In what might be the most surprise attack in world history, two U.S. fighter jets dropped four bombs on Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site, on July 16. The jets were taking part in a drill prior to Talisman Saber, a biennial joint training exercise with the Australian Defense Force intended improve "measures to defend Australia and its national interests."
The unarmed ordnance — two bombs contained concrete and two contained explosives but didn't have their fusing mechanism in place — were supposed to be jettisoned over the Townshend Island bombing range, almost 450 miles north of Brisbane. But, U.S. Navy Commander William Marks told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "the approved area where they could do some of this live training with these 500-pound bombs . . . was not safe. There were civilian boats right below them."
Further complicating matters, the two AV-8B Harrier jets were running low on fuel (for reasons that are being investigated), and they couldn't make a safe landing on their amphibious assault ship while still carrying the bombs. So, what's a poor pilot to do?
"Their priority was to get to a place which would take the least impact," Commander Marks said. "We believe we did drop in between 50 and 60 meters of water in a place where it is not a hazard to shipping and not a hazard to navigation.”
The Great Barrier Marine Park Authority issued a statement saying that the bombs' "impacts on the environment are negligible." While Larissa Waters, a senator from Queensland's Green Party, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, "I think it's outrageous that we're letting the US military drop bombs on the World Heritage Great Barrier Reef. Have we gone completely mad?"
Less than a month earlier, UNESCO's World Heritage Committee postponed a decision on whether the 1,250-mile Great Barrier Reef should be put on the organization's "in danger" list. The reef has lost an astounding half of its coral cover over the past 27 years, per an Australian Institute of Marine Science report, and the Queensland government's push to approve new ports and increased shipping to transport coal could further threaten the fragile ecosystem.
And just this January, a U.S. Navy minesweeper ran aground on Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, irreversibly damaging 25,250 feet of coral. The U.S. government spent $45 million to salvage the ship and owes the Philippines a $1.4 million fine.
The big question is why Talisman Saber takes place in a World Heritage Site — and whether the Australian Department of Defense will add "accidental release of bombs into the marine environment from aircraft incidents" to its long list of potential environmental impacts from these war games. The Talisman Sabre Final Public Environment Report says that it has a policy of leaving "no footprint," and the U.S. Navy has offered to recover its bombs from the reef. --M.P. Klier
--image by istockphoto/mevans