11 Jun 2015

NZ joins Australia, US for Talisman Sabre

3:19 pm on 11 June 2015

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) is gearing up for a mass invasion of Australia, on a mission to build closer trans-Tasman ties.

For the first time, New Zealand has been invited to take part in Australia's biggest mock war exercise with the United States - Talisman Sabre - which involves 30,000 troops, 21 ships, more than 200 aircraft and three submarines.

The acting commander of the joint services, Commodore John Campbell, said New Zealand's relatively modest contingent of 650 personnel, 45 vehicles and two helicopters, was "a small part of that".

But Commodore Campbell, who is also the maritime commander in charge of the naval fleet, said it was a big deal for New Zealand, which was allowed to attend as an "observer" during the last exercise two years ago.

"It's actually going to make sure we can integrate into other forces more easily," he said.

"We can fit in with what we're trying to achieve in the Defence Force with our joint taskforce set-up, where we bring our three services together more regularly and operate as one force."

An overview of the NZDF contingent before loading in Wellington.

An overview of the NZDF contingent before loading in Wellington. Photo: RNZ / Ruth Hill

Talisman Sabre covers training in land, air and maritime warfare, and a range of scenarios - from low-level humanitarian missions to high-end combat, with ground invasions in Queensland and duelling warships off the coast of Darwin and in US territory.

Thaw between US and NZ

New Zealand's defence relations with the US have been warming in recent years, particularly since Washington three years ago lifted the ban on New Zealand naval visits, which was implemented in 1986 in retaliation against the country's nuclear-free stance.

HMNZS Canterbury last year docked in Pearl Harbour in Hawaii during Rimpac, the largest maritime military exercise in the world.

However, Commodore Campbell dismissed suggestions the latest invitation represented a further thawing in relations.

"We just see it as part of our relationship with Australia, more than anything else... We'll be integrated with the Australian forces, so that's all we see it as."

The 'Canterbury' is loaded in Wellington in preparation for Talisman Sabre.

The 'Canterbury' is loaded in Wellington in preparation for Talisman Sabre. Photo: RNZ / Ruth Hill

Talisman Sabre is the largest exercise that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) conducts with all four services of the US armed forces in a combined and joint environment.

The NZDF has been invited to participate in this year's bilateral exercise, which will be held from 5 - 21 July in multiple training areas in Australia and the US. It will involve around 30,000 troops from the ADF and the US military, 21 ships including the US navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington, more than 200 aircraft and three submarines.

It is also the first time the controversial NH90 helicopters have been deployed internationally since they arrived in 2012.

The eight French-made multi-purpose helicopters, which cost $771 million, were intended to replace the ageing Iroquois, but have been dogged by problems, including concerns about "wind wash" and difficulties in transporting them.

Commodore Campbell said Talisman Sabre comes at the ideal time for the NH90's "test and evaluation phase".

HMNZS Canterbury leaves for Canterbury on Saturday ahead of the start of Talisman Sabre, which runs 5 - 21 July.