A soldier posts a selfie with a barista in Bowen. He’s a member of the opposing force on Exercise Talisman Sabre 21 (TS21), and he’s playing an important role in a fictitious exercise scenario.

Later that day, friendly forces receive word that the opposing force (OPFOR) soldier is winning the hearts and minds of the local population.

The scenario is designed to sound like the real deal. The use of real-time cyber effects and non-Defence training areas (NDTAs) during TS21 is helping close the gap between training and reality according to Commander Combat Training Centre, Colonel Ben McLennan.

“I can’t overstate the value of training in a complicated environment like Bowen,” Colonel McLennan said. 

“It’s worth dozens of exercises in Shoalwater Bay or the Townsville Field Training Area.”

Soldiers will navigate local fishermen and neighbourhood dogs to clear an opposing force from the fictional Bowen Island, a region created to allow for as much exercise realism as possible.

The activity will see soldiers conduct a simulated amphibious landing followed by a combined assault from a coalition force of Australian, American, Japanese, UK and South Korean personnel.

To add complexity to the scenario, and in a nod to the real world, soldiers must contend with the public perception of their actions, according to Colonel McLennan.

“We want blue and red to see their effects in the community,” he said. 

“If there’s a mistake made by the friendlies, the enemy can exploit that through social media to shape the local population’s confidence in the allied coalition, and even dent their morale.”

For opposing force soldier, Private Luke Armstrong, it was the first time he has seen this level of detail in a training activity.

“On Talisman Sabre 2019, we got the standard brief about the OPFOR picture,” Private Armstrong said.

“This year, they’re making social media posts on behalf of the opposing force that we’re meant to be portraying, which is more like the real world.”

Colonel McLennan and his team had complete freedom to design a bespoke, realistic training scenario that incorporates extensive use of non-Defence training areas. To add extra realism to Talisman Sabre this year exercise areas will include an abandoned coal processing facility, airfields and beaches.

Soldiers will also drill their ability to conduct non-combatant evacuation operations and establish a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade presence.

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Talisman Sabre 2021