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GUARD DUTY | Operation Talisman Sabre

Barry Harmsworth reports on Operation Talisman Sabre 

The Australian Defence Force has teamed with its American counterpart to participate in Operation Talisman Sabre, a biennial joint military exercise coordinated through the Shoalwater Bay Training Grounds, Central Queensland.

Almost 38,000 personnel from the Australian Defence Force, the United States plus those from Japan, New Zealand, Canada and the UK combined to expand our extensive defence ties. Parts of the Central Queensland coast and the beaches of Shoalwater Bay Military Training Grounds were off limits during this exercise, which included defensive and offensive activities such as training in amphibious landing and aircraft in-flight refuelling.

The naval battle fleet led by the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan was positioned just off-shore and this year, to add to the drama, it was being shadowed by a Chinese Navy “spy-ship”. One of our submarines even surfaced in Gladstone Harbour.

Rockhampton airport provided the centre of operations for the various air force sorties with all sizes of military aircraft able to be seen by aviation enthusiasts as they came in for landing and take-off.

For truck tragics, the show to watch was on the highway as convoys of new military transport travelled from Darwin, Sydney, Brisbane and Townsville to either Shoalwater Bay Training Grounds or Camp Rocky.

Camp Rocky was the central base for a huge logistical exercise and in the past the grounds have been filled with those faithful old Mack 6x6s, Land Rovers and 4×4 Unimogs.

Since 2016, a far more advanced truck has been taking over the parking area. The latest high-tech HX MAN military vehicles, which some road users refer to as “awesome” and others as “intimidating” when they meet them on our highways, have muscled in on operations.

From a logistical perspective, military equipment from the ’70s, no matter how good or reliable it proved back in the day and how well it had been maintained, must eventually be retired. Although probably regretted by Mack devotees, the Bulldogs that have served their country faithfully are now replaced with the latest technology from the German manufacturer.

No longer will the low grumble of the Mack brigade travelling through town be heard, or their trainee drivers be seen grappling with the clutch and gear stick. Certainly, their passing marks the end of an era, but it also opens up opportunities for the civilian army of enthusiasts to source their own personal Mack or Unimog by visiting the on-line vehicle auctions and clearance houses. One such 6×6 Mack was spied parked on the side of the road having its brakes adjusted. It had only 1000 hours of work on the clock, accounting for 38,000 km. What a bargain this one will be! “It’s on its last exercise,” said the mechanic.  

There is no place for sentimentality in a modern, forward-thinking and technologically-progressive world. Replacements now come in the form of automated manual transmissions, with drivers comfortably tucked away in air-conditioned cabs, cruising along the highways.

With the big MAN rigs now getting all the attention, just before the exercise got underway the military hosted an open day at the Rockhampton Showgrounds to show some of their hardware. Several MAN variants were on display – in 4×4, 8×8 and even 10×10 configuration – which proved very popular with the kids (not to mention the “big kids”) who were allowed to climb inside the ones on display.

It’s the technology that the driver has at his or her fingertips that immediately catches your attention. Two cameras provide rear and side views, allowing the driver to load and unload containers and flat racks by using a joystick from inside the cab to manoeuvre the automatic load-handling system, more commonly known in civilian life as “hook lift”. It’s beginning to look as though manual loading will be avoided whenever possible in the military to decrease the potential for injury.

Blast-proof windscreens also give extra protection for operators while some are even fitted with gas-proof cabs. Forty percent of the trucks have under-carriage armour protection from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) as these will be operating in high-threat environments. One driver told me that the HXs can climb a 60 percent gradient with their 40-degree approach and can also traverse a side slope of 40 percent.

All the MANs ride on 14.00 x R20 single tyres and carry 1500 litres of fuel with a 483 km range while loaded. They can safely operate unprepared in 750 mm of water, but if prepared, can continue through 1.5 m.

Powered by a MAN D2066, 10.518-litre, six-cylinder, in-line, water-cooled, Euro4 diesel, they feature 12 forward gears and two reverse and are rated at 440 hp when operating at 1900 rpm, with 2100 Nm of torque at 1000 rpm.

Governed to a maximum speed of 100 km/h, the specification includes selective front-wheel drive and cross-axle diff locks for all-round, off-road as well as on-highway driving ability. Aiding their flexibility are 1700 purpose-built Haulmark trailers.

When a very old digger from WWII who had driven Chev Blitzs in the Desert Campaign was confronted by all this torque and technology he commented: “The big advances once upon a time were having that extra gearstick to engage front-wheel drive and an extra fuel tank! Oh… and the passenger had a grab handle at his feet to hold onto too!”

Although wet and chilly the open day was well attended. With visitors of all ages waiting in turn to talk to defence personnel, listen to the military band and inspect the classic military vehicles on display. Legacy support was encouraged, as were ADF careers, and there were plenty of opportunities to talk trucks, climb into one of the Bushmasters or check out a helicopter. It was also a great chance for Central Queenslanders to see new gear like a Mercedes Benz 4×4 that was on display as the replacement for those trusty old Land Rovers.

The Rockhampton region has been drought declared and ironically, the only wet day was on this open day!

When vehicles need to be transported, they can be winched or driven onto a flat rack base and secured, prior to the hook lift system pulling the rack and vehicle into position on the truck.

The driver can use a remote control to load when not in the cab, enabling disabled vehicles, fuel or water modules to be easily collected from field positions and safely transported back to base.

Using the hook lift system it’s possible to set up new operational bases or relocate existing bases at a moment’s notice. Generator sets, communications, food, refrigeration, mechanical and medical facilities, fuel, water, and amenities’ blocks are built in modular form and they can then be loaded and moved safely and easily.

Convoys of HX MAN trucks pulling dog trailers can move equipment swiftly and efficiently within conflict zones and in areas of natural disasters or low-threat environments.

Army drivers at the 2019 Open Day were very supportive of the new rigs, explaining that in 2013, the contract was given to Rheinmetall MAN Vehicles Australia Pty Ltd in Brisbane to supply 2707 protected and unprotected medium and heavy logistic military vehicles to the Australian Defence Force between 2016 and 2020, with an additional 200 HX military vehicles for the New Zealand armed forces.

The contract also provides for lifetime monitoring, parts supply and maintenance and repair. Similar vehicles are also being used in the British, Singaporean, German, Austrian, New Zealand, Hungarian, Republic of Ireland, Kuwait and UAE armies.

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