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U.S. and Allied Forces Conduct Major Military Exercise Off Northeast Australia

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ABOARD THE USS RONALD REAGAN—American forces took part in a major amphibious landing and practice assault off Australia’s northeast coast on Wednesday in stepped-up drills as China modernizes its military to project power far from its shores.

In a combined exercise due to run through early August, the U.S. and its allies are simulating scenarios including war at sea, attacking ships and land invasions on the northeast Australian coastline, officials on board the exercise’s lead aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, said.

Talisman Sabre is a biennial combat-training exercise for U.S. and Australian forces. This year, they are joined by forces from the U.K., Canada, Japan and New Zealand—with more than 34,000 military personnel, 30 ships and 200 aircraft. Japan sent two warships and 330 troops, compared with no ships and around 60 troops in 2017.

During one drill on the USS Ronald Reagan on Wednesday, F-18 jet fighters were fired from catapults embedded in the ship’s deck. Along with P-8 surveillance planes and helicopters, they were tasked with hunting and locating submarines on the carrier’s tail. The Wall Street Journal spent time Wednesday observing the exercise and talking with crew members of the USS Ronald Reagan.

Rear Adm. Karl Thomas said it is important that Western and Chinese forces be able to operate comfortably alongside each other.



“We’re really honing our war fighting skills,” said U.S. Rear Adm. Karl Thomas, a strike group commander. “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.”

A Chinese spy ship was spotted off Australia’s northeast coastline during the exercise, an increasingly common occurrence according to analysts. U.S. and Australian officials say they have a right to be there because they are in international waters.

“We operate around the Chinese quite frequently,” said Adm. Thomas, whose ship, the USS Ronald Reagan, is based in Yokosuka, Japan. “It’s important that we’re able to work together in the same piece of the ocean, and I think we do that fairly professionally.”

Chinese navy ships regularly brush up against U.S. allies in the region. A Chinese missile-tracking ship docked in Fiji the same day that the Australian navy visited in June last year, while a Chinese navy hospital ship was also visiting ports in the region.

In May, fishing boats in Chinese-claimed disputed waters in the South China Sea shone lasers at the pilots of Australian navy combat helicopters during an exercise, Australian officials said, following similar incidents targeting U.S. military aircraft in the western Pacific and Indian oceans.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stood on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan off the Queensland, Australia, coast on Friday as an EA-18G Growler landed.


darren england/Shutterstock

The U.S. and several of its allies, including Australia, have stepped up their military patrols and exercises in the South China Sea since China started building seven heavily fortified artificial islands on rocks and reefs in the disputed Spratly archipelago about five years ago in a bid to control waters also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and others.

“The world realizes how important the Indo-Pacific is,” said Adm. Thomas. “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.”

Launch-and-return drills for aircraft on the USS Ronald Reagan continued into the afternoon Wednesday. While the aircraft use tail hooks on landing to catch wires on the carrier’s deck to help them stop, they must blast their engines to take off again rapidly if they fail to catch the wire.

“There’s very little room for error out here. This is why we practice,” said Lt. Cmdr. Matt Knight, 39, who works and sleeps directly below the flight deck where fighters are catapulted noisily into the sky at all hours of the day and night. “Working with our allies and partners on an operation like Talisman Saber is what makes us a better fighting force.”

Write to Rachel Pannett at

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