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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


27/03/2003Departmental 30327/03

Thursday 27 March 2003 270303/03


Media Briefing Australia's contribution to global operations

Thursday 27 March 2003

OFFICIAL: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to our update on global operations. Today's brief will be conducted by Brigadier Mike Hannan, who I will introduce to you now.

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to our daily update on operations in the Middle East.

This morning, because of the emphasis on clearance diving operations, the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie, will provide you with a short update or a short briefing on naval operations, with a particular emphasis on clearance diving operations, at the completion of the first part of the brief.

We'll then take questions after that. And, following that, some clearance diving experts will stay around to answer any technical questions you have on these important operations.

I'm pleased to report at the outset that all of our people remain well and unharmed. The demanding operational and environmental conditions are quite apparent to us all by now.

As has been widely reported, the weather conditions have been extreme, with monsoon rains, strong winds, fierce dust, dust storms, mud and rough coastal conditions.

Now, these conditions have limited operations in some areas but have provided an advantage to us in others. Poor weather is expected to continue for the next 24 hours.

To begin today, there are a number of media reports that I'd like to correct from yesterday. The first is a report that Australian C-130 aircraft are operating in Iraq. This report is wrong. They are not.

Also, there's been some reporting about access to Australian forces for journalists which are slightly inaccurate. The two conditions which preclude journalists getting access to Australian forces are matters concerning

operational security and host nation sensitivity. Now, in both cases these are matters for ADF decision. They are not matters for government and the government has not made any decisions in this regard.

I might say now that there are no operational security restrictions or host nation sensitivities associated with clearance divers.

They are, however, located in a dangerous place. I am, however, pleased to note that Australian journalists have been in to Umm Qasr and have reported on them in the last two days.

Let's turn now to the Navy operations, and indeed to the clearance divers who continue their dangerous work in the Port of Umm Qasr. They have located a sunken Iraqi vessel with mines on board, and they'll be working with their United States and United Kingdom colleagues in rendering that threat safe. This should allow the access of aid ships, including Australian aid, into the port beginning over the next two days.

In doing this work our divers, along with our sailors and soldiers aboard HMAS Kanimbla, Anzac and Darwin and the Army landing craft, are continuing to play an important role in securing and opening the waterways to facilitate the access to the port.

Turning to land operations, our Special Forces continue to press on with their surveillance and reconnaissance missions deep in Iraq.

Recently the SAS have encountered Iraqi soldiers who have been unarmed and who have been returning to their homes. After questioning, they've been allowed to continue with their journey. And this has been the first indication of this type, and we consider it to be a good sign.

Weather has obviously made things more difficult for these troops as you'd expect. But as you know, they're well practised in operating in such conditions and there are some advantages for us, for our reconnaissance troops in carrying out their mission in poor weather.

The other components of our Special Forces task group, the CH-47 Chinook helicopters, the Commandoes from 4-AR and other support elements continue with their ongoing readiness and support tasks, and there have been no incidents for this group over the period.

Lastly to air operations: Our Orion Maritime Surveillance Aircraft, C-130 Hercules Transports and our FA-18 Hornets have all continued safely with their missions. Again weather conditions are making flying operation difficult but aircraft serviceability has remained excellent and all of our aircraft have returned safely over the last 24 hours.

That concludes the information available for today's brief. There will be a short media stop later in the day in the area of operations to provide you with any further information that's available. I'd now like to invite the Chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie, to talk about some maritime matters.

VICE ADMIRAL CHRIS RITCHIE: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Navy's forces continue their operations in the Middle East. Kanimbla is in the Kha Ab Allah Waterway and Captain Peter Jones, as has previously been reported, has embarked in Kanimbla and he's in charge of that particular operation of clearing and maintaining security in that particular waterway.

Anzac and Darwin have gone to surveillance and defensive duties in the North Arabian Gulf and all of the people in those three ships, as the Brigadier has reported, are safe as well.

But the focus of attention, without doubt, has shifted in a Naval sense to Clearance Diving Team 3 who are in the port of Umm Qasr. And as the Brigadier had said, clearance of that port is vital in order to enable humanitarian assistance to get into Iraq.

Clearance Diving Team 3 are working with their US and UK counterparts. They're looking for mines. They're looking for booby traps. They're looking for underwater obstacles. It's a challenging, difficult and sometimes dangerous task. But the team is well trained. It's well equipped and its' very focussed and extremely competent.

Now there has been a deal of media coverage already on the activities of Diving Team 3 so I thought that it would be appropriate to give you a short brief on the techniques that the Team is using and a bit of an update on what's actually going on there. And to do that, I have Commodore Russ Baker, himself a distinguished clearance diver, and he will now give you that brief.

COMMODORE RUSSELL BAKER: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to give you some background on what clearance divers do in the Royal Australian Navy and more specifically what they're currently up to in the Gulf.

The Royal Australian Navy has two clearance diving teams. We refer to them as Aus CDTs. Each of those teams has got three main elements. There's a mine encounter measures element, a maritime tactical operations element and underwater battle damage and repair.

Now small elements of each of those teams may deploy for specific tasks such as the recent assistance provided to HMAS Nottingham when she ran aground off Lord Howe Island. Other examples are boarding operations of illegal fishing down around Heard Island and the clearance diving team which deployed to East Timor.

In addition to their diving and explosives skills, clearance divers are generally trained to a higher standard of fitness and weapon handling than the remainder of the Navy. And potential clearance divers undertake a selection course followed by up to nine months of training.

For larger operations such as in the Gulf, clearance Diving Team 3 is formed. Team 3 currently consists of 23 clearance divers plus two support staff in Umm Qasr. There are also three support staff embarked in USS Gunstan Hall. And there are clearance divers in the other RAN ships in the Gulf.

Aus CDT 3 is part of the force clearing Umm Qasr and the Kha Ab Allah so that humanitarian vessels will be able to enter Umm Qasr which is Iraq's only deep water port.

The humanitarian assistance currently includes 250,000 tonne shipments of Australian wheat waiting to enter the port.

The mission of the divers is to clear the wharf and the close in port areas, both above and below water of mines, obstacles and booby traps and they're working with forces of similar capability from the Royal Navy and US Navy.

The open channel waters of the Kha Ab Allah are being cleared by a combination of airborne mine countermeasures, helicopter assets and mine hunting vessels.

The location of Umm Qasr presents some difficulties for mine countermeasures operations. The Kha Ab Allah is some 60 nautical miles long. To put this into perspective, the channel which is currently being cleared is nearly six times as long as one which we would have to clear if we were to open Sydney Harbour.

As you can see from this photo, the waters of the Kha Ab Allah are very turbid. They contain suspended particles which reduce underwater visibility to essentially zero. Because of this, most of the pictures you will see in this presentation are from file vision as any pictures taken underwater in Umm Qasr right now are pretty boring.

The shipping channel gets narrow as you approach Umm Qasr and this means that a small number of Iraqi mines could pose a high threat level to any ships transiting that channel.

Aus CDT 3 has set up a command post in Umm Qasr and from there they plan and control the diving operations. Our clearance divers are very well trained for this mission with out branch having developed the shallow water capabilities since the mid-1980s and first employing them operationally in the Gulf War in '91.

RAN clearance divers are recognised as being amongst the best in the world at shallow water mine countermeasures. The use of clearance divers in Umm Qasr represents the most efficient way to clear the port. The highly cluttered environment around the wharf can pose problems for conventional mine hunting sonars and other systems.

The team will ensure the wharf is clear and then they commence their diving task. Because the mine threat includes magnetic and acoustic influenced mines, all divers are checked for magnetic cleanliness before entering the water. The divers wear a special semi-closed circuit diving set made from a-magnetic materials. One of these sets is here for you to inspect on completion of this briefing, along with two clearance divers who would normally use it.

The sets were originally referred to as Volvos because that's about what they cost. And the other equipment the divers use is specially treated or manufactured to minimise its magnetic and acoustic signatures.

The most likely mines to be expected are the Manta* ground mine and the Logam* 145 buoyant mine. Both of these mines were used successfully by Iraq in 1991 and both types were recently seized by HMAS Kanimbla during the boarding of a tug attempted to exit the Kha Ab Allah. The Manta is the conical mine that's shown on the left of this slide and the Logam is the mine with the horns on the right. These mines in the tug are shown on rails reading for laying.

The divers will use hand-held sonars to assist their underwater searches. But given the cluttered environment around a commercial wharf and the near zero visibility, the most likely search method is by touch. This means that the search will be both slow and dangerous but a thorough and methodical search is required to provide a high confidence that humanitarian aid ships can safely birth as Umm Qasr.

Should any mines, obstacles or booby traps be found by the divers, they will be disposed of in the manner which presents the least risk to the divers and the least risk to the accomplishment of the overall mission.

Clearance divers are also trained to recover mines to shore and render them safe for later scientific examination of the mines internal firing mechanisms.

In summary, I find it difficult to surpass what Leading Seaman Keith said when I saw him on television this morning and especially the way he said it, which was that, 'It's murky, it's oil. You can't see what you're doing and you're feeling for objects designed to detonate when you touch them.'

But it's nothing he hasn't been trained for. The divers are currently risking their lives daily in Iraqi waters to protect our forces and provide safe waters for the passage of humanitarian ships. You will have a chance to talk to these people. Able Seaman, Danny Dennis and Able Seaman Caled Brown from Australian Clearance Diving Team 1, and inspect their equipment later on.

Thank you.

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Before passing on too, a little bit of detail 'show and tell' with the divers. Are there any questions on today's brief?

QUESTION: In relation to the divers, is it possible to be told how many mines or booby traps, aside from the ones that have been found on board vessels or sunken vessels, but how many of these mines have been encountered. And I'd also wonder from Vice Admiral Ritchie, there's been reports coming from reporters on board the Kanimbla about speed boats packed with explosives being found. Realistically how much of a threat is a suicide attack on one of our naval vessels?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: I think that's...
With respect to the mines, I mean you're aware that there were mines found on this tug and in a barge. You'd be aware that there were some mines found in a sunken vessel for Clearance Diving Team 3 and there have been many mine-like contacts. And a lot of those things have been detonated and exploded without visual identification.

So it's a bit hard to put a number on the number of mines. And the second question was about suicide vessels. Yep, what aspect of it? I just missed what you said?

QUESTION: There was some reports of speed boats being found packed with explosives. Is this an on-going threat to our vessels in the area and how seriously do you take it?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: That is an on-going threat and it's been around for some years and witness the USS Cole about two years ago. That's exactly what happened to the Cole. So we do take that threat seriously. The way in which we deal with that is by the rules of engagement we have in force, by the force protection measures that we've put in place, and by a very comprehensive surveillance umbrella which aims to identify everything that moves. So we're quite confident that we can deal with that threat.

QUESTION: Don Walford from AAP, Admiral. Can you tell us please a little bit about Umm Qasr's capacity as a port? But you've been speaking purely in terms of humanitarian aid. I understand that it's also going to be very important for the landing of equipment, materiel, etcetera for the fighting forces as well. And would you expect that it can handle both sides of the traffic or is there likely to be some tension over priorities?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: I don't know that there'll be any tension. It seems to be a port with all of the necessary infrastructure to handle reasonably large ships. It doesn't have - you don't have oil tankers go there because they used to do that offshore. The oil was piped offshore to tankers. So it's a ship - sorry a port that I think is well equipped for handling grain and general cargo, and therefore would be able to handle military cargo as well.

I don't have any feel for what sort of state the port facilities are in at the moment so I couldn't go into any more depth as to whether any of this stuff was broken or wrecked before people left. But the photographs I've seen, it looks to be in reasonable shape.

QUESTION: Admiral, Simon Carney from the Sunday Telegraph. General Vincent Brook in his briefing overnight in Qatar said the Kha Ab Allah Waterway had been cleared. Is that correct? And just secondly, the boarding parties that have been operating, the Australian Navy boarding parties, are they classified as combat operations?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: I didn't see what General Brook said overnight. But work to clear the Waterway is still going on. And it is hoped to get a ship in there this evening our time. So it will be cleared to a certain percentage. When he says cleared, what we're talking about is clearing a very narrow channel that you can take shipping in. You've still got the rest of the Waterway then to clear in slower time. And that may take, you know, many weeks to do that.

The second question was about the boarding parties. Is it classified as combat operations? Yes, it is.

Mark Phillips from News Limited. Just, who will actually have priority, first use of the port? Will it be military or will it be humanitarian aid? And secondly, do you see any role for your Navy personnel in actually operating stevedoring and that kind of work on the port? Or is there indications that the Iraqis will actually co-operate with that kind of work?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: I think the port will be run by the United States and some organisation that they put together which I don't have any visibility of as yet. And I'm fairly certain that, in terms of priority, humanitarian aid will get in there first.

QUESTION: And Vice Admiral, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. Even in light of the blast in Baghdad that claimed at least 14 civilian lives overnight, the Brigadier might be able to answer this, I'm not sure. Is it still deemed that it is a very low civilian casualty rate so far?

VICE ADMIRAL RITCHIE: You're right, the Brigadier might be able to answer that. [Laughter]

BRIGADIER HANNAN: I can. We've noted the reports of the blasts in the marketplace. I assume that's the ones you're talking about, and they are clearly a great tragedy and a concern to us. Those particularly blasts are currently being investigated. At this stage we're not - it's not clear that they were the result of Coalition action.

But let me say in regards to the civilian casualty rate, it has been amazingly low considering the number of munitions that have been used in the operation to date. And these have been many times more than what was used in the 1991 War. And the reason for that is that there is a very specific focus on minimising civilian deaths and injuries and damage to civilian infrastructure for this operation.

And you've seen that reflected in the targeting policy in the major cities of Baghdad and throughout the civilian populated areas. So that focus will continue and it will remain a feature of Coalition operations. Every target will be given separate and specific consideration and the possibility of civilian injury, death or damage will be taken into account in considering the target.

QUESTION: Admiral, Brigadier, Lincoln Rudd from the Canberra Times. The New York Times has reported that the bad weather around Baghdad means that the role of spotters will be increased for the use of aircraft and helicopters to attack the Republican Guard. I know you don't have a policy of commenting on future operations, but is it possible that Australian soldiers will have some role in the battle for Baghdad or is it basically a done deal that we won't?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Well I think we've pointed out over the last couple of days that we're not in that area. We're not in that area now and that's not a likely role for our Special Forces. They have another role, a special reconnaissance role, and that would not normally take them into those areas.

As to the effect of the weather on operations, as I said at the start, there are some downsides to bad weather but there are also some upsides. And they tend to balance themselves out in the operations overall.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Jason Katoukis* from the Financial Review. The Opposition has been asking some questions in the Senate expressing concern about the communications compatibility of the FA-18s with the US communications equipment. And they've expressed some concern that the Hornets may be not easily identifiable on US radar screens.

Can you provide any assurance that the FA-18s do have compatible communications equipment with the US forces?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Well I can certainly provide that assurance, and I can draw your attention to the same assurances that have been given by the Chief of the Air Force. Our aircraft are properly equipped to participate in Coalition operations. Our crews are properly trained and every degree of safety is available to them.

QUESTION: Mark Forbes again from The Age. Brigadier, in terms of the effort to minimise civilian casualties, to what degree is that inhibiting perhaps the optimum military tactics as far as the immediate defeat of Saddam? And could we also get some clarification of when do we expect ships to be able to be docking in Umm Qasr. I wasn't sure if the Vice Admiral was saying that that would be tonight, or if that would be perhaps a 48-hour period. What is our best ETA?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: I'm sorry, Mark, the first question was in regard to...?

QUESTION: The degree to which minimising civilian casualties is perhaps lessening the optimum use of military tactics for an immediate defeat?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Look I think in terms of the overall aims of the operations and clearly minimising civilian tactics, minimising civilian casualties I should say has to be part of our overall strategy. To win militarily with large numbers of civilian casualties wouldn't necessarily achieve our overall aims or the overall aims of the Coalition, even if it might achieve a shorter term tactical victory.

So it's an important feature of the operation and you've seen in played out at every part. And the great worry here from our point of view and with the Coalition is the tactics being used by the Iraqis of placing military facilities, military weapons, particularly anti-armoured weapons in amongst civilian installations and residential areas. This makes the life of the soldier on the ground extremely difficult.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, notwithstanding the use of civilian shields, notwithstanding the use of perfidious tactics such as having surrendering soldiers become combatants or occupying hospitals with combatants, the Coalition forces will continue to abide by their obligations under international law.

REAR ADMIRAL RITCHIE: And just with respect to the second question, I mean there is an expectation that they might be able to get a ship in there very late this evening our time, but I would urge some caution. The weather is not very good. And the process has got to be 100% sure before you send a ship up there. So it could be delayed.

QUESTION: Just on that - I'm just also [indistinct] the Iraqis had two ships standing off [indistinct] 6,000 tonnes of grain [indistinct] ...?

REAR ADMIRAL RITCHIE [?]: The Australian Government I think has negotiated the purchase of two ships full of wheat, yes. I don't know where they are.

QUESTION: But they could come in fairly quickly?

REAR ADMIRAL RITCHIE: Depends where they are.

QUESTION: For the Brigadier again, Nick Stewart, also Canberra Times. Can I ask no one would suggest that there has been any deliberate intention to target civilians? Inevitably it is a war. How important is it the minute that you become aware that casualties may have become caused by Coalition operations, that you own up to it?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well I think I've said in answer to a couple of previous questions that the options to really hide these things in the long term in this day are pretty much gone. And there's a great importance about being fairly open about these matters when they occur. Certainly speaking for the Australian contingent, that will be the case and we will honour that obligation.

QUESTION: Are you concerned, there have been reports from embedded correspondents with the US Marines, the Marine Expeditionary Force that's been moving north, indicating that there's been somewhat lax fire discipline, fire discipline. In fact that basically the, as they've been moving forward, they've been suppressing with fire before they come under fire. Do you have any comments about the danger of casualties through those operations?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Well look, I haven't seen the reports and I haven't been witness to that myself. And I've not seen any reports from the Australians on those matters so it would be highly speculative for me to comment.

QUESTION: I don't think they're speculative. I mean the reports are definitely - they're in all the papers today. They are from embedded correspondents. They're definitely there. Can you comment on whether or not it's desirable to have loose fire discipline?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Yeah, I've stopped beating my wife as well. [Laughter]

Look, clearly, there's a great onus upon individual soldiers to uphold their orders for opening fire. Let me bring this down away from the theoretical a little here. These battles aren't being carried out by journalists or lawyers here in Canberra. They're being carried out by soldiers who are on the ground under circumstances which we can't possibly understand. Now we don't actually understand really what situation they're in on the ground.

Now the journalists may well have a view from where they're sitting and where they're standing. And they can report that. But they can't stand in the shoes of any of those individual soldiers whose lives are on the line here.

The important thing I can tell you about the Australian force is that we have excellent standards of training in regards to our responsibilities under the laws of armed conflict and we have a great reputation for being able to do this stuff well which we've earned from Somalia to Timor and lots of places in between. That reputation wasn't easily earned and it's based on good training, good discipline and an understanding of what it is we're responsible for.

QUESTION: Brigadier, John Carran from The Australian. Just back to the SAS, how can they, given the Iraqis are using the irregular forces, how do they kind of go about working out whether this person is just a soldier who's quit and returning home or one of these Fad A'aen*. And what happens if large numbers of Iraqis give themselves up to six SAS officers. I mean what do they do in that situation?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Well dealing with the first question. The real issue here is it's a function of decision for some fairly mature and experienced soldiers on the ground. And I think the Chief of the Army the other day pointed out the average age of our SAS soldiers, their levels of maturity. I think that's reflected in the little vignettes we did on the soldiers returning home.

Now those soldiers could easily have been engaged and become casualties in the war. But the soldiers, the SAS soldiers chose not to do that. They chose to stop them, to take them captive, to question them, to become convinced that these were actually soldiers who had left their weapons behind in their position and were heading back to their families to take no more part in the conflict.

And I think that's the level of maturity we expect from these people. They're operating independently, a long way from support. They don't have the option of seeking advice. They have to be mature enough to deal with those circumstances.

Now we've given them the training, the preparation, and I think we also give them our trust to do that well.

OFFICIAL: Ladies, and gentlemen, we'll take one more question.

QUESTION: Just on that issue, do the SAS speak Arabic, do they?

BRIGADIER HANNAN: We have - language skills is one of the important skills that are retained within the SAS regiment and there are Arabic speakers. I would say though, having spent quite a bit of time of my life in that part of the world that there's no shortage of English language speakers amongst the local populations as well.

QUESTION: Just you know, one week in to the war, could you sort of give a wrap up of the ADF's sort of view of our contribution to date of the participation, and you know whether it's gone to plan and how you sort of rate it out of ten or what-have-you.

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Well as far as the ADF contribution goes, as you know, all of the ADF components are highly specialised groups. We don't have the general types of forces that are there from other Coalition countries. They're specialist groups and they're operating within their specialist areas.

And in each case I can report quite wholeheartedly that they are doing well and performing their roles well. But more importantly, their missions, their part of the plans is running pretty much as it was expected to run.

OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen.

BRIGADIER HANNAN: Now, if you'd like to move down and have a talk to the divers...
* * End * *


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