Australia's commitment to Global Operations
Tuesday 25 March 2003
Good morning everyone, and welcome again to our regular update on our operations in the Middle East.
Weather has deteriorated in the AO. Wind and limited visibility is affecting air operations. (Weather slide)
Starting with Maritime operations . . .
I can now report our Navy Clearance Diving Team is operating in the southern Iraqi port city of UMM QASR that has recently been sufficiently secured by Coalition forces.
Our clearance divers are working with United States forces, tasked with locating, rendering safe and disposing of mines and other explosives in the port.
The Clearance Diving Team are highly skilled specialists, who will be working to clear the port and approaches to the port.
Our clearance divers gained an excellent reputation for their work in the ports of Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, and their skills provide a valuable asset to coalition operations now.
These tasks will be critical in making the port safe for allied and merchant shipping that will deliver military and humanitarian equipment and supplies.
Now turning to our ships . . .
There have been no significant changes to the operations of our ships operating in the northern Persian Gulf. Our ships Kanimbla, ANZAC and Darwin remain on multinational interception operations in the area.
None of our ships have been required to provide any further naval gunfire support since those operations last briefed to you.
Our L-C-M-8s also continue with their operations in the area.
Turning to Land Operations . . .
Our Special Forces continue operating deep inside Iraq.
They are closely integrated into the coalition effort, and are performing their primary role of long-range reconnaissance.
There is nothing new to report from our land forces.
And now to air operations . . .
Our air operations continue throughout the area of operations.
Our FA-18 Hornet aircraft have again been involved in strike and Defensive Counter Air missions overnight.
You will recall these aircraft have been providing support to the United States Navy carrier battle groups and surveillance operations in the kwar - abd-allah - or K-A-A - waterway.
The Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy will now provide some background re Land operations before we take questions.
Our special forces continue to conduct highly successful strategic reconnaissance and direct action operations deep behind enemy lines. There activities have been highly successful and they are making a major contribution to coalition operations.
Very happy to report that are troops are well although engaged in dangerous operations. Confident in their ability to do the job.
Actions are highly successful, providing invaluable information on enemy movement, bases and intentions. They have been active destroying enemy installations using their own resources or directing coalition air support to destroy the enemy. They are denying freedom of movement to enemy forces and generally creating havoc and uncertainty. They are constantly redeploying. Shoot and Scoot.
Our forces tend to work in small groups of a few long-range patrol vehicles but are able to concentrate quickly for more significant actions.
One feature of the SAS widely reported from Afghanistan and clearly seen again here is their ability to operate away from external logistic support for considerable periods of time.
Most attention has been on the SAS. There are other elements of the SF task group. Let me give you a quick outline:
In addition the following Army elements are also deployed
As Brigadier Hannan has described there have been additional incidents. This proves how successful our forces are being in disrupting enemy operations. The are continuing a very active period of operations in their primary strategic reconnaissance role. They are continually redeploying within their area of operations and taking on new tasks.
I ask that you understand that we cannot be too specific about time, event and locality.
I don't want to build up a picture of operations that someone might be able to use against our forces.
Ask you to remember that these are current operations well behind enemy lines and my first priority is to protect our forces deployed forward and in contact with the enemy
What we have with the Special Forces Task Group is a highly trained cohesive group of soldiers from all parts of the Army. They are the best of the best. They are performing exceptionally well and are making a major contribution to operations against Iraq.
In Army we are enormously proud of the work all our men and women are doing. Be assured they are well equipped, well prepared, well led and well trained. They are very capable of carrying out the tasks they have been allocated.
They could not do their job without the support and love of their families at home.
Can I, before questions mention my admiration and appreciation for our families.
I know it can be difficult in these anxious times but I know that your love and support does make a real difference.
Things for the SFTG are a bit different from the other Australian force elements as we have limited external communications for geographic and very good operational reasons. Things will get better very soon with phone and internet access.
In the meantime keep the letters rolling I know the guys and girls just love receiving your letters. Keep them coming. They also love receiving the lollies, cigarettes and vegemite.
Can I also say how much we appreciate the emails and faxes of support from the public. It is great to hear from you.
Brigadier Hannan and I would now be happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Mark Forbes from The Age. Lieutenant General, could you say in terms of two things: In terms of the commandoes, you talk about them, their role predominantly being rescue of downed pilots. I'd like to know if they've actually done that as yet and get any description that you can provide.
And also, I mean clearly our SAS are engaged in a key intelligence gathering role behind enemy lines. The question many of us are asking is how serious this looming fight is going to be near Baghdad with the Republican Guard and other troops. What sense are you getting about the determination of the Iraqi forces to resist?
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL PETER LEAHY: The full RAR Commandoes in their quick reaction role have not been tasked. So they're continuing with their preparations, making sure that their equipment is right, that they're training and they'll be practising their drills and procedures and working with Coalition Forces. But they've not been tasked yet.
In terms of the Iraqi Forces' determination to resist, what I'm seeing is that operations are going pretty much to plan. What I'm seeing is that the closer the allied forces get to Baghdad, the stronger the resistance and we're always anticipating this.
I see that the allied forces have made very considerable gains in the south and the armoured movement to the west has been, to my mind, quite spectacular. Forces are now closing on Baghdad and I think it's pretty inevitable what's going to happen.
We do anticipate and we have all along that there will be some resistance but we are seeing the manoeuvre that the allied forces, particularly the British and Americans are conducting will disrupt the capability of the Iraqis to defend. We're also seeing the air campaign have some considerable effect on their ability to command and control.
I think the time is coming where there won't be too much more resistance.
LT-GEN PETER LEAHY: Well shoot and scoot is essentially just that. The task of the special forces is to deploy, to observe and where appropriate carry out either direct action - that is by backing with integral resources - or by calling forward fast air, jet aircraft to carry out that destruction for them.
And they've been doing that. That's the shoot bit. The scoot bit is, well this is now no longer a healthy spot to be. Let's go away because you'd have to think that the guys you've just shot are not going to be all that happy and they'll be looking for what's happened and we would seek to redeploy, to lay up again, to get into a position of observation, and to carry out that same type of activity, or it might be just to report on the movement that we see.
And it's not always the destruction mission that's important. It might be movement of enemy, that's important to report back to higher headquarters.
And that in fact becomes one of the things that the patrol commanders have to decide. Is it clever for me to engage? Most time they'll decide, let's just report on this. But where there's a high value target, something that might threaten them or other allied forces, they'll engage.
QUESTION: General, Catherine McGrath from the AM, PM and World Today Programs. Can I ask you, there've been media reports first of all out of London about a day ago about the SAS and indicating that they'd been involved in activities near the town of Ar Rutbah*, west of Baghdad, about 380 kilometres. And the reports say that they captured an air base and now the allied are operating out of that air base.
Is this report right and, if it is captured, I guess it's a previous mission and you might be able to give us some details if they're now using that.
Secondly, can you tell me, we've seen the pictures of the US prisoners of war, can you tell me if Australians are taken prisoner of war, what sort of things have you told them to do. I mean it would have been normal, I guess, to see name, rank and serial number but we didn't get that. We got them being interviewed by Iraqi media.
LT-GEN PETER LEAHY: If I can deal with the question of the locality of our forces and Brigadier Hannan will deal with the PW.
I wouldn't believe everything you're reading in the press. I know that our special forces would be happy to have attributed to them everything that's being reported in the press. It's not the case. Our forces are operating behind enemy lines. They are constantly redeploying and, as I've described, I think it's appropriate at this moment - because we're starting to build up a picture that other people might be able to take advantage of - that I don't get too specific about event, about locality, and about time.
So if you'll excuse me, don't believe everything you read in the press. And if I could ask Brigadier Hannan to talk about the PWs.
BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: The issue of prisoner of war treatment is covered under Article 13 of Geneva Convention No. 3 and Article 14 covers similar provisions for civilian detainees. Those provisions make it quite clear that prisoners of war are to be treated in specific ways which protect them and don't expose them to public ridicule or public display.
We would expect the Iraqis as signatories to those Conventions to abide by the Conventions and to treat our prisoners of war, should we ever be unfortunate enough to have any, appropriately. We abide strictly by those Conventions and expect others to do so.
In terms of the training of our people, all of our people have specific training in relation to those Conventions and to their rights and responsibilities under the Conventions. The issue of how an individual however reacts under those circumstances is very much a matter for the circumstances and for the individual and it's not something about which we can be too prescriptive here, 15,000 kilometres away in Canberra.
QUESTION: Catherine Philp from Channel 10. I've just got a question for the General, if that's okay.
LT-GEN PETER LEAHY: In terms of the typical operation, and it's a bit hard to say what is a typical operation, but the Special Forces in these types of deep reconnaissance missions deploy forward in what we call long-range patrol vehicles. There are six vehicles, essentially built up Land Rover. It carries about five men and a real heap of equipment.
That's what enables them to operate for a long period of time. They have exceptional communications. They have exceptional abilities as individual soldiers but also as small teams. So we would anticipate either as single vehicles or multiple vehicles that they can conduct operations across a wide area.
The communications allows them to concentrate, to support each other for missions where there might be a need for a stronger force. But essentially, their job is to hide. Their job is to not be seen and to report whatever they see in their area.
If it becomes necessary, they can concentrate into a significantly larger force very quickly, conduct in this case, we might expect a direct action. And then redeploy to go back to a widely disperse mode. A very flexible force, a very mobile force, and a force that can have an effect well beyond its size in an area that it would operate in.
QUESTION: And my second question was about what likely involvement our troops would have in the street battles in Baghdad.
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: Whilst our forces are trained for urban operations, I think the task they've got at the moment is enough for them, and I think we're starting to speculate and get into hypothetical areas about parts of the operation that are not clear to any of us yet. Our forces are busy in the area that they've got and it's a big task, a task they're doing well.
QUESTION: General, Paul Sterrick from The Advertiser. The Foreign Wise this morning are carrying a story suggesting that Australian SAS troops were among Coalition forces inside Iraq seven hours before President Bush's deadline expired.
Can you rule that out and, if not, what were they doing inside Iraq before the deadline expired?
QUESTION: Lieutenant-General Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. Are you confident that our forces will be able to avoid the sort of ambush that the Coalition forces have experienced in the last few days?
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: I think what you have to understand is that the types of operations we're engaged in here are quite different. Coalition forces and the ambushes that I've seen reported in the press were in well built up areas, in areas where there's a concentration of people, where there'd just been an armoured column move through. So it's quite different to the type of open expanses and deep reconnaissance that we're conducting.
I'm confident in their abilities to work as a team, to observe what's happening around them, to be alert, to also use the feeds that we get from Coalition aircraft and other reconnaissance assets to be well tuned to their environment and to be able to make the sorts of decisions that would make an ambush highly unlikely.
QUESTION: General, Catherine McGrath again. Speaking for myself, I didn't quite understand the answer that you just gave to the question on whether or not SAS might have been in Iraq before the deadline. And a lot of people who are listening to this perhaps live on television, I presume might not have understood either. Can you be a bit more clear and use lay person's language perhaps.
You know, what the Australians understand the deadline to have been in the United States, the question is were any Australian soldiers in Iraq prior to that deadline being met? And if so, why?
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: I think I'll just stick to the answer that I gave.
QUESTION: That doesn't really answer - are you saying you can't answer the question?
QUESTION: Mark Forbes again. A question for both of you, but initially to the Chief of Army. It looks pretty clear that we've been allocated for our Special Forces a distinct area of operations in western Iraq, for them to operate in. Are they operating in any other parts of the country as well?
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: Again Mark, it's a please excuse me in terms of not wanting to be specific at this time about locality and timings and so on. Yes, we do have a specific AO. It's one that we were involved in the decision making. It's one that we feel as though we can handle. We can do a good job in there. And we're continually redeploying within that AO.
Beyond that I wouldn't like to talk about specific locations.
BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well the role of the clearance divers is quite a specialised and specific one and that's in the clearance of the port facilities and the waterways leading to it. And I think you're quite right in identifying that as a critical issue at this time. Clearly there are ships with humanitarian aid standing off at the moment, including Australian aid and Australian ships. And the imperative to get that through quickly is certainly there. As to their tasks after the clearance of Umm Qasr, that's very much in the future and we don't have any visibility on that at the moment.
But within their specialisation, we'd expect them to continue on and do as much work in that regard as they could.
QUESTION: Mark Phillips from News Limited. I just take this opportunity to ask two questions. The first is, there was some reporting on British TV that there's forecast of very heavy sand storms in the next three days which could have some impact on the advance towards Baghdad. I'm just wondering if you've got any information on that and how heavy that will be, whether it'll actually stall the progress.
The second question is just related to the prisoners of war. Has that had any noticeable effect on morale of Australians and what type of training or preparation do they have too? Obviously it's propaganda aimed at civilians initially, but obviously it's also seen by military over there. I'm just wondering if you can comment on that.
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: I'm sorry, the first question again was.
That will continue, we understand for a few days, because of the weather forecast and you can expect to see some effect from that. And I don't think there'd be any difficulty in understanding how that would occur.
The important thing about the Coalition forces and they are forces, particularly those that we have very robust systems and very robust equipment that's designed to cope with a wide range of climatic and weather conditions. And we can operate day or night under any weather conditions.
Obviously we'd prefer certain weather conditions but under any weather conditions.
QUESTION: And General, Dung Gamm* from Radio Free Asia. Some of the Iraqi troops took off their military uniform and put on their civilian clothes and they attacked Coalition forces. Does the Coalition forces have to be attacked to find out those Iraqi troops are not civilians? Is there any strategy developed in the Coalition forces to identify those Iraqi troops out of the civilians and find out their hidden weapon spot?
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: Well this is quite a concerning issue for us. This is actually covered under the Geneva Conventions. And the name given to it is perfidy, a perfidious act. And it's certainly considered to be so by the soldiers in the field. And the reason for that is that soldiers like to have some confidence that they can deal fairly with people who are surrendering and deal fairly with civilians.
And the trouble with these perfidious acts is that they take away the confidence of the individual soldiers in dealing with civilians and dealing with people who are surrendering.
Now the issue for Australians is quite simple. We obey the laws of armed conflict including the treatment of civilians and those who surrender and would continue to do so. If this becomes a problem or an issue for us, that is if confidence is degraded, then we would change our tactics and the way we dealt with those people to accommodate that. And that might mean that we process them more slowly, that we deal with them more cautiously at the outset and we take greater precautions to ensure the safety of our own people.
In all cases, our troops would retain the right to self-defence regardless of the circumstance.
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: No.
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: I'd be amazed if that message hadn't got through. They might have even heard it from some of the local inhabitants, a famous victory of course.
Life's pretty tough out there. But these are hard men. They're the best that we've got in the Army and we've put them through - and I'll explain a little bit later when we look at some of these displays and you can talk to some of our Special Forces soldiers. These are people that have joined the Army. They've made a commitment to serve the nation. They've then proven themselves to be really good.
And after about five years in the Army - I'm now talking about an average SAS soldier - after about five years in the Army, he decides that well, I think I'd like to do something more. They then go off and do a Special Forces selection course and about 25% who attempt that pass. This is really hard. We are looking for people of endurance, people of discretion. This is not your Hollywood movie superhero. This is a quiet, resolute, very intense man, a man who can make very intelligent judgements, who can operate as part of a team.
So if you take that picture of who they are, they're able to survive in this type of environment. They've practised intensely through the Australian Outback and in many ways the sorts of conditions they're experiencing wouldn't be all that different from what they've been doing here in Australia.
They'll be carrying ration packs and we've got some down the front here. These are adequate. The calorie content is right. The cuisine isn't all that flash, but it's enough to keep you going. They have enough water obviously to survive with. They will work as a team to make sure that they have adequate rest because you do need to be alert. You're going to have to make some pretty intense decisions and some of those decisions will be life and death.
The average soldier is about 29 years old plus, so these aren't young soldiers. These guys have been through the mill. And in the case of the soldiers we've got deployed forward now, they've been on operations on and off for a few years. These are soldiers who've seen service generally in East Timor, who've seen service in Afghanistan. So they've become through their training and through their operations immured to hardship, able to accept the rigours of the life, but also very strong in their teams, very confident of their own abilities and very good at their task.
But as I've said, I'll explain a little bit more later and you can talk to some of our soldiers. These are hard men. These are good men.
QUESTION: General, John Garran from The Australian. How many skirmishes have the - or are you able to tell us how many skirmishes the SAS have been involved in? Are you able to say anything at all about the casualties inflicted? And has the incident response regiment been involved in any activity up to this stage?
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: If I work back, the Incident Response Regiment have only been involved in training activities in support in the base areas. They've not been involved forward in any activities.
We're not going to talk about the numbers of casualties. We don't think it's appropriate. But let me say the score looks better to us than it does to him. And the first question, I'm sorry, John?
QUESTION: Just wondering, say, how many skirmishes...?
QUESTION: Lieutenant General, Peter O'Connor from the Associated Press of America. Can you explain how critical the capture of the port of Umm Qasr is to the overall operation? Will that then become the major logistical stop off and supply area for the rest of the troops, and are you able to say how many Australian Navy divers are working there, and how many other members of the Coalition are actually - what sort of numbers and forces have we got there trying to clear this mined port.
LT GEN PETER LEAHY: With apologies to my friend, the Chief of Navy, this is a green uniform and I'll try and do as best I can. To my understanding, that's the only port in the country. So it's very important. It's something that is a major part of the campaign plan, has been to secure the port because it is very important for the overall effort and certainly the intent of the Coalition countries is to get humanitarian supplies in there quickly.
Brigadier Hannan spoke about the fact that Australia has some wheat aboard ship ready to go in as soon as we can get it in there so the port's essential.
In terms of the numbers of the clearance diving team, Mike? About 25? They're deployed forward, ready to go in. They either work with the ships or I expect that they might even work with the Army landing craft. But they're ready to go in as soon as we can get them in because it's the only port. It's an imperative to get this humanitarian supplies and get them moving forward. We'll be on to that one pretty quickly.
QUESTION: But those 25, would - I assume that there's other...?
OFFICIAL: Last question for this part of the presentation please.
BRIGADIER HANNAN: I think the release we put out was simply alerting the media to our obligations under the Geneva Conventions and I might just here make a slight correction. I think I said that the - I gave you the wrong information with regard to the Convention covering civilians. It's actually Article 27 of Convention No. 4 that covers civilians.
The purpose of that was simply to alert the media to our national obligation. I might say also that media organisations are subject to the Geneva Conventions because they are actually the beneficiaries of its protection. And particularly those media who are embedded with Coalition forces and moving up through the country would be subject to that protection.
The issue about how the media deal with prisoners of war is very much a matter for them and their own advice, legal advice and advice on what's tasteful and appropriate. But from the ADF's point of view, I can tell you that we don't make any distinction between Australian Coalition or Iraqi prisoners of war. We think they should all be treated the same and appropriately.
OFFICIAL: Brigadier, that was the last question on this particular part of the presentation. LTGEN Peter Leahy will now provide you with further background information.
LTGEN Peter Leahy: I would now like to provide you with some more background information on the Army deployment and then give you an opportunity to inspect some of our equipment and talk to Sergeant Burgess and Cpl Eagleby from the IRR and 4 RAR (Cdo).
Before we meet the soldiers.
What observations have I drawn from these engagements:
These are highly trained, thinking soldiers whose preference is to observe and not be seen. If required to attack they are speedy, vigorous, resolute and bold.
Our forces have integrated well into the coalition force and have access to a wide range of coalition supporting assets such fast attack aircraft. Again they are proficient in their use and the methods of calling in fire being well practised in Afghanistan.
Very well trained, mature and responsible. While some might think these are impetuous men the truth is that planning, rehearsal, and actions on are a major feature of how they prepare for a mission. This makes them cool headed in hot situations they are prepared and can adjust to a plan
Above all they are patient and entirely focussed on the mission.
Preference is to observe from a distance and not be seen. Referred to as Phantoms of the Jungle - now proving that they are the Phantoms of the Desert.
Some other observations
The soldiers are all cross trained in a wide variety of skills including, weapons, communications, medical support, mechanical repair, demolitions, and combat survival.
Their integral weapon systems include a wide variety of small arms, including rifles (M4 including a variety of night and day vision systems, sniper rifles) machine guns (7.62 and 50cal) and pistols (H&K or Browning). They are also equipped with long range automatic grenade launchers and anti-armour weapons.
The troopers are equipped with very sophisticated communications systems for command and control.
However, we do not expect to be in constant touch with them. They routinely act within a broad set of instructions or what we call mission oriented orders allowing them flexibility and discretion within broad parameters.
Indeed they will work to relatively infrequent schedules of radio communications. This protects them in they are not emitting and are harder to find. Consequently we will not know all of the details of their actions until some time later. This is not unusual and explains the limited information we are able to give you on the contacts to date.
Having Talked about the sort of activities they are involved in - What Sort of Men are they
Let me paint you a picture. While there is no such this as an average SAS trooper you will see that they are:
As well as the SAS 4 RAR Commando are a vital part of the SFTG. In subsequent press conferences I will try and give you more detail on other elements but for now 4 RAR.
4 RAR (Cdo) is primarily organised, trained and equipped to conduct strike operations. As such it is a heavily armed unit capable of being inserted into an area of operations using a variety of air, sea, and land insertion methods.
The individual commando is a highly trained Special Forces soldier.
Like his SASR brothers he is highly trained in advanced urban and close country operations as well as the amphibious environment.
The commandos deployed on Operation FALCONER are providing an urgently needed quick reaction capability in support of the SAS and other elements operating deep inside Iraq. If an SAS patrol is threatened or an aircraft is downed they may call on helicopter or vehicle borne commandos to help extract them, potentially under fire and with IRR and medical elements in support.
In subsequent press conferences I will try and give you some more detail on the CH47 and other Army deployments.
But now subject to your further questions I would like to invite you to speak to the soldiers and view the equipment
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