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Talisman sabre military exercises, war and the environment

By Sue Wareham - posted Friday, 10 July 2009

There is one human activity that manages to escape scrutiny in our efforts to address climate change and other forms of environmental destruction.  That activity is war and its preparation. The commencement of major military exercises in Australia on July 6 should prompt an examination not only of warfare's environmental footprint, but, importantly, its impact on our security.

The Talisman Saber exercises will take place from 6 to 25 July, at a number of locations, primarily at Shoalwater Bay, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, in Queensland.  Shoalwater Bay is Commonwealth Heritage listed because of the ecological importance of its coastal and hinterland areas. It includes large numbers of plant, animal and fish species (some threatened), Ramsar listed wetlands, and many marine mammals. In 2008 Minister for the Environment Peter Garrett rejected, on environmental grounds, a proposed rail line and coal port for Shoalwater Bay.

The exercises will include land, sea and air combat and involve approximately 30,000 troops, bombing and other live fire exercises, over 1,600 armoured and other vehicles, and many naval vessels including nuclear-powered ships. According to the Defence Department, this influx of heavy vehicles, tens of thousands of humans, and live bombings, will leave "no footprint", and all disturbances will be rehabilitated.


While this claim does appear to border on the miraculous, it clearly overlooks at least one thing – the carbon footprint of the exercises, the size of which is not to be revealed.  In response to questioning in parliament recently from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the Minister representing the Minister for Defence stated, "The quantities of fuel used during the exercise are not disclosed because of the potential to reveal valuable intelligence information about the preparedness of the participating forces".

Regardless of the real reason for such secrecy, the reality remains that modern war machines cannot operate without vast quantities of oil. The US military, for example, uses a total of over 55 million litres of oil daily.

Michael Klare, Professor of Peace and World Security Studies at Hampshire College, Massachusetts, estimates that US combat operations in Southwest Asia and the Middle East use around 13.25 million litres of oil daily, which is more than the whole of Bangladesh's daily usage. Australia's own military establishments and operations account for approximately 65% of total Australian Government energy use.

The environmental impacts of war and its preparation run far deeper than their carbon footprint however. Countless sites around the globe bear testimony to warfare's destruction and pollution of land, sea and air. The US and Russia alone have contaminated literally thousands of military waste dumpsites with an array of toxic chemicals.

In Vietnam, 50 – 80 million litres of the defoliant Agent Orange was sprayed over the land, leaving an ongoing legacy of suffering. In Kuwait in 1991, Saddam Hussein's forces sabotaged hundreds of oil wells, causing ruinous environmental destruction.  In Kosovo in 1999, NATO forces bombed petrochemical plants and fertiliser factories, with a resulting barrage of chemicals reaching the River Danube.  In Lebanon in 2006, the bombing of oil storage tanks filled the port of Byblos with black sludge.

Closer to home, the floor of the Pacific is still strewn with at least 1,000 2nd World War shipwrecks, including over 300 oil tankers that will eventually break up, with disastrous results, if no action is taken.  Depleted uranium munitions, landmines and cluster bombs contaminate the land in dozens of former war zones. The list goes on and on.


Of current interest, especially given the Government's efforts to stamp out whaling, is the harm caused to marine mammals by naval sonar, which will be used during Talisman Sabre.

Humanity's ultimate confrontation with our natural environment is in the form of nuclear weapons. Even their production leaves behind an environmental nightmare. In the former USSR, waste from nuclear weapons programs was "managed" by dumping it in the nearest body of water. At the British nuclear test sites at Maralinga in South Australia, uranium and plutonium were spread over hundreds of square kilometres.

All this has far-reaching implications for how we view "security" and how we achieve it. The first task is to recognise what most threatens us.

There is currently no major military threat to Australia. The recent Defence White Paper confirmed this.  The paper briefly recognised the threats that loom largest - climate change and resource security - and then proceeded to recommend an array of fuel-guzzling resource-depleting war machines that will intensify these threats.

Armed conflict and environmental security are of course global issues, and Australia cannot solve them alone. We could however be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, by focussing our attention, energy and funds on the real threats we face, rather than the quest for military supremacy.

A fraction of the $308 billion that was announced in the budget for a decade of military spending, and the $48 million or more that will be spent on Talisman Sabre, could achieve major security benefits if channelled into renewable energies, environmental remediation and building regional goodwill.

Talisman Sabre might strengthen our relationship with the world's most powerful military force, but whether that makes us more secure is a different matter.  Security in the 21st century will depend significantly on the extent to which we humans can cooperate, rather than compete, to salvage a liveable world.

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About the Author

Dr Sue Wareham is a Canberra GP who joined the Medical Association for Prevention of War out of a "horror at the destructive capacity of a single nuclear weapon". She has many interests and fields of expertise, including the contribution of peace to global sustainability. Sue believes that her work with MAPW is fundamental to her commitment to the protection of human life and the improvement of human well-being. She is Vice-President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia); and on the Australian Management Committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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