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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)


16/04/2003Departmental 160403/03


Media Briefing Australia's contribution to Global Operations

Wednesday 16 April 2003

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

There have been no significant issues or incidents to report over the past 24 hours, and all our people remain safe and accounted for.

Starting with Maritime operations . . .

There has been no change to current operations - HMAS Darwin remains on guardship patrol duties in the northern Persian Gulf, while HMAS Kanimbla continues security operations in the Kha Ab Allah Waterway. These operations including informing local fishermen of access and security issues in the waterways that they need to be aware of while conducting their business.

Meanwhile, HMAS ANZAC and our two Army Landing craft continue their rest and replenishment activities.

The navy clearance divers continue their work unchanged in the vicinity of the Khawr Az Zubyr waterway, or K-A-Z. Much of their work over the past 24 hours has been routine maintenance of their own equipment and preparations for tasking over the coming days.

Turning to Land Operations . . .

The Australian special forces task group continues its normal operations. Special forces troops continue their surveillance and reconnaissance missions inside Iraq with no significant incidents to report.

Overnight, The SAS element initiated contact with the leaders of the town of Air Ramadi, and then assisted US forces to secure the area around the town where Iraqi forces were located.

The SAS provided local security and a linguist to assist the US forces to negotiate the surrender of the Iraqi forces with their commander MAJGEN Mohammed Thurray.

These events took place over the several days, and the presence of SAS and their linguist was vital to the negotiations. These resulted in the surrender of MAJ GEN Mohammed's Forces.

And now to air operations . . .

Our FA-18 Hornets continue their close air support missions in support of coalition ground forces, providing on-call aerial security if required. These missions have again been flown in the vicinity of Tikrit.

Meanwhile our C-130s continue with their supply missions around the area of operations, including conducting various support missions inside Iraq. One of these missions included conducting an air drop of supplies to our special forces.

An RAAF C130 aircraft on a scheduled flight into Baghdad international airport became the first Coalition fixed wing aeronautical evacuation out of the newly opened airport.

The Australian aircraft diverted to Kuwait to pick up a US AMF team of a nurse and two medics then picked up two wounded US soldiers from Baghdad. The two patients were delivered to a US hospital in Kuwait.

And lastly, planning and preparation continues for the deployment of RAAF air traffic control personnel who - as announced yesterday by the Minister for Defence - will play an important role in running Baghdad International Airport in the coming weeks.

I would now like to introduce CAPT Peter Jones who is the former Commander of the Royal Australian Navy task Group in the Persian Gulf.

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. What I'd like to do this morning is just to give a bit of background to the maritime component of this operation and just give it a bit of context if you like.

First off, just in terms of the forces that we've had involved in the operation. Really it's two-sided. One is from the national side, Task Group 623.1 which is Kanimbla, Anzac, Darwin, also the clearance diving team.

In addition to those four main elements, we also had a logistics support element which is fairly crucial to us and it's mainly based in Bahrain, and a couple of liaison officers in the different levels of the Coalition command structure, both as sea and in 5th Fleet headquarters. And that was quite important in terms of facilitating the smooth control of the operation.

Kanimbla which joined just really prior to the conflict commencing, was fairly crucial in terms of the clearance of the Kha Ab Allah Waterway operation. Its main attributes of having very good commander control arrangements allowed my staff to go from an American ship which was going to be required elsewhere embarking Kanimbla with an augmented British staff and have that very reliable communications trunk both back home and also within the Coalition. That was quite important.

The other key things were the fact that it had a fairly shallow draught so it could operate very close to the Iraqi coast. We were able to embark over 150 additional Coalition members into the ship very comfortably. We had the two Army landing craft which became maids of all work, if you like, in terms of whether it's embarking enemy prisoners of war or alternately [sic] supporting the boat operations along the Kha Ab Allah Waterway. They were really a very useful craft to us.

The other key thing I think with Kanimbla was the fact that it was able to maintain station for so long and it did that fairly comfortably.

That was the national side, if you like. In terms of the Coalition, really from the three other Coalition partners, we had the Royal Navy with both in terms of three frigates, Richmond, Marlborough and Chatham which were able to support the maritime interception operations as well as supporting the assault in the Al Faw Peninsula.

We operated most of those ships for a number of months, and that whole issue, from the maritime perspective, over a period of time developing very close links and inter-operability was a key to the success enjoyed to date.

In addition a number of those ships have Royal Marine boarding parties which operated either from those ships or from Kanimbla as the operation evolved, and I had six Royal Navy personnel on my staff embarked on Kanimbla. And that gave us a greater depth in the command staff.

The Polish provided the Chiniki* which is a support ship. She'd been out for some months in theatre and had supported the maritime interception operations. And in this context we had a number of US Navy ships provide boarding parties to Chiniki, to augment her capabilities. And that was quite important in terms of conducting the clearance of ships and also in terms of doing riverine patrols.

Finally, the US Navy - up to the war we'd had a large number of US Navy destroyers and cruisers rotate through the maritime interception operation. But during this phase we had fairly new players to the game, the US Coastguard patrol craft and also two US Navy patrol boats.

And these were fairly important in terms of supporting the clearance of the Waterway and then doing the on-going riverine patrol.

Turning to the tasks that really were to befall our taskgroup and they were really clearance of the KAA shipping. And why was that important? The key thing there was we had to make sure that the Waterway was clear for humanitarian aid shipping and that Umm Qasr could actually become a functional port as soon as possible.

Now we knew that there were up to about 300 dhows and 150 tankers which had been holed up in the Waterway for some time. The effectiveness of the maritime interception operations over the last, particularly over the last 18 months, have been such that some ships there had been stuck up there for over a year trying to smuggle oil or dates out of the area.

And so we knew that there were a number of ships which probably weren't going to go too far because they were derelict; others very keen to get out. From our perspective, what we wanted to do was to make sure that those ships were cleared; they didn't have mines; they didn't have any other weapons on board. And that when they were cleared, that they went down the western side of the Arabian Gulf and that they kept clear of Coalition and other merchant traffic so they didn't provide a hazard to the safe water of shipping along the Gulf.

Support of the assault of the Al Faw Peninsula was twofold. First off, that we had to provide a protection corridor for the amphibious craft going across from Kuwait to the Al Faw Peninsula. And we used our patrol craft for that purpose and the frigates were then assigned to provide naval gunfire support to the Al Faw itself.

And that was fairly important into providing greater coverage along the Al Faw and to providing some redundancy if the weather took a hand in operations and curtailed any flying ops or indeed curtailed some of the operations from the Kuwait side.

On to mine counter-measures force: The emphasis of trying to clear the Waterway for humanitarian aid shipping meant that what we had to do was to support the British and American mine counter-measures vessels as they went up the Kha Ab Allah Waterway to make sure that they weren't subjected to any attack from the Iraqi surface units. And so we provided patrol craft and RHIBs for that purpose.

And then, once the Waterway was cleared, then actually establishing a regime of riverine patrols to make sure that along that 45 miles of Waterway that we had a fair degree of surety that there weren't any small boat attacks or even rubber boats being launched somewhere along the Peninsula and then attacking any of the shipping.

In the early days of the campaign, we also had to counter any Iraqi Navy which were going to operate out of the Kha Ab Allah Waterway or indeed out of the Shatt al A*. In those early days, we had to make sure that, typically if it was going to be from laying mines in an unconventional way or maybe even some of their patrol boats. As it turned out their patrol boats were accounted for fairly early on and it was really the mine laying side was the thing that occupied most of our time.

So I'd just like to, just quickly, turn to a couple of those things in turn. The clearance of the Kha Ab Allah Waterway, as you see there from that shot, fairly murky conditions and it's one that made it difficult for ships to operate both navigationally because it was so constrained. A lot of it was in less than eight metres of water which is very close to the limits of our ships and it was beyond the limits of a lot of the larger ships in the Coalition Naval Force. And also it's just difficult to operate the systems. It's difficult to make water; difficult to run the systems.

But it's something that we had got used to over a period of time, that for the last 18 months of the maritime interception operations we'd always had ships operating within Iraqi territorial waters enforcing the sanctions. And so that gave us not only an ability to know quite well the area but it also meant that we could identify any changes in the pattern of Iraqi activity.

The next slide just shows what we did in terms of trying to deal with the large number of ships we were expecting. And what we did was to surge the capabilities of the force because normally we may board say half a dozen ships at a time. Now we're looking at potentially 300 dhows and 150 merchant ships. We had to have the ability to board a much larger number of ships and so we had in excess of 20 boarding parties available to be used at any one time. And the way we did that was putting over 130 Coalition boarding party personnel on board Kanimbla.

And as you see here in this shot here, we've got Royal Marine and US Navy, US Coastguard personnel embarked in Kanimbla and on the next slide you just see here how we took the landing craft off. They were used for the purposes I've previously described and we then made makeshift cradles and had eight additional landing craft, sorry RHIBs, on board the Kanimbla and gave us this enhanced capability which worked really well.

And in the end, as it turned out, two days before the war commenced, on CNN there was announced that the war may start within five hours. And the way communications works these days is that the shipping owners and the smugglers had sort of got wind of that very quickly and we had ships coming out and dhows coming out waving white flags, some throwing their contraband in the water.

So within 48 hours before the war, we actually started to clear the Waterway. And in that time we cleared nearly 50 of the steel hulls and about the same number of the dhows. In fact it was about 56 dhows in a very short amount of time.

And that was pretty much it in terms of the shipping. It worked quite well in our favour that it was done really fairly quickly. But the fact was that we had a fairly well orchestrated routine that we had in place. And we had the extra capability to do that. And at the very beginning Darwin co-ordinated that mass break-out and then we went into a more conventional sort of a routine that we're used to. But that was quite good and it cleared the picture for us and then allowed us to then prepare ourselves for the actual commencement of operations.

In terms of the support to the marines on the Al Faw Peninsula, as it all turned out, the Naval gunfire support was fairly critical. What was found was that the landing craft going on to the Al Faw Peninsula were constrained and in fact stopped because the Iraqis had mined the foreshore. And so a lot of the light armour, which was going to go across to support the Royal Marines in the southern part of the Peninsula, weren't available. The weather was fairly difficult, a lot of haze which constrained flying ops. And so the Naval gunfire support from the three Royal Navy ships and Anzac was actually extremely important.

And they used it in a fairly accurate sort of way, and they tended to use the ammunition fairly sparingly in terms of, particularly against observation posts and bunkers and so on. Really just trying to get the - find sufficient grounds to get the Iraqi positions to surrender and then move off further up the Peninsula and then move to another target.

So it was really to try and intimidate the Iraqi positions and get them to move away from their fortified positions.

In terms of the mine layers, one of the issues that we found was just being present in the Waterway, we became aware of differences in the way the Iraqis were moving around. They were a lot more active in the Waterway than what they had been and so we began to develop the suspicion about tugs and barges. The barges that - the barge and the three tugs that we did apprehend at the mouth of the Kha Ab Allah Waterway, they were actually stopped when we were providing protection for that amphibious corridor and the ships were coming down through the night. We stopped them, did a very cursory inspection that didn't unearth anything but then sent Kanimbla's boarding party the next day to have a thorough search because we had developed this sort of suspicion.

And, as you're aware, the mines were hidden in two ways. They were in this barge and the interesting thing with this barge was, because we'd had so much air coverage from our helicopters and our boats going around, they'd developed this system of covert laying so that even the shutes were under the camber if you like of the top of the barge so even from a helicopter you couldn't actually see that the barge was actually laying mines.

So it was a fairly clever sort of approach by the Iraqis and it was something that we'd seen on a number of occasions where a lot of the time the ideas were really quite well thought out. Sometimes the execution didn't match up with the concept.

But here it was a case of one of the petty officers on Kanimbla's boarding party had noticed two things: First off, he'd noticed on this barge that there was like a construction hut that you see at working sites. Going in there you saw a little hole where an electric bit of cable went down inside the barge, and then they unearthed and moved around a lot of the rubbish inside that hut, and then found the trapdoor for where the mines were laid. And then we went through a fairly thorough process then of making sure that the mines were in a safe condition. And eventually that barge was taken to Kuwait Naval Base with the assistance of the Kuwaiti Navy.

So that was quite important. Particularly important is the role of the Kuwait Navy in terms of providing liaison officers to us and, which was very helpful in trying to ascertain, in a very quick order from the captured Iraqis, you know, what were their plans. And they were actually fairly forthcoming in terms of telling us exactly where they were going to lay the mines. And so that was quite helpful in terms of the initial stages of unravelling the Iraqi mine-laying program.

But it's clear that unencumbered they would have put a mine field across where we couldn't have provided the ships for naval gunfire support. It would have added weeks to the actual clearance of the Kha Ab Allah Waterway and delayed quite considerably the Umm Qasr port being opened.

Just got a couple of more shots there, which you probably have seen in other briefings. But the interesting thing with that tug was that, even in day time, we had one of our mine clearance officers up there to have a look and he was just saying, 'Oh,' to the Iraqi fellow, 'what have we got here?' And he said, 'A bomb, a bomb.' And he thought that he was actually talking about the 44-gallon drums - were the bomb until the fellow moved them aside to show how they just covered up the mines.

But all these elaborate things were just really because we'd had so much air coverage, and the fact that we were always operating in there enforcing UN sanctions, they had to go to these covert means to achieve their aim.

Later on in the campaign, we did find some mines where the Iraqis had indicated they would be further up the river near North Wilbur* Island. And these are a couple here. The other thing we found in that same area was one of the suicide boats that we'd been alerted to and, once again, this shows how there's quite a lot of thought here.

Essentially what they've done is they've taken the horns from a luggum* mine, put them on poles, and so that, as this rubber boat would be driven by a suicide bomber towards the ship, they would by contact activate an explosive charge which is in the centre of the zodiac. So that was found at North Wilbur Island. The only one that we did find and our divers put that in the shed at Umm Qasr and it was actually deactivated.

That's all I have at this stage, but I'm quite happy to field any questions.

OFFICIAL: Ladies and gentlemen, we'll take questions on the maritime [indistinct] and general operations.

QUESTION: Mark Forbes from The Age. Captain, with operations now winding down, what precisely do you see to be the role of the Navy in the on-going peacekeeping and occupation operation?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: I think the key thing at the moment is to just provide sea control of the Northern Arabian Gulf. At the moment what's required is first off the riverine patrols have still got to be continued along the Kha Ab Allah waterway to ensure that merchant ships going up and down are safe to do so. Because, as I said, it's a fairly long stretch of coastline so there's that element. The other element is you've got to provide surety to insurers and merchant ship owners that the waterway is clear and patrolled.

The Kuwaiti Navy tend to operate just in their territorial waters, and Iranians tend to do the same. So there's a piece of the international waters and also the Iraqi territorial waters which need some form of patrol, and I anticipate that will go on for some months.

QUESTION: So you'd see both the Kanimbla and the Sydney being there for some months? Quite a few months?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: Yes, I think so, yeah.

QUESTION: Captain, Deng Jian from Radio Free Asia. I understand that there's about 7,000 Iraqi POWs under Coalition custody. In terms of Navy, how do you deal with those captured Iraqi people? Mine layers and Iraqi boats? And what sort of categories are they? Are they POWs?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: For us it's fairly straightforward. We processed, if you like, 40 enemy prisoners of war. Essentially the people who actually captured them were either British or US forces. We used the LCM8s landing craft to take them from the Kha Ab Allah waterway. A couple of them we actually embarked in Kanimbla and just really gave them a medical check and change of clothes and all that sort of thing. But then they and the remainder of that group all just went down the landing craft to the USS Tabook* which was a ship specially configured to deal with EPWs.

So from a technical viewpoint, we actually didn't capture any. From the Australian Navy's side, we just facilitated their transport to a dedicated ship. My understanding there is once there then they work out what status they are and where they come from.

Certainly the group we had transported down, they came from a whole range. Revolutionary Guard, Coastguard, Navy, whole different sorts of organisations.

QUESTION: Don Wilfred* from AAP. Firstly, I understand you're the only Australian, until your replacement took over of course, to actually have been in command of non-Australian forces. Is that actually correct?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: During the war, that's correct, yes.

QUESTION: I was just wondering just how you found the experience of dealing with what was in fact four different national forces within the group?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: I guess for us we were a lot better placed in terms of we'd been there since October operating with the same force. Some of the players had changed. We'd had a few new ships here and there. But essentially we'd had those four Navies and we'd had seven different sorts of boarding teams. You know, we had Special Forces and all that sort of thing, all part of the maritime interception operations. And I guess the key thing for us was that we were sort of building on, if you like, 12 years of commitment to enforcement sanctions. How we approached the clearance of the KAA was building on that sort of expertise.

So whilst certainly there was a bit of a change in tempo, all those networks, all those relationships had sort of been built over a period of months. And so we'd become attuned to the different sensitivities, the different strengths that all the departments brought to bear.

QUESTION: A different sort of question, I understand the Australian landing craft were involved in taking Royal Marines onto the Al Faw Peninsula. Can you give us some description of what that operation was like? And I understand a couple of our blokes became fairly enthusiastic about supporting the Brits?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: Okay. They never took Royal Marines onto the Al Faw. What they did do prior to the commencement of the war is that they took some of the Royal Marines from some of the Royal Navy ships and then took them to prepositioned positions in Kuwait. But even that was a great experience for them In fact the thing with the landing craft, because they were just so versatile, that they went from one task to another fairly rapidly. And they were just quite a good size and they were quite good in terms of being able to let them go off 30 or 40 miles to do a particular task and, you know, they were just extremely well regarded.

QUESTION: Captain, John Kerrin, The Australian. Can you tell us the types of things that you do? Obviously you found at least one suicide zodiac and the Iranian Navy also encountered them. What sort of precautions do you take out there when you know that threat's out there?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: We'd, well I guess for my time there we'd always been very watchful of this suicide boat issue because overarching the maritime interception operations of course was the war against terrorism and al Qaeda. The fact that our ships operate in fairly well disclosed areas, the main area for inspecting ships going in and out of Iraq was a UN holding area which was advertised for ships.

So certainly people knew where our ships were. And it's a fairly constrained piece of waterway. So we had additional force protection measures for ships. They tried to keep their patrol patterns fairly random. And there are other sorts of measures that we put in place to make us a more difficult target. But I guess the finding of that suicide boat was one of these things where it sort of emphasised the importance of this on-going riverine patrol. That was found by the USS Chinook which was one of the US Navy Patrol boats in our group. And they were just doing a routine patrol and it was some days after the commencement of the war and where you would have thought the Al Faw was considered to be secure, but just the whole thing of just keeping 24 hours a day seven days a week, the coverage of that waterway looking for any changes or any developments and they were just fairly alert to seeing any changes along the foreshore there.

QUESTION: Do you know what sort of explosive punch that zodiac would have - would it have blown a hole in the side of a ship?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. So what its purpose was, there were no Iraqi members of their military found this. So what we found was a cache of explosives, small arms. This boat, which was damaged, there were a couple of mines as you just saw within the vicinity. So we've got no detailed plan of what they were attempting to do. We can just sort of surmise that they were obviously trying to hit a ship. Whether it was a Coalition ship or whether it was, you know, one of the humanitarian aid ships we're unsure.

QUESTION: Cynthia Bannan from The Sydney Morning Herald. Captain, the way you've described the operations, it all sounds quite smooth. And I'm wondering if during the war itself you had any really tricky hostile situations when perhaps you feared for your people or your equipment and, if so, what were they?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: We had one day when we had Naval gunfire support going on. We had supporting this amphibious lane. We then found the mines and then with the fog of war trying to unravel what the mine laying plan was, the fact that one of the ships with the mines actually had five vacant slots where five mines could fit. Now, did those five mines - had they been deployed? Did they exist? And so we were very quickly trying to find out from the Iraqis who, you know fortunately for us, once they sort of realised that they were no longer a participant in the war, were fairly forthcoming in just being able to tell us what was going on.

But all these sort of pieces, trying to put them all together and the fact that our ships were potentially in an area which had already been mined, as it turned out they were in clear water but that was probably our most tense sort of period and that sort of went on. That was a long day, that sort of went from 4 o'clock in the morning to 2.30 the following day before all that had sort of been unravelled and settled down and that we knew that we were able to proceed as we had roughly sort of estimated.

Our whole plan was really based on being fairly flexible and delegating to all the various players. To the various frigates and so on. Various discreet tasks because we knew that things wouldn't happen according to Hoyle. There would be changes and that there'd be unexpected developments.

Another unexpected development was the firing of the seersuckers by the Iraqis. Firing those missiles against Kuwait. They were going to the north of us, but that once again was an unexpected development and something that we were trying to work out what's the implications for us operating in an area very close to that.

QUESTION: Mark Phillips from News Limited. I'm not entirely sure what the capability of the Iraqi Navy was, but were you - obviously we found that there was a lot of desertion by the Iraqi Army and the morale was pretty low. In the people that you encountered, what type of willingness was there to actually defend their country? Or was there a sense that basically they were almost quite happy to surrender?

CAPTAIN PETER JONES: It varied a lot. Of course we'd been there for quite some months we talked to a lot of the local merchant ships which plied the trade. A lot of regulars. And so we got a good sort of feel for how things were in Southern Iraq.

Leading up the war, really from January on, what happened was that the Iraqis were placed - people from Northern Iraq into a lot of the key areas. And even the Iraqi patrol boats who we used to see on a weekly basis they had Northern Iraqis put in place of the Southern Iraqis Captain and other senior elements in those ships.

So there was a change and we saw a change in the way they operated. But also just as the war started, for example there was one Iraqi patrol boat which was sunk in the Kha Ab Allah waterway by a US aircraft, which we had three of those warrant officers from that ship come on board. They were three suffering from varying degrees of hypothermia. But they said basically what happened to them was that they were in Umm Qasr. They were alongside. The Revolutionary Guard came along. They took out most of the crew, took them off, put on Revolutionary Guard people with orders to go out and to attack the Coalition ships.

That patrol boat went down the Kha Ab Allah waterway. These three warrant officers jumped over the side because they didn't want to be involved in what was essentially a pretty dangerous sort of mission, and so they eventually eventually just drifted down with the tide and were picked up by a US Coastguard patrol boat, the Adak*.

But I guess what that sort of illustrates was that there was an emphasis to try and attack Coalition shipping but they felt that they needed the Revolutionary Guard guys to actually provide that sort of stiffening of resolve.

OFFICIAL: One final question.

QUESTION: Greg Jennet from the ABC, just one to Brigadier Hannan. The SAS operation that you mentioned, what number of enemy soldiers or civilians, or whoever they were, would have been captured in that episode? And also, on the air drop by the C-130s, would that be the first such resupply by them to Australian SAS?

BRIGADIER MIKE HANNAN: In relation to the surrender at Ramadi*, I'm not sure how many troops remained in that site. I understand that essentially what was remaining was a holding party that was looking after the weapons and equipment and the remainder had gone home. But I don't have details on that. We might have some more on that tomorrow for you.

In relation to the air drops, the C-130s routinely conduct air drops. The air drop overnight was in support of our people, not for the first time that they've taken an air drop, but I think it was the first time for a C-130 air drop to our own people.

As we've said before, the aircraft operate as part of the whole Coalition effort and when you call for a resupply you don't necessarily get an Australian aircraft turn up. But it was an interesting conjunction of location and time that brought it about.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

OFFICIAL: That concludes this morning's brief. Thanks for attending here.

* * End * *

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