling the enemy," Col. Sieber said.
It's all on. It's all happening. A new era of combat and danger has begun.
All right, fine, you've been clickbaited. Technically speaking, there is no outbreak of war - in case the fictitious names of "Kamaria" and "Legais" didn't already tip you off.
The above scenario forms the basis of this year's Talisman Sabre, the largest joint US-Australian military exercise to take place on our shores.
Team Blue is tasked with pushing into the fictitious Republic of Legais and overthrowing Team Red, which has been tasked with occupying it in a mock conflict.
The event runs biannually from late June to late August, with military activities peaking from July 11-24 this year.
But this isn't just a run-of-the-mill training exercise. It's about preparing for real outside threats to Australia and its allies.
The scenarios feature attacking ships, land invasions on the northeast Australian coastline and a simulated war at sea. Taking part are more than 34,000 military personnel, 30 ships and 200 aircraft from the US and Australian forces as well as the UK, Canada, Japan and New Zealand.
News.com.au spent some time on-board the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with just under 6000 personnel, getting a rare look at F-18 jet fighters being fired and landing on the ship's deck and speaking to senior crew members.
Aboard the ship's flight deck, precision is paramount. Military electronic attack jets are conducting launch-and-return drills on repeat, using tail hooks on landing to catch wires on the carrier's deck to bring them to a halt.
If they fail to stop, they're launched into the air again with a deafening roar and a blaze of white smoke, where they will once again circle around and attempt a landing.
Everything is so carefully regimented that standing just a centimetre out of place will immediately get you ushered aside.
Karl Thomas, Rear Admiral of the USS Ronald Reagan, told news.com.au the games were an opportunity for the US and its allies to improve on their battle tactics and better understand how the other side thinks and operates.
"We're really honing our war fighting skills," he explained. "It's about being ready. It's about being interoperable. It's about being able to execute tactics together and communicate and just be more lethal.
"In today's day and age we have to be able to work closely with our partners and allies. That's the way we've fought ever since we've been in conflict, and we need to ensure we can work closely with them."
'WE'VE GOT OUR EYE ON CHINA'
In 2019, honing these skills and being prepared is more important than ever. The elephant in the room, of course, is China.
The US, Australia and their allies have increased their presence in the South China Sea after Beijing began building artificial islands in the disputed territories.
"The world realises how important the Indo-Pacific is," Rear Admiral Thomas told news.com.au. "All of our allies and partners working together sends a message - not only from a trade perspective but also security - and this is what it is all about.
"We want an open and free region that folks can operate freely in international waters, within the rules of law that exist. Having a strong presence in an area like this helps us enforce that."
At the start of this year's Talisman Sabre, the Chinese Government sent out a Type 815G Dongdiao class spy ship to spy on the military forces, strategically positioning itself just outside of territorial waters.
It's understood the ship has been stationed there to gather vital intelligence about the types of weapons and technology being used by the two countries.
Rear Admiral Thomas said the military was keeping an eye on Beijing but added its presence was unsurprising.
"This is a big exercise, and a really important one, so it doesn't surprise me that they'd want to see what we're doing," he said. "We're certainly paying attention to what they're doing. We watch them just like they watch us."
Strategic experts say the presence of Chinese warships spying in Australian waters is becoming increasingly regular.
Earlier this week Ashley Townshend, director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre, told news.com.au it was the "new normal" in the Indo-Pacific region and a sign of the changing strategic order.
"As China's navy grows more powerful and picks up the pace of operations far away from the mainland, its warships are becoming an everyday sight right across the region," he said.
"Just as US, Australian and Japanese military assets operate in international waters and airspace close to Chinese shores, so too will China be present off our coastline.
"Australian and US defence planners are well aware of this and will have taken steps to make sure that the sensitive aspects of the Talisman Sabre exercises are protected against spying by Chinese surveillance ships.
"They've done this before and, what's more, there is value in practising under such realistic conditions."
While China technically doesn't break any international laws, Mr Townsend said it was a case of double standards from the rising superpower.
"All nations have the right under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to conduct military surveillance operations in international waters outside a state's 12 nautical mile territorial sea," he said. "This is what China will be doing next week.
"While the US and Australia - along with most other nations - accept this principle and grant it to China, Beijing does not extend this right to other nations in the South China Sea, where it routinely chases away foreign vessels from self-declared 'military alert zones'.
"For international rules to function they must be reciprocated."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison - who also toured the USS Ronald Reagan this week -
touched on the subject of striking the right balance between Chinese and US forces after addressing thousands of US military personnel.
"I'd say it's the biggest strategic challenge and management challenge we have in our international relations today," Mr Morrison said.
"We respect the comprehensive strategic partnership and warmly welcome it and celebrate it with the People's Republic of China, our single largest trading partner, but equally with the United States."