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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


31/03/2003Departmental 310303/03


Media Briefing Australia's contribution to Global Operations

Monday 31 March 2003

Good morning, and welcome to our regular update on operations in the Middle East.

Starting with Maritime Operations

HMAS ANZAC is conducting surveillance and control ops in the mouth of the Kwar Abd Allah while HMAS Darwin is now patrolling in the northern Persian Gulf.

Our Army Landing Craft, the LCM8 at the Port of Umm Qasr are continuing to provide valuable support to the clearance Diving teams who are still working to clear other berths in an effort to get the Port fully operational to allow the delivery of much-needed humanitarian aid. One major activity is to raise an Iraqi patrol boat loaded with mines, that has been sunk in the vicinity of the grain handling terminal in the new port. The vessel will be raised before the mines are secured. The force is still concerned about suicide boats and is maintaining rigorous protection measures to keep the force safe.

You will recall that an important role of the Maritime group was the clearance of the dhows and other vessels from the Kwar Abd Allah and the port of Umm Qasr. The vessels have now been moved from the KAA. Many of the vessels in the port area had been abandoned by their Masters and crew and had to be secured. All of these vessels have now been cleared and made safe. Now that this part of the job is over, the 20 boarding parties in rigid hull inflatable boats that were working from HMAS Kanimbla have now been returned to their home ships.

Turning to Land Operations.

Our SAS continue to operate inside of Iraq without any significant incident. They continue to provide excellent intelligence and, contrary to some media reporting today, their location remains secret.

You would be aware that an American journalist has claimed that he encountered Australian SAS on his way out of Iraq.

To ensure the effectiveness of this capability and the security of our personnel, we do not comment on the details of exact unit locations or specific missions.

It is vital that we protect the secrecy of their mission.

For that reason we cannot discuss the current or future missions that the Special Forces may be undertaking.

And now to air operations.

Our Hercules aircraft are working around the clock as are the ground crew that ensure their air-worthiness. Although small in number their contributions to the logistic effort continues to be positively disproportionate. Indeed the configuration of our aircraft provides a high degree of flexibility in terms of accommodating a variety of cargo types ranging from routine stores through to military vehicles. Not surprisingly, this has lead to a high demand for the service of the Australian Hercules.

Our P3 aircraft are currently busy flying night sorties to provide a surveillance capacity for the coalition carrier battle group located in the central and southern regions of the Persian Gulf. These sorties are quite demanding and typically last for approximately 12 hours each.

Our FA18s have been very active in this campaign to date and carried out more missions overnight. While at this time I am unable to provide you with the details of their missions, I can tell you that they all returned back to base safely and initial reports indicate that their missions went well.

Overall, the air campaign is continuing at a hectic pace and aircraft are participating fully. The air campaign is having a dramatic effect.

Before taking questions today I would like to let you know that the morale of our people remains high. The support of the Australian community has been well reported to the forces and they have had a very positive effect. Our forces are all working in specialised areas and they remain focussed on their jobs.

That concludes today's brief, the Chief of the Air Force has joined us today and before taking questions I will ask him to provide a little more clarity on air operations.

AIR MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Good morning. Our people continue to do an outstanding job in the Middle East, and I'll get into that in a little bit more detail in a moment.

Before I do that, I'd like to bring to your attention that this is the 82nd birthday of the Royal Australian Air Force. The Royal Australian Air Force was born on 31st March 1921, with 151 people and 164 aircraft. It's probably the first and the last time that we'll have more aircraft than people in the Royal Australian Air Force.

As you're all aware, the Royal Australian Air Force has distinguished itself through many years of service. We probably reached a climax during World War II where the Air Force grew to in excess of 150,000 people and fielded 74 operational squadrons. Indeed, at the end of World War II, the Air Force was the fourth largest air force in the world.

Of course after World War II we continued to serve operationally in Korea, Vietnam and Malaya. And, of course, we've been involved in many different operations other than war - a typical one of course being the recent Bali assist operation that we did late last year. And of course we're fully involved in Timor and all of the peacekeeping operations that the ADF's been involved in.

I think it's important to recognise that, because over the years we've had 400,000 Australians in the Royal Australian Air Force, and of those 400,000, 14,000 have paid the supreme sacrifice. And we remember them today. We have a great tradition of service and sacrifice, and of course our people in the Middle East leverage off that at the moment.

The tradition of the Service, the ethos of the Service is very very important.

Now, just turning to the operations in the Middle East. I want to say a few words initially about our support people. They are very much the unsung heroes of this Air Force contribution. Those maintenance people are generating an incredible level of availability. We've routinely had 13 out of the 14 Hornets on line, and indeed all three elements, the P-3s, the C:-130s and the F/A-18s have all produced availability rates that meet all mission requirements. It really is a great achievement.

And we shouldn't also forget the very important logistics and administration people who support the effort as well, and provide that vital logistic support in ensuring that we have enough spare parts and so on to keep the aircraft going. They also perform a very vital security function.

Turning now to each element, I'll start with the P-3s. I'm very pleased with the P-3s. I think the Brigadier summed up what they'd been doing very well. They've now done almost 50 sorties since they deployed to the Middle East, and they have a mission success rate of almost 100%.

The C-130s are also performing superbly. And I can tell you now that we've now commenced resupply operations into Iraq. Those operations have started very recently and of course our people are again doing a great job. They're doing those missions at night time using the special skills that they've got, the good equipment that they've got, to maximise their effectiveness and minimise the risk of those very demanding missions.

The F/A-18s have been very active right through the campaign thus far. And whilst you've seen them involved quite heavily in defensive counter-air missions - that's the air control missions flying top cover for the high-value assets - I think what you can expect to see now is a swing to the close air support and strike operations against deliberate targets.

And indeed in the last couple of days that's been the pattern of the activity, and that's the pattern that I would expect to continue for the foreseeable future.

Of course if at any stage an air-to-air threat were to emerge, our fellows are highly flexible, very adaptable, and they can swing straight into that role on request from our coalition partners.

So overall I'm very very pleased with the way operations are going. I think our part in it has been highlighted by great professionalism, excellence in the prosecution of operations and absolutely outstanding support from our support people on the ground, who I again stress have done a fantastic job and a job that really hasn't been highlighted to date.

Finally, I'd like to recognise the role of the families. Our families are providing great support to our fellows, and I'm deeply indebted to the wider community for supporting our families as well as they are.

It's greatly appreciated by all of them, and I'd like to thank the Australian community for that.

Thank you.

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Are there any questions, ladies and gentlemen?

QUESTION: Brigadier, John Kerin from The Australian. You mentioned the clearance divers performing a few more roles, including you mentioned about them in relation to the school with the weapons. What are they doing there, if you could just expand on that?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yes, we don't actually have too much information on that at the moment, John, but there may be some more released in the area this afternoon. But apparently the UK forces have discovered a cache of weapons and explosives in a school. And because of the specific skills of the clearance divers, they've called them up to assist with the making safe of those items and for the clearance of them.

Now, I'm not sure of the rest of the detail. I think that will emerge later in the day.

QUESTION: The humanitarian role, that was just something they offered to help out with?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I think it's because of the tide, the short tide windows, there's a limited amount of time they can spend in the water in each cycle. And when they're out of the water they've had them off doing some other useful things helping out there.

Obviously the humanitarian assistance program is actually very important to us and a very important part of the operation. And any assistance that we can provide, even by using our specialists to assist, is certainly something that we'd want to get into pretty quickly.

QUESTION: Brigadier, [indistinct] from Radio Free Asia. Captain Peter Jones mentioned in the Middle East that the Australian ships are paying more attention to the suicide boats. Can you offer some information about specific measures taken by the Australian ships to counter those suicide boats?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yeah, I think the Chief of the Navy addressed this yesterday in a little detail. And I think, probably just to restate his points, they have very very good surveillance systems which give them an excellent understanding of what's moving and how it's moving. And of course they have rules of engagement and close in protection systems on the boats that allow them to counter those threats.

I think the important thing here is, as Captain Jones has pointed out, that they recognise the threat, they recognise the threat is there. They're aware it, and they've got tactics and techniques to help them cope with that.

QUESTION: Don Woolford from AAP. You said, and I think you were talking about the air operations generally rather than specifically the Australians, but you said they're having a dramatic effect on operations. I was just wondering if you could elaborate on that just what is this dramatic effect?

AIR MARSHAL HOUSTON: Well, the air operations have been manifold. You've seen strikes in Baghdad that have been against strategic targets, communication systems. But you've also seen a lot of support of the ground forces. And what has been happening over the last few days is a gradual degradation of the fighting effectiveness of the opposition divisions that face the coalition forces.

QUESTION: Mark Phillips from News Limited. Air Marshal, just referring to those strikes over Baghdad, how many missions have the F/A-18s been involved in strike missions over Baghdad? And can you just tell us a bit more about some of those targets? You mentioned communications targets, what other types of military targets?

And, thirdly, what type of payload are they using in those missions? What type of munitions are they using?

Okay. Well, first of all we have not been involved in any strike operations over Baghdad. Our operations have been to the south of Baghdad. The close air support is working very closely with coalition land forces that request that support.

The deliberate strikes have been over southern Iraq. Some of them have been, I suppose, within 100 kilometres of Baghdad. And all the targets have been strictly military. What we're talking about are tanks, the military vehicles, military command and control facilities and so on.

So they're the sorts of targets that we have been engaging.

In terms of the munitions, depending on what the target is we've been using GBU10s or GBU12s. That's either a 2,000 pound or a 500 pound munition. All of them have been laser-guided, so every single strike that we've conducted has been with a precision weapon. We haven't used any dumb bombs at all to this time.

QUESTION: So there hasn't been - none of these targets have been anywhere near civilian housing or any other civilian installations?

AIR MARSHAL HOUSTON: All the targets that we've been engaged, in the main have been very - well, have been clear of civilian areas, although, as I've said previously, wherever there is civilian infrastructure we take great care to ensure that we use the right attack direction. We take every measure we can to ensure that we don't hit any of the civilian infrastructure or the civilians that might be nearby.

QUESTION: Air Marshal, Samantha Armitage from Sky News. How long do you think our pilots can stay in the Gulf? Would you like to see any rotation perhaps particularly for our F/A-18 pilots who seem to be fairly busy?

AIR MARSHAL HOUSTON: The F/A-18 pilots have been doing very well. We have sufficient pilots there to sustain this effort for quite a while, and for quite a while yet. Clearly rotation is an issue for government, but I don't see any need to rotate the F/A-18 pilots in the short term.

OFFICIAL: We'll take one last question, ladies and gentlemen.

Brigadier, Melissa Stephens* from the Westralian newspaper. With maritime operations, can you tell us when Darwin and Anzac are due to finish their deployment? And which ships will be replacing them?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, once again that's a matter about force rotation. And any decision to replace those two warships would be taken by government, and no decision has been made at this time.

OFFICIAL: Thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen.
* * End * *

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