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Australian military copter crash halts US-led war games, leaves 4 missing

A Royal Australian Navy force NH Industries MRH-90 Multi-Role Helicopter takes off during a training exercise in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on March 26, 2019. (Photo by AFP)

The crash of an Australian military helicopter during joint war games with US forces in the Pacific has left all Aussie crew members missing and feared dead while halting the military maneuver.

The MRH-90 Taipan went down late Friday night in sub-tropical waters near Hamilton Island, Queensland, Australia's Defense Minister Richard Marles declared on Saturday

"As we speak to you now, the four aircrew are yet to be found," Marles said following an overnight search and rescue effort amid growing fears that they will not be found alive.

The failed helicopter mission that led to the crash was a part of large-scale US-led war games, known as Talisman Sabre, featuring more than 30,000 troops and participants from 11 other countries, including Japan, France, Germany, and South Korea.

The military maneuvers are meant to serve as a show of force against China. 

Officials have not yet confirmed what was the cause of the helicopter's crash as the war games entered its second week.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin is in Australia along with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken for meetings with the Australian counterparts and other top officials that coincided with the ongoing war games.

Austin said Saturday the US will help Australia produce guided multiple-launch rocket systems by 2025. 

"We are pursuing several mutually beneficial initiatives with Australia's defense industry, and these include a commitment to help Australia produce guided multiple launch rocket systems... by 2025," Austin told a press conference.

The US is also accelerating Australia's access to priority munitions through a streamlined acquisition process, he said.

It is the first time Australia has hosted the high-level meeting since 2019 due to the COVID-19 disruption.

Australia's Labor government has been bolstering military ties with the US, a long-standing ally.

"We are really pleased with the steps that we are taking in respect of establishing a guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise in this country," Marles said.

He expressed hope that missile manufacturing could begin in Australia in two years, as part of a collective industrial base between the two countries.

Marles said there would be an "increased tempo of visits from American nuclear-powered submarines to our waters" as part of the bilateral engagement.

The United States commissioned a warship in Sydney last week. It marked the first time a US Navy vessel has joined active service at a foreign port.

China has repeatedly warned against US-led “expanding military alliances,” including the widening of the NATO military alliance, amid growing concerns about its regional security.

The US and Australia are also part of an alliance called AUKUS which commits to supply Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines.

China has also criticized the AUKUS countries, saying their cooperation “constituted serious nuclear proliferation risks,” exacerbated the arms race, and undermined stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has warned the AUKUS security pact could trigger a race for nuclear submarines.

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