Transcript - Media briefing Thursday 3 April 2003
Brigadier Maurie McNarn
BRIGADIER MAURIE MCNARN: I'll be happy to take a few questions at the end.
Speaking as the Australian national commander, my comments will again focus on the efforts of Australia's contribution to the coalition's operations to defeat the Iraqi regime's military forces, and to disarm the regime and its weapons of mass destruction, and for us that is Operation Falconer.
The Australian Defence Force contribution to the coalition continues to make its presence felt. Our Hornet aircraft have undertaken 130 combat sorties, totalling about 700 flying hours since operations commenced. In addition to defence of counter air sorties, approximately 70 strike missions have also been successfully prosecuted.
During the strike missions, Australian aircraft have struck a range of targes, including numerous Iraqi tanks, trucks, artillery pieces, fuel dumps, bunkers, and ammunition storage areas. As part of combined coalition teams, they have also successfully struck, amongst other targets, the headquarters of the Iraqi Tenth Armoured Division, and a regional intelligence and security headquarters.
The Australian special forces task group continues to dominate its area of operations, and has achieved some spectacular successes. The task force [indistinct] for Iraq's short-range ballistic missile infrastructure. As I have previously informed you, this has resulted in the destruction of a suspected missile servicing site through a combination of operating with coalition aircraft for strike and through direct combat with Iraqi forces.
The actions of the special forces task group have also lead to the destruction of several Iraqi bases, significant numbers of Iraqi military personnel, vehicles, communications facilities, and military equipment.
Patrols have also conducted interdiction operations on a series of roads in western Iraq, and have gained high value tactical intelligence as part of the overall coalition intelligence effort.
As you're aware, our special forces elements maintain a high degree of mobility, deploying and redeploying, depending on the task. Apart from the support provided by Australian and coalition fighter bombers, helicopters, both transport and attack, and transport aircraft, the soldiers in the field also rely heavily on their specialist patrol vehicles.
The vehicles themselves are designed and made in Australia and are capable of operating in the harsh Australian environment. They are substantially modified to suit the group's requirements, and carry a number of weapons systems and other mission essential equipment, including a highly sophisticated communications suite.
This gives them a unique operational capability. The vehicles are similar to those used extensively by our forces in Afghanistan, and have again proved their worth in Iraq. Like all vehicles they require maintenance and occasional repair. Where necessary, these repairs are conducted in the field by the crews themselves. And I might add that in general the vehicles have stood up extremely well to what have been quite exacting conditions experienced in Iraq.
The commando force remains in part a quick reaction force. It's not unlike an insurance policy that you hope not to need, but for which you'll be very grateful if the time comes. However, commandos within the task group have also participated in successful tasking in Iraq, other than as a quick reaction force.
The commandos are also capable of conducting aggressive patrolling, securing and clearing of facilities and installations, as well as limited direct action against the enemy. However, due to the ongoing nature of the operations, I will only note at this time that the task conducted in Iraq was completed successfully and without casualties.
Operations by Australia's C-130 and P-3 aircraft, providing intra-theatre lift and surveillance and patrol capabilities respectively, continue in close coordination with the coalition forces. Since commencing intra-theatre airlift operations, Australia's C-130s have flown in excess of 65 missions across the Middle East area of operations.
They have been able to lift over one and a half million pounds of coalition cargo, and more than 600 troops. They have provided up to 15% of all C-130 cargo lift in the theatre. The cargo has been as diverse as ammunition, fuel, people, and vehicles. Australian C-130s have also been involved in a number of aero-medical evacuations, from various areas of the theatre.
The flying and maintenance crews are doing an outstanding job, providing day and night, combat airlift in direct support of our forces, and those of our coalition allies. Within the past few days the C-130 aircraft have commenced operations in southern Iraq in support of coalition ground and air elements.
These consist of critical resupplying missions, and the movement of essential coalition equipment and personnel into the forward operating bases established in Iraq. An ADF combat camera team was on last night's mission, and images and vision will be available when they return. As these operations are ongoing, I don't wish to discuss them in any further detail today.
As many of you are aware, the Navy force element has participated in the recent operations in the Khor Abdullah. Naval operations in this area continue to include the clearance of approaches to Umm Kasr, the port of Umm Kasr, and the provision of surface protection and escorts.
In light of the outstanding success of the Naval operations, the level of Australian Naval activity is beginning to reduce. Consequently, it is planned that the Australian frigates will draw down in late April, with one frigate replacing the two returning on routine rotation to Australia, their tasks completed.
The operations I have outlined above emphasise the potency and the effectiveness of the Australian force. The operational results achieved by Australia's contribution to coalition operations are a credit to the skill, dedication, and professionalism of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force, who remain the key to our capability.
The efforts of the people - of these people - have delivered significant operational results over the past weeks of the operation. I'd like to say a few words about some of the unsung heroes of our force, and I also want to show some images of these fine young Australians.
High on the list of these men and women are those who maintain and manage our logistics system, our communications systems, and our weapons systems. Australia's high technology contribution relies on these people to win on the battlefield.
Australian forces on the land and the sea, and in the air, continue to apply combat power to the military forces of the Iraqi regime. Finally, a few words on humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people. While I'm not here to cover the non-military aspects of Australia's support to Iraq, I note that the humanitarian assistance was covered by a brief to the media yesterday. The brief addressed the approximately $100 million package of humanitarian assistance announced by the Australian Government, including the provision of two shipments of Australian wheat due to arrive here shortly.
This assistance is part of the broader coalition effort to relieve the suffering of the Iraqi people, and has been coordinated by AUSAID, the Australian overseas aid organisation.
In conclusion, Australia's operations continue to go well. However, as I've said before, we take nothing for granted, nor do we underestimate our enemy's ability. Our people are all extremely focused on the job at hand, which remains a dangerous high-risk activity, in an unpredictable environment, with Australian men and women going into harm's way.
Our absolute top priority, and my focus, remain on doing this job well and bringing our people home safely.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time and your attention this morning, and I'll be pleased to take a few questions now before I head off.
QUESTION: In terms of the Hercules, how dangerous a mission is it now for them going into southern Iraq? Because obviously they're a lot slower than the fighters. And have they been fired upon already?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: They haven't been fired upon directly, and in part that's due to how we plan their way in and their way out. However, they have had fire fighting on the ground around some of the areas they've gone into. One of the things we're very cautious about is not simply the threat to them while they're in the air, but the threat to them when they're on the ground.
In some ways you're more vulnerable when you're on the ground loading and unloading than you are when you're in the air with the aircraft's self-protection systems. So we're pretty cautious about how we plan each mission. How we get them in and how we get them out, and how long they stay on the ground. But you can't avoid the risk.
QUESTION: Phillip [indistinct], CNN. Early on your maritime interdiction found this vessel with sea mines that were about to be laid. There have been reports of submerged mines in the area of Umm Kasr, and you talk about mine clearance activities continuing. Could you tell us a bit about what you're finding out there, and what the capabilities still remain?
There are reportedly some ships that are still operating under the cover of civilian vessels.
BRIGADIER MCNARN: I'm - I'm not aware of any ships laying mines under the cover of civilian vessels. We do have concerns remaining for speedboat or small boats filled with explosives - the sort of threat that went to the Cole and damaged it. There are a number of those boats that are still unaccounted for, and while they appear small they can do a lot of damage.
In terms of the mines you asked about, one, we have found the original mines, which are being dealt with. We're still pulling some mines out of areas of Umm Kasr. So we clearing both the old and the new port bit by bit. Our people, for instance, have been taking four mines off a boat that was sunk in the port. They're working through that at the moment, as well as clearing some ordinance - explosives - weapons - that have been found in buildings in the port. That'll continue for some time.
In the channel, as we widen the channel, we have found additional mines. Some have been the floating mines. Some have been moored. And we've had a number found along the banks that have been washed up, and that reflects the currents that operate in the Kohr Abdullah.
Types of mines - I've said we've had the floating and submerged. Probably the most dangerous are the Manta mines, or indigenous equivalents that have been found, and these are ones that can be buried in the silt. They're more difficult to detect, and they can be programmed to strike at random.
We're fairly confident the main channel has been cleared, but what we're now doing is clearing out from the main channel.
QUESTION: Are these old mines or new mines?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: I think there's a mixture of both.
QUESTION: Sir, we haven't heard much about the 4RAR commandos, yet you mentioned them briefly there. Can you tell us a bit more what they're doing? What they're designed here to do. Are they just an extraction force for the SAS, or have they specifically been involved in operations inside Iraq, and what sort of operations?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Their primary role has been to be a quick reaction force for our SAS, although should we need to come to the aid of the other coalition members, there's provision for that as well. I think as I explained in an earlier brief, while we tend to operate in a distinctly Australian area of operations, they are, obviously with boundaries with the coalition. And we work very closely in terms of supporting each other.
Their primary role at this stage remains a quick reaction force. They do have a range of other capabilities, which you're aware of, and that's everything from searching facilities, raids, and patrolling and interdiction. How we use them on those operations will vary as operations develop.
The current operations they've been involved in other than the quick reaction force I'm not prepared to discuss at this stage, because some of those operations are ongoing.
QUESTION: Are there are any that [indistinct] you could tell us about, or ..?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: No.
QUESTION: Darren Linton, for Seven Network Australia, Brigadier..
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Darren.
QUESTION: Are Australian forces continuing to be involved in this current push towards Baghdad?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Yes they are in terms of the air assets. Obviously the special forces are, as I called them before, are a niche capability. They have some particular skills that are valuable to the coalition, and we use them where those skills will get the maximum advantage.
Our air assets have been heavily involved in the advance. In the last couple of days they have been striking the Tenth Armoured Division, both, as I said, the headquarters of the Tenth Armoured Division and their forces that are deployed in the field. They've also taken part in strikes against the Medina Division and other units on the way north. They have not been involved in strikes in Baghdad.
QUESTION: What is your assessment of the state of the Republican Guard?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: I think I said about a week or so ago when people were saying isn't it all not going fast enough that I was very glad I was in the Australian army and not in the Republican Guard. I'd have to say my thoughts have been proven true. They've taken a fairly heavy pounding, both from air and ground forces over the last two weeks, and particularly in the last week, and they've had some fairly heavy casualties.
There are about six Republican Guard divisions we're concerned about. I believe at least two of them are now completely combat ineffective, and I suspect that we will find as we advance that the others have taken a fairly heavy hammering as well.
I suppose the only caveat I'd say is I'm one of the world's pessimists - that way you're only ever pleasantly surprised, so I usually worst case it when we're looking at these things. I wouldn't write them off yet. I think there's still some tough fighting to come.
QUESTION: Richard Krug, German television, ARD. Have you been involved in fighting the Medina Division last night as well, and if yes, can you confirm that they are destroyed?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: We have not had conventional ground forces fighting the Medina Division last night. That fighting was conducted by the Fifth Corps. The US Fifth Corps, and primarily the Third Infantry Division. I am aware that the Medina has suffered heavy casualties, and the indications are at this stage that it's combat ineffective.
QUESTION: Simon Bouda, from Channel Nine, Australia, Brigadier. Very briefly, are you concerned that as the push gets closer to Baghdad, the threat of chemical and biological warfare increases, and the risk to our troops increases?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Two questions there. The first is yes, I think all the coalition is increasingly concerned. You've seen people talk about the red line. I don't think any line's as arbitrary as that as a trigger, but the closer you get towards Baghdad, and the more desperate the regime becomes, I think the more likelihood there is that they will use chemical weapons.
The combat indicators as we call it are certainly there in terms of training facilities we've found, equipment, instructions, antidote, which have been widely issued to their personnel. They know we don't carry chemical weapons, so you've got to assume that if they're equipping their people and preparing them to survive in a chemical environment, they at least have an intention of using chemical weapons at some stage.
We take it very seriously. You'll be aware of the range of inoculations that all the Australian personnel had. We've all been issued - not only those in the closer combat operations, but those in any of the rear areas as well, because of the asynchronous warfare threat, with equipment to counter that threat.
So yeah, we take it very seriously, and I think we've taken every reasonable step we can to protect our troops.
QUESTION: Brigadier, what sort of preparations, if any - what sort of training have our forces had for urban combat? I mean, I know that most of it's not, but given the fear of urban combat, what can you tell us about preparations?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Well, most of our forces at one stage or another get training in urban combat. It's part of the skill sets we have. While we're only a small army, we tend to be multi-skilled, and we put a higher investment in training, perhaps, than some other countries. So yes, we do have training in it.
That said, the nature of the ground forces that we have means that they are probably more valuably employed not in house to house fighting but in some of their specialist areas, either of strategic reconnaissance, interdiction, or selective direct action.
I think it would be unlikely that we would use, for instance, the SAS, who are highly specialised with some very unique skills, in house to house fighting in Baghdad. That's a role for which the US in particular has some very well trained forces, which have focused on urban warfare, and they are conventional forces that will probably do that job.
QUESTION: And have our forces trained with American forces at all in urban combat?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: We have our own urban warfare training facilities at home. We tend to use those. There's the normal range of exchanges - for instance, I've been through the urban warfare training facility at Fort Polk in Louisiana, as part of an exchange, but that's just part of the normal training that we do. I've also done the British Northern Ireland course some years ago. But again, part of our normal ongoing training.
You'll be aware we have a fairly sophisticated training facility in Queensland for urban warfare. It's just one of the skills we do.
QUESTION: Sir, can you just talk about the role of women in the Australian force at the moment, how many women there are involved, what sort of roles they're doing, and how much they mean to the Force?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: I suppose the way I tend to approach it is I don't - like, I'll give you the stats, but I don't tend to approach it that way. The only thing I'm interested in is can I trust the person to do the job, and I think most of us are the same.
If you're going to work with someone, can you trust the person on your flank or behind you to support you, and from that point of view I have complete trust in everyone - all the men and women that we have deployed.
Of the women that are here, it varies depending on what area they're in. Overall they're probably about 16% to 20%, and I can get you the exact stats. I'll get someone to work through them. They'll really appreciate that. But I'll get that for you. But it's about 16% to 20% of the Force. It's higher in the headquarters. It'd be around 20%. In my headquarters I think it's about sort of 12 out of 60. But I'll check.
You know, one of the pilots that went into Iraq last night on the Herc was female. And she was there not because she was female. She was there because she's a very competent pilot, and that's her job. And we tend to approach it in a pretty much a matter of fact way.
But as for the stats I'll get the people in the media centre to give them to you.
QUESTION: Brigadier, Darren Curtis, Seven Network, Australia. You mentioned that the commando regiment had been operating in Iraq. Have they been operating on their own, and in terms of the action that they've taken, have they destroyed say key communications facilities or something there?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: I'll be happy once we get a little further into their some of their operations to talk about what the commandos have done, in the same way I have with the SAS. I'm not prepared to do so at the moment. I know that's sometimes frustrating for you, and people sort of chafe at the OpSec, but the bottom line is I'm never, never going to do anything that I think may put any of our people in danger, and I admit that I will tend to be - err to the side of caution on that.
In terms of their operations, just about everything we've done has been as part of a coalition package. While we'll have our own areas of operation, and our people remain under Australian command, we'll often do a co-ordinated operation where we may use coalition aircraft or our own. Just as coalition forces may use our aircraft at times.
So it's a coalition activity, and it's gone quite well.
QUESTION: [indistinct] wasn't available anywhere else in the coalition?
BRIGADIER MCNARN: One, they have the skill. And the other thing, they were in the right place at the right time to do the job. And that's part of the coalition effort, where you - it's a bit like economies of scale. You don't bring someone from one side of the AO to do a job if you've got someone there already who can do it.
One of the beauties of the commandos is they are multi-roled, and as we've said before they have a range of skills, and we can turn them fairly quickly to other tasks if required.
QUESTION: Brigadier, I'd like to ask you about command and control. We've heard a lot of discussion in the last few days about whether the Republican Guard and other units that are still functional are indeed under the control of the leadership of the regime. I'd like to get your take on what you feel is going on at the top as far as Saddam Hussein is concerned.
BRIGADIER MCNARN: Well, if I could work out what Saddam Hussein was doing and where he is - I'd probably have about as much chance of winning the lottery. We know their command and control has been severely degraded. There is increasingly disorganisation and indications of some fairly desperate manoeuvring.
Who's in control is very hard to say, and I think we'll find out more as we close on Baghdad. But their command and control systems have been heavily damaged, and their control is starting to slip away.
That said, one - some of these are experienced units. And I wouldn't underestimate them. Some may have instructions to remain and do a task even if communications fail.
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