Transcript Media Briefing Operation Falconer
Saturday 22 March 2003
SENATOR ROBERT HILL: I'll be brief. We've just completed another meeting of our National Security of Cabinet, in which we've been briefed on progress of the conflict.
I think I should say from a governance point of view, we believe that it's going well. Relations within the coalition are excellent. Relations and communications between the governments are excellent.
In relation to our forces, they are performing superbly, and I'd certainly like to take this opportunity to ask the General to pass that on - the government's appreciation, our recognition of the incredibly important role that they are fulfilling for us.
I'll ask the General to give you a briefing on the military matters, and then we're both going to answer questions.
GENERAL PETER COSGROVE: Thanks Minister. Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to our regular update on Operation Falconer.
It's been a very busy period for all of our forces in the Middle East over the past 24 hours, with a number of our elements involved in direct combat or combat support operations.
While some of the information I'll give you today was briefed by Brigadier McNarn in the Middle East overnight, it's worthwhile bringing it to you again. We have a little bit more detail in some cases, and it will also give you, the A-based media, a chance to ask questions in relation to it.
The first thing I'd like to draw to your attention - without us delving too far into what you might call the whole of the coalition activity - but it is important to note that the southern oil fields have been secured and that the damage has been assessed as minimal. This is a significant success as it has enabled all of us to avoid potential ecological disaster.
Now let's go to maritime operations - and I trust my chaps on the slides will move them along for me. I can confirm this morning that HMAS Anzac has been working in direct support of the British commandoes operating on the Al Faw Peninsula. Anzac has been at the forefront of maritime operations in the Persian Gulf.
One of the key tasks undertaken by HMAS Anzac was the provision of naval gunfire support using the ship's main armament - its forward-mounted five inch or 127 millimetre gun.
Naval gunfire support missions are usually conducted to support the landing of troops ashore, or to engage shore batteries, enemy troops, equipment and facilities.
Now the ship's five-inch gun can deliver effective fire, and very rapid fire, up to 16 kilometres. The process of providing this type of support normally involves using a forward observer working on land or in an aircraft who calls in and directs the ship's fire over secure radio communications - very much acting as the ship's eyes on the target.
During this particular engagement the forward observer was from the British Royal Artillery working from a helicopter.
The engagement started early yesterday afternoon and lasted about 30 minutes, with the target being an identified enemy formation within the Al Faw coastal defence site. It's been confirmed that all the rounds fired by Anzac landed within the target area.
Now interesting - and this is an illumination of our targeting process - the necessary steps required to assess the validity of the target, in order to meet our strict laws of armed conflict obligations, were performed in an appropriate timeframe.
The mission was successful, and that was due to the close liaison between Anzac and the British forces on the ground. And of course, as you'd imagine, our, all of our Australians engaged in that activity are safe and sound.
Many of you will know that Anzac was launched in May 96 and it was the first of our Australian-built Anzac class of frigates. It's got a crew of 164 officers and sailors, and it's normally based at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.
On an historical note, the action by Anzac was the first of that type since the Vietnam War - by us. Meanwhile, Kanimbla and Darwin have also both been in action.
You will recall from yesterday's brief, we provided some detail about our ships conducting interception operations in the Kha Ab Allah waterway.
Our senior Royal Australian Naval officer there, Captain Jones, is now in command of the whole coalition effort to clear the KAA waterway. He has about seven or eight Australian, British and American warships for this task.
There are a large number of small watercraft in that area - such as the traditional dhows which have been used by the Iraqi regime to smuggle illegal goods out of the country. Now these vessels need to be cleared out of the channels to allow the port to be opened.
Now as you were briefed yesterday, our ships have been taking a great interest in these small watercraft to see if they are being used to assist people leaving Iraq, who should be detained, or if they were being used as part of a mining campaign.
Captain Jones has about 20 boarding parties from a number of coalition countries under his command to assist in the searching. These boarding parties work from rigid hulled inflatable boats - RHIB's.
Last night boarding parties from Kanimbla, working with US allies, intercepted a barge with two tugs. The vessels were found to be carrying a large quantity of sea mines as well as a number of Iraqi military personnel.
On discovery of the mines, specialists explosive ordinance teams from Darwin were also - from HMAS Darwin - were also dispatched to the boarded vessels along with other coalition explosive ordinance teams.
The mines will be secured and the Iraqi military personnel will be transferred directly to a US Navy ship using one of our Australian Army landing craft - LCM8s - operating in the area.
Now this was a significant coup. If those mines - which were being smuggled out of the waterway - had been brought into the Gulf and released as they were planned to be released, from a concealed release point on the tug, into the Gulf waters, there would have been mayhem.
We are extremely proud of our men and women who first detected and then secured these mines so that they could not be used for their purpose. They remain in the alert for further possibilities of this occurring.
Meanwhile I can report that HMAS Kanimbla currently has on board a small number of Iraqi prisoners of war - at one point it reached about 50 - picked up from a sunken Iraqi vessel.
Now they've been treated in accordance with normal procedures for the handling of prisoners of war and will soon be transferred to another facility where they can be kept in a more enduring way - remembering that our ship is virtually on the frontline, and is an inappropriate place to keep people who don't have a role on the ship. So this is a staging area for these prisoners of war before they are handed on for more appropriate handling.
Turning to land operations. Our special forces have been actively engaged in ops over the past 24 hours, including being involved in a number of contacts with the enemy.
In the first instance, I can confirm they were involved in a firefight with enemy forces deep inside Iraqi territory. Our special forces troops were, at the time - as they are still engaged - in long-range reconnaissance tasks.
They came upon a concealed enemy command and control position, a firefight took place during which a number of enemy troops were killed.
I'm delighted to report, relieved to report that there were no Australian casualties.
The Australians disengaged after the firefight and they called in close air support from coalition aircraft to destroy some of the facilities at the position.
I can't provide any more information at the moment, except to say that that was short and sharp and our troops have now moved on to other tasks.
I can also confirm to you that our SAS have been in two other subsequent contacts or skirmishes with Iraqi forces overnight.
Again, I can't go into the detail because I have to be very careful not to prejudice their location or their potential future operations. But what I can tell you about the engagement is that in one instance a number of ordinary vehicles containing Iraqi military personnel were destroyed. While in another contact, a number of armoured fighting vehicles were destroyed after an encounter with an Iraqi force moving in the area.
Now the vehicles were of a type known as a BRDM - it may be they were of that type - we've yet to confirm the absolute, or absolutely the type of vehicle they were. This is a light-wheeled armoured reconnaissance vehicle - but again I stress we haven't confirmed that.
Now on each of the occasions, the subsequent occasions the Australians were also able to call in immediately coalition aircraft for close air support. Again there were no Australian casualties from either engagement and the troops again have moved on to other tasks.
It's important to note that some of these engagements have been occurring at night where we have a clear advantage with our night fighting expertise.
A few days ago, when the operations started, our special forces had a brief skirmish and there was some, as a result of that there were some lightly wounded Iraqi military they encountered as they were passing through the area where the fire had occurred, and they were able to given them first aid, and send them in the right direction to receive better treatment, or more treatment and to pass into captivity.
Turning to air operations. Our FA18 Hornets continue to fly defensive counter air operations - that is escort duties in support of critical air assets including airborne early warning aircraft - AWAC's - and air-to-air refuellers. You heard a bit about that yesterday.
Currently our aircraft are flying 12 sorties a day, and while they have had some close encounters with enemy anti-aircraft artillery - Triple A as it's more commonly referred to - none of our aircraft have been hit and they've all completed their missions.
Earlier today one of our aircraft dropped the first Australian bomb of the campaign. It was directed at what we would call a target of opportunity, and we don't have further information about the success or otherwise of that attack. It should be noted that other aircraft also engaged the same target, and we're waiting for bomb damage assessment.
In other areas, our P3C Orion aircraft are continuing the support of maritime operations in the Gulf, and our C130 aircraft are keeping the stores moving.
You remember that we reported yesterday that our C130s have moved over one million pounds of stores, people and equipment.
To put this into perspective, there are about 100 C130 aircraft in the area of operations, and our three Aussie aircraft have moved about 16% of the total load being moved by all of those aeroplanes.
I'd like to bring to your attention some feedback in relation to the messages of support the Australian community have been sending our people now fighting in the Middle East.
Since Tuesday, the men and women forward, have received over 4,000 messages of support. Now we get those messages via email and fax and they play a tremendous part in showing our people the support from home. So, through you today, I say to our Australian people keep it up. It's really helping our people to know that they, they're, they are in the hearts of their fellow Australians.
It's always the simple things. The messages of support like these - they were pretty chuffed to hear from the Prime Minister the other day. That actually means a lot to our people. I'd like to thank all those folks who've sent those messages of support, and I reassure them that their messages do find their way to where they're sent to our people in the Middle East.
Ladies and gentlemen that concludes my part of the brief, and the Minister and I are available for your questions.
QUESTION: General, Nigel Blunden from Channel 9. There was a report on CBS a short time ago that in one of the operations our SAS came across some weapons of mass destruction. Is that an accurate report?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I'm going to be obscure - sorry - about those sorts of things, but I'll deny that one. Okay. So we'll just say that that would be a very big event and I think we would tell you straight away. But that's a, that's a furphy.
But you know I can't get into the they didn't find this they didn't find that, but that one, that didn't happen.
QUESTION: Fran Kelly from ABC TV, if I could just ask a quick one from both of you. First Minister, you said that there's been close cooperation or close contact between the governments. Have you or the Prime Minister spoken to anyone, any of your counterparts from the other coalition countries? Should we ask that one first?
SENATOR HILL: Well in relation to the Prime Minister, I think you should ask the Prime Minister. I spoke to Donald Rumsfeld this morning, really to touch base before our Cabinet meeting to ensure that there was nothing that would be useful for me to know that I mightn't know.
And he - I wouldn't want to go into the detail of our conversation - he was very positive about the progress that's been made in the campaign, the extent of surrenders by Iraqi forces. He stressed the fact that high collateral targets were not being attacked.
He emphasised the effort that was being made to avoid civilian casualties, and basically he was very well briefed on what the contribution the Australian forces were making. He thanked the Australian government and people and our defence force for their friendship and support for the United States. And as he's done before - particularly in relation to our special forces - he said he thinks they are just amazing.
QUESTION: And General Cosgrove if I could just ask you, the target of opportunity that you said where the first bomb dropped from Australian aircraft - what does a target of opportunity mean? And just to follow up from that too, the Minister mentioned they're happy with the number of surrenders. Can we confirm yet whether any of those surrenders are from the National Guard - or what is it?
UNIDENTIFIED: Republican Guard.
QUESTION: Republican Guard, sorry, yeah.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Target of opportunity. I'm sorry about the jargon, but that's the way we sort of live in the military. It's a fleeting target, one that pops up so to speak. It could be anything from a military leader to a mobile missile battery or some such. We tend not to specify it until we know we've got it. So we'll call it a target of opportunity, and our people ascertained, while they were in the air, that it was a legitimate target and that it was in an area where if engaged would not create a problem for innocents or infrastructure that we attempt not to damage.
So all of that - it passed all the tests, and then it was engaged - it, the target - but I wont specify what it was.
QUESTION: General Cosgrove, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. How did you feel on a personal level this morning when you woke up to see Baghdad experience one of the most intensive bombing campaigns of all time?
GENERAL COSGROVE: A sense of déjà vu. This happened back in the early 90s, and we didn't finish the job in terms of getting rid of a dictator. That's now happening.
QUESTION: I'm glad the Minister is here today, and this is Dun Gam* from Radio Free Asia. I understand that, that the seven scud missiles fired to Kuwait from Iraq are not Soviet made - seven missiles they're not scud missiles, and my information here is that they are Chinese made DF missiles.
Now my question to General Cosgrove is that now we are facing the coalition - the United States, and Australia and Britain - we're facing a Chinese-made weapon system. What do you know about the nature of the Chinese weapon system?
And my question to the Minister is that the information I got is that in the past 15 years or so China exported 550 missiles to Korea, together with 16 submarines, and if that turned out to be true as well, how do we deal with the Chinese Government in terms of sending arms weapons to countries - rogue states?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I will answer the first part and say that we have not yet - we the coalition - have not yet determined absolutely the nature of the missiles. We, like you, do not believe they were scuds. The actual nature of the missiles has not yet been determined. These are the ones that have been reported as fired - although that analysis is continuing.
As to the country of origin, that is pretty immaterial at a time like this. You want to know what the missile does and you don't care where it came from. Missiles are going in all directions over there, and those who are targets of them don't really care who made them.
SENATOR HILL: Well the, we obviously expect our defence force to train against a range of different equipment from a range of different sources. These are, we think, quite aged weapons. So to some extent we're talking about past practices of export rather than current practices.
In relation to current practices, obviously it's well known our concern about the proliferation of missiles as well as warheads across the world, and to some extent there is doctrine between states, and in the case of China - particularly between China and the United States on this particular issue.
But I think, you know, I think it's probably not the time today to start talking about the weaponry of North Korea and what that means in relation to us. The North Korean problem, we're still very hopeful, can be resolved diplomatically.
QUESTION: Peter O'Connor from the Associated Press. General Cosgrove I just want to clarify this question on the weapons of mass destruction. Brigadier McNarn appeared to suggest in comments out of the Middle East overnight that Australian forces had destroyed a weapons of mass destruction command and control centre. You mentioned - not weapons of mass destruction - you mentioned a command and control centre in your comments as well. Was it, did they destroy a command and control centre?
GENERAL COSGROVE: No let me say that they apprehend whenever they get to a developed site like that wherever they're operating, that it may be a site where weapons of mass destruction are either located or from which they may be fired. And they, so they're orientation and emphasis is always to be on the alert. So there may have been initially a concern to ensure that the site in the first place didn't contain weapons of mass destruction.
But let me be clear, the incident, when resolved, did not involve discovery of any weapons of mass destruction at that particular site.
QUESTION: No, but was it a site that could control weapons of mass destruction?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I'd have to wait until - we'll probably need to wait until after our chaps come home to get that sort of detail. It certainly wasn't inherent in any of the reporting that we've seen. The reporting we've seen is actually not very much more complicated than the explanation I've given you. So that sort of detail, we'll have to wait for the history I think. But let's just be reassured, it was not a site containing any evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
QUESTION: Simon Carney* from The Sunday Telegraph. Just, firstly the bomb that the FA 18 dropped. Can you tell us what sort of missile that was? And secondly, can you tell us in what sort of circumstances the SAS troopers delivered first aid to the Iraqi troops that they'd overrun? And just quickly, lastly, the boarding of the tugboat - was an SAS water troop involved in that?
GENERAL COSGROVE: You're getting value for money on this question aren't you? Okay. Our SAS were not involved in the issue concerning the tugboat and the actions by - these were sailors, and really good ones, very experienced and I think quite brave under the circumstances. So that's one for the Royal Australian Navy - and God bless them.
Now back to the, the first aid. That was in a situation early on in the operation when our forces were wishing to be on the move. There was a skirmish, lightly wounded Iraqi military personnel who were given quick treatment for their relatively superficial injuries, and told go that way and surrender.
QUESTION: So they'd given up as such?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Oh absolutely. Now, what was your first part of your question?
QUESTION: Oh the bomb, what sort of bomb was it?
GENERAL COSGROVE: A GBU 12 - which is a 500 pound laser-guided bomb.
QUESTION: General Cosgrove Amanda Cavell* from SBS radio. What can you tell us about Iraqi casualties at this stage? Do we have a number? Do we know what the situation is?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Well we would know, we will start to know more as a coalition partner, but let me draw the picture for you that these early moments of conflict over such a wide area are chaotic. Even the best organised military forces, with huge information sources, will struggle to get an accurate picture.
My reading of it is that casualties have been lower - thank heavens - than was possibly the case. And I think this afternoon, when General Franks provides his first major overview of the unfolding campaign, he'll be asked that question, and I for one will be interested in his answer.
The best information of this is of course going to be found forward in the area of operations. We monitor this, and of course we're very interested in our people and the particular engagements they might have, to see what the outcome of those was. But my feeling for it is that casualties are lower than might have been the case - and for that thank heavens.
QUESTION: General, Leonie Mellor from Network 10. Just two questions. First of all a bit of detail about the SAS firefight. Do we know in that instance how many of the enemy were killed, and what was - you mentioned that they called for some backup and some, some things were destroyed. What exactly was destroyed?
And my second question is Saddam Hussein. Do we have any more information on where he might be, whether he's still around or not?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Okay. On the first issue, I won't go into the precise detail cause what I don't want to do is have one of our soldier's enemies being able to take that, analyse it and say it was there on that occasion and therefore. So if I, if I tell you that there were a number of enemy who were killed in the battle, I think I better leave it at that.
And this will, in the fullness of time, we will tell you more about it. But just for now, I'm most conscious that we preserve the edge that our people have by being, having their whereabouts unknown and their mission concealed.
So back on to the other question - we used .
QUESTION: Sorry what was, I understand some things were blown up.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Yep, okay, part of the facilities. If I characterise our people by saying, after one of these actions they do not want to stand around and admire their handiwork or, or to be other than off quickly back onto their task, so they would be wishing to move along.
I think they probably used an air strike to help destroy part of the facility they couldn't stay to destroy in another way.
QUESTION: And can you say what that facility was?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I said it was a command and control centre.
QUESTION: And just on Saddam Hussein.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Oh. I don't think anybody knows. It seems to me that there still seems to be a leadership of some nature, and it seems to me that that leadership is giving orders to the best of its ability. So the assumption must be that the regime has still got evil people at its head.
QUESTION: General, Gemma Haines from Seven News. The 50 or so Iraqi prisoner of, POWs that are on the Kanimbla, what can you tell us about them? Are they members of the military, if so, are they ordinary foot soldiers or high ranking, and what happens to them from here?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Oh look I really don't know all that detail. I suspect not high ranking because I suspect somebody would have reported that by now. But, I mean, I'm imaging that because they were on the waterway they could be sailors, they could be soldiers, they could have been military personnel fleeing. And the number which was 50 at some stage this morning, is probably changing, probably diminishing as the prisoners of war are passed on to - as I said - a more suitable area for them to be detained.
QUESTION: General, Emma Griffiths from ABC TV news. Given that the Senator has just said things are going very well, were you expecting this sort of success and lack of resistance from the Iraqis, or are you expecting now that we will see that lack of resistance - that we will see more resistance now?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Well look I think it's best to say that while one couldn't expect, one could hope. There were some thoughts that parts of the Army would be absolutely sick to death of the blight that they have to live, so there were high hopes that some of them would not wish to fight people coming to liberate the Iraqi people. That's turning out to be the case.
But I wouldn't say that this is the end. It is an oppressive regime which works through brutality on its own people and its own soldiers, so there may well be those who feel constrained to resist under certain pressures for some time yet. And even though the advance into southern Iraq has made great steps, there remains still a lot of terrain and a significant number of armed forces between them and I guess the collapse of the regime.
SENATOR HILL: And their best forces are still to be met too.
GENERAL COSGROVE: The Minister reminds me of course that just on these, the way these things are arranged, the competent, the highly competent forces may still to be encountered.
QUESTION: Brendan Nicholson from The Sunday Age. You mentioned, you congratulated our men and women. Were any women involved in any frontline action such as in the boarding party, and would this be the first time if it was that our women have been involved in that sort of action?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I don't know, but I'll find that out, and can we report that to you tomorrow. It's a very interesting point. I would say, I would say probably.
SENATOR HILL: We certainly .
QUESTION: I've got a bias, I work for a Sunday paper, I'd be grateful if you could find out today.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Yeah, look, alright, look.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Yeah we'll find out before the, I've got people nodding up the back, we should be able to find that out. Based on the number of women who serve in our ships, the chances are that in those boarding parties there'd be plenty of women. I know they've done it in the past, and it would seem to be that they could possibly be there this time.
QUESTION: There was a woman in command of the boarding party we saw footage of during the week.
GENERAL COSGROVE: They have a number of boarding parties. You know the crew of the Kanimbla is quite high. So therefore there'd be quite a number of boarding parties. And we don't know what boarding party took over this particular ship, so, let's just say that for now we'll find out for you.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen. It's been good to be able to talk to you with a bit more - I'll take that one.
QUESTION: General just a quick one. The other two contacts of the SAS you mentioned - there were no lives lost in that conflict? The other two contacts of the SAS - you know apart from the first firefight that you mentioned, you said there was other, another two contacts I think.
GENERAL COSGROVE: Well I think there's four all up. There's the one where they had a little skirmish on the way in and they treated some Iraqi wounded, and then there were three others.
QUESTION: And were lives lost across all of those, or just in one?
GENERAL COSGROVE: Ah yes, well I think probably in one of them - well there certainly was in one. In a second one, there were probably some lives lost by the Iraqi military, and on the third one it was a little inconclusive and we don't have any outcome of that, except to say, our people are safe and sound.
QUESTION: And can I just ask you on that other question about the Republican Guard, any sense of whether the talk of surrender from there is right?
GENERAL COSGROVE: I hope so. I'll be listening keenly to General Franks, but really one can imagine that that's not something that you'll know till you know it - if you get my point. Yeah thank you.
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