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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


03/04/2003Departmental 30403/03


Media Briefing Australia's contribution to Global Operations

Thursday 3 April 2003

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

While all our forces have again been busy conducting their respective tasks, I'm happy to report there have been no major incidents or casualties in the past 24 hours.

Starting with Maritime operations . . .

Our three surface ships remain on task in the Persian Gulf, undertaking a variety of support roles. KANIMBLA remains in the northern part of the Gulf providing a command and control platform for maritime surveillance operations and the clearance operations in the K-A-A waterway.

ANZAC continues with her escort tasks for coalition shipping transiting the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, while DARWIN is undertaking resupply activities.

The clearance divers, supported by the Army's Landing Craft, remain at Umm Qasr continuing port clearance operations. There is a further week of work estimated in the clearance of the waterways and port

Turning to Land Operations . . .

Our special forces continue their operations inside Iraq. Their mission continues unchanged, and there have been no significant issues overnight.

And now to air operations . . .

All aircraft have again been flying over the past 24 hours.

Our C1-30s Hercules transport aircraft have continued flying supply missions throughout the area of operations. Several missions have been into Iraq in support of coalition ground forces.

Our Orion maritime surveillance aircraft have continued their patrols over the northern Persian Gulf in support of coalition shipping.

Meanwhile, our FA-18 Hornets have been fully committed, flying close air support missions over southern Iraq in support of advancing coalition ground forces.

While on the subject of air operations, I'd thought it might be useful to provide you with a little detail about some of the people behind the scenes in our air effort. After all, without these people, our aircraft would not be able to fly - and fly at the rate they currently are.

The RAAF's Combat Support Group currently has deployed approximately 230 personnel embedded within the Air Force elements of Operation Falconer.

The role of these personnel is to provide the air component with personnel and equipment for command and control; communications; aircraft loading and unloading; supply support; aircraft security; engineering; health support and aero-medical evacuation teams; and airfield emergency response and recovery.

Our people making up this group come from RAAF Bases all over Australia, including Amberley, Townsville, Richmond, Williamtown, Darwin, Tindal and Edinburgh.

While the Combat Support Group personnel have deployed with the immediate focus of providing combat support services to our aircraft in the Middle East, they are also integrated into many key Coalition air support positions, including: explosive ordnance preparation; air terminal services, and Nuclear, biological and Chemical Defence liaison. Apart from ensuring high quality support to our aircraft, this level of integration provides our people with excellent experience needed to keep our Air Force on the leading edge.

That concludes today's brief. I'd now be happy to take any of your questions . . .

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Are there any questions?

QUESTION: Phillip Hudson from The Age. There's been a report this morning that 150 former SAS forces, I understand they have been out of the SAS for up to two years, have been recalled or tapped on the shoulder and asked to come to Darwin for refresher training. And also that some tank drivers that have retired have been asked to come out of retirement. Can you confirm that?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: I'm not sure about that report or where it came from. I don't know whether it's a part of our Reserves program or whatever. What I can tell you is that it is not related to Operation Falconer or any current deployment or operation.

QUESTION: Brigadier, John Kerrin* The Australian. Given the reports that the SAS always seem to be standing by the road on the way to Jordan, are they now protecting the supply lines? It seems like a reasonable guess, because most of the journo's who are escaping seem to run into them from the main road out.

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I'm not sure that most have. I think Mr McPhedran probably missed them. They probably let him pass by. The SAS are occupying a very large area in their area of operations, and they are keeping tabs on, that is watching carefully, a large area of Iraq. Reporting on Iraqi forces and obviously taking direct action where that's appropriate.

QUESTION: Just one other question, with the forces on the outskirts now of Baghdad, is now the sort of critical time where a chemical or biological attack is feared from the regime?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: I'm probably not the best person to ask that specific question. The commanders on the ground would have a much better feel for it than we would here in Canberra. But I can point you to the fact that the forces advancing on the ground are at a very high state of readiness and alert for chemical attack or biological attack.

So there is some concern amongst the commanders that this regime may resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction if pushed back to the wall. And certainly that pushing is now happening.

QUESTION: Don Wilfred* from AAP, Brigadier. Firstly going back to the SAS, it's some time now, four or five days I think from memory, since you've reported any significant incident involving the SAS.


QUESTION: Does that indicate either a change in their role? Or, alternatively, does that perhaps indicate that the sort of Iraqi formations they would be interested in have in fact either dispersed or withdrawn back closer to Baghdad?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, we haven't had much to say about the SAS because there has been a continuation of operations by them in the same area. I believe that Brigadier McNarn will be holding a briefing later today in country, and he may have some more detail on SAS operations at that time.

I actually don't have any more to give you today or this morning, and for those particular reasons. That is, they're still operating in the same areas and we don't want to start to pinpoint their position by talking about specific incidents.

QUESTION: Just a broader question, if I may?


QUESTION: A few days ago there seemed to be a lot of pessimism, of plans gone awry, the forces are stalled, et cetera, et cetera. Now there seems to have been sudden large burst of optimism. I mean are we rather foolishly lurching from over-pessimism to over-optimism?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I think it depends - what you see of the war depends on where you stand. And much of the reporting of this war has been done from almost on the front line by people who are very closely involved with some small action. And I think once that's taken out without some perspective, you can tend to get these dramatic shifts in view.

I think the view from the hill, as the CDF pointed out the other day, has been pretty consistent. We've consistently said and maintained that the operation is on its time line, and that all of the success parameters are being been met and that we are very pleased with the Coalition operations to date.

And I don't think that there's been much change in that view from people who are actually standing back and looking at it a little bit more objectively.

QUESTION: Lincoln Wright from The Canberra Times. Brigadier, I was wondering whether or not you can give a comment on the reports that the Americans might be engaging a dialogue with Iraqi Generals with a view to some type of political settlement? I don't know whether we know anything about that yet.

And, secondly, do we support unconditional surrender? Is that our official position? Or would we prefer to come to some type of quick arrangement whereby we could avoid a battle for Baghdad?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: In terms of the precise negotiations that are going on behind the scenes, I don't have clear visibility of that and it wouldn't be a matter that we would want to be discussing publicly at this time.

In relation to the outcomes sought by the government, they've been clearly stated in Australia's past. We seek the disarmament of Iraq and, as the Prime Minister has said, that means axiomatically a regime change.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Karen Middleton from The West Australian. You mentioned the force is now on a high state of readiness for weapons of mass destruction.


QUESTION: Given that they're reaching the outskirts of Baghdad, have you found any weapons of mass destruction yet?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, as the CDF said the other day in answer to a similar question, it's early days yet. The main focus at the moment is on engaging and neutralising the Republican Guard. And this is a huge enterprise. There is still a very substantial Iraqi Army to be dealt with, and that's occupying the forces fully.

There will be plenty of time for us to identify and find those locations where weapons of mass destruction may be manufactured or stored.

QUESTION: It'd be good to find them before they were used on our forces, though?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yeah, it certainly would be very good to find them. But you have to imagine that the Iraqis are not going to place them in the south of the country close to the areas where the Coalition is first going to come.

QUESTION: So none of them have been...

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: They'll be in remote areas for the storage and so on.

QUESTION: And you haven't found any yet?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Not that I'm aware of. We have, of course, found plenty of evidence of preparations for their use, in chemical suits and antidotes and so on.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Deng Jian from Radio Free Asia. You mentioned in the previous briefing that the Australian Navy and the American Navy have done a good job in mine clearings in the Persian Gulf.


QUESTION: And there was a report about the Australian ship carrying 50,000 tonnes of Australian wheat diverted from the Persian Gulf, from Umm Qasr to Kuwait. Can you comment on that?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: I'm not the best person to comment on this because it's actually a project being run by AusAID, which is another part of government. But I understand that the draught of the ship is too deep for it to make its way up to Umm Qasr fully laden, and that there's a need to unload a certain volume of the wheat before that happens. So it needs to offload some wheat to get it into the port. It's 50,000 tonnes of wheat, I gather, involved.

So there's just a function of our ability to be able to handle that. Now, it doesn't really matter to us whether the aid gets into Iraq through a Kuwaiti port or through Umm Qasr. The important thing is that the aid gets in and that the government's commitment to provide that aid is fulfilled as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: Are the troops going to be involved in distributing food to the Iraqi refugees?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Not necessarily. Our troops are specialised troops. They're not geared or prepared for that task. The specialists from the aid agencies, from AusAID, would put in place, you know appropriate arrangements to distribute it using other aid agencies and government agencies.

QUESTION: Phillipa Quinn from the 7.30 Report. When you were talking about the Republic Guard just before in answer to Karen's question, have we got any numbers on how many there are or how many numbers in the Iraqi Army?

And, secondly, with the mines that the divers are clearing, what's happening to them? Where are they going?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Oh, okay. In terms of the numbers for the Iraqi Army, there have been some numbers published. I don't have them off the top of my head, but we can provide those to you separately in terms of the estimates.

QUESTION: Does it take [indistinct] the Guard as well?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yes. I mean those are estimates, you know, that have been published and they're an open source. But we can help you to find those. I haven't seen estimates of the overall numbers in recent days, but I'm reasonably sure that those Republic Guard units facing the Coalition forces have been diminished in capability significantly in recent days.

QUESTION: Well, how do you know that? That's what I just get confused about. If we know what these numbers are...


QUESTION: Sorry. I get confused about that. If we know what the numbers are and the people keep telling us that their numbers are being diminished, I mean how do you know?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I didn't say numbers. I said their capability was being diminished.

QUESTION: Oh, I see.

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: And the main estimate of capability is their major equipment platforms, tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, significant in-placements and defensive measures, and these are the things that we're attacking and we have a measure of success of those attacks.

So, over time it's possible for us to do the simple arithmetic on the number of tanks that we know exist, the number that we've destroyed and make estimates about the capability remaining.

So it's a process of keeping our eyes open, taking all the intelligence sources in, studying them carefully and making assessments.

Now, in relation to the mines. Many of the mines are destroyed in place. That is, when they're found the divers put explosives on them and destroy them, particularly if they've been armed. Some mines they've recovered, however, that have not been armed, they've been safe. And they've been recovered and stored. I'm not sure what will happen to those eventually, but at the moment they're certainly not a danger to shipping.

The divers do, however, have the capability in some cases to disarm mines that have been armed and to recover them, but that's obviously a more risky business. Destroying them in place is the usual method of dealing with them. That means they put explosives on them and they blow them up.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Jason Coutsoukas* from the Fin Review. I was just wondering if you could tell us what sort of resistance are you getting from the Iraqi forces? What sort of weapons are they using? I mean someone mentioned the other day that they hadn't been able to launch their scud missiles. Could you sort of say why that is and what other weapons are they using?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I don't have any specific information for you that isn't available in an open source on that. Certainly I think the performance of the Iraqi forces I think people now see, with a little bit of perspective, has been particularly poor and they certainly haven't done many of the normal things that would be needed to mount a credible defence and a credible operation. And contrary to much of the close-up reporting.

Certainly the weapons systems they've been able to use have been dramatically limited by Coalition action. That is an active air campaign effective electronic warfare measures, attacks on command and control systems have all limited the capacity of the Iraqis to use those weapons they do have.

QUESTION: Do they have an air force which is...

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yes, they do have an air force. At this stage it isn't actively involved in combat. And it hasn't been seen in the skies, that I'm aware of.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Karen Middleton again. There are some aid agencies raising concerns that the food packages being dropped in some parts of Iraq are the same colour as some land mines. That they're both yellow and that there's a risk that particularly children are getting confused one for the other and are at risk. Is any thought being given to that? The change in the colour of food packs or what you can do to avoid injury?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Look, I haven't seen those reports. And you know I'm certainly not an expert on the colour of the aid packages. We can have a look at that for you and I'll get an answer back to you on that, on whether it is a problem or has been identified as a problem and whether there's any action underway to ameliorate that.

QUESTION: Brigadier, Lincoln Wright again. Just coming back to this issue of unconditional surrender and regime change, you could have regime change but we could still strike a deal with Iraqi Generals to forestall a battle for Baghdad. Can you try and answer the question again: would we prefer a political settlement with rebel Iraqi generals? Or do we want to completely destroy the city and then have a regime change? I mean...

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I think the question, you know, was properly poorly phrased, because we certainly don't want to see the destruction of the city and unnecessary deaths from Iraqis. And certainly not unnecessary deaths for the Coalition either.

What we seek is to see a regime in Iraq which is by the Iraqis and is a democratic modern regime that provides a free and safe life for the Iraqi people. Now, if that can be achieved by a negotiated outcome, then clearly that's preferable to having to fight a knock-down, drawn out battle for Baghdad. And I don't think there would be anybody in this country who would take another view.

QUESTION: Would that be unconditional surrender?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Unconditional surrender?

QUESTION: According to Rumsfeld it is...

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Yeah, if that's how a good outcome can be achieved, then why not?

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

QUESTION: Don Wilfred from AAP again. You said a little while ago that the Iraqi performance had been poor and they hadn't mounted a credible defence. I was wondering if you could just expand on that a little bit? Are you speaking of their performance in the field? Of the equipment they're able to put...

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: Well, I'll give you one example. One example which is very illustrative, and that is that major bridges over the rivers and canals have been captured intact. You know, I think that clearly a credible defence would see those bridges removed long before they could be used by the Coalition forces.

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

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