Aerial of the Great Barrier Reef.
Aerial of the Great Barrier Reef. C Veron

US jets drop unarmed bombs on reef park in emergency

THE emergency release of four US bombs on the Great Barrier Reef during exercise Talisman Saber has brought environmental practices of the Defence Force into the spotlight.

On July 16, two AV-8B Harrier aircraft launched from USS Bonhomme Richard were unable to drop the bombs as planned over Townshend Island, off Shoalwater Bay.

A statement from the US Seventh Fleet said that without sufficient fuel to reach the pre-designated jettison area, the on-scene commander decided to drop the bombs in an unarmed condition, about 16 nautical miles south of Bell Cay in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

They were dropped in a channel 50-60m deep, posing no danger to shipping or navigation and none of the bombs exploded, the statement said.

The statement went on to say the pilots intended to drop the bombs in Townshend Island Range but controllers reported the area was not clear of hazards, and they were unable to land with the "amount of ordnance" they were carrying.

US Seventh Fleet public affairs said the US Navy and Marine Corps are working closely with Australian authorities to investigate the incident.

"The selected emergency jettison area was in a deep channel away from the reef to minimise the possibility of reef damage," the statement said.

"We are coordinating with Australian officials to ensure an appropriate navigation notice is issued until charts can be updated showing the location of the unexploded ordnance."

Capricorn Conservation Council coordinator Michael McCabe said he was generally satisfied with the intention to properly manage the environment of Shoalwater Bay, but was concerned the timing of exercises was pushing the area to its limit. His greatest concern with this incident was if the bombs dropped would pose any risk.

"What I'd like to do is get more briefing to find what intentions there are to salvage the ordnance," he said. "It could potentially be a risk in decades time."