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Australian Personnel All Well And Safe In The Middle East: Defence

March 28, 2003

This is the transcript of the Defence Department briefing on Operation Falconer, Australia's commitment to the war against Iraq.

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

Again I am happy to report that all our people engaged in operations in the Middle East have continued their missions over the past 24 hours without significant incident or loss, and they are all well.

Environmental and operational conditions have been improving over the last 24 hours with a few good days expected. There was a media report about Chicken Pox aboard HMAS Kanimbla. I can report that there were 2 cases on Kanimbla and these have been isolated for treatment.

These are considered to be normal medical cases and are not of concern.

The water shortages mentioned today were also routine. Kanimbla has enough water for weeks of operation. Kanimbla would normally make her own water from seawater, but because the quality of the water in KAA is so poor, they are not doing it at the moment.

There is plenty of water to drink, but the showers are short.

Starting with Maritime operations . . .

Our divers continue their vital role in the clearance of mines, obstacles and potential booby traps in the murky waters of Umm Qsar and the port facility. Mine Divers warning was increased over night after the discovery of some explosive charges. This will delay the arrival of the first aid ships by about 24 hours.

Captain Peter Jones, the commander of the coalition naval forces in charge of protecting, searching and processing of all maritime traffic in the northern Persian Gulf, visited Umm Qsar overnight. He reports our divers are making good progress to make the port safe.

Meanwhile our sailors and soldiers embarked on our ships continue with their tasks in the northern Persian Gulf and the Kwar-abd-allah - or K-A-A - waterway.

Our ships Darwin and Anzac continue patrol operations while Kanimbla continues to provide an important command platform for the overall operation.

This operation also includes a fleet of about 20 ridged hulled inflatable boats - or RHIBs - and their crew are from the US, UK and Australia. They are searching the KAA and inspecting all of the shipping remaining in the waterway. Our Army LCM8s are supporting the small RHIBs in this operation.

During these clearance operations yesterday, there were two separate explosions of possible mines in the K-A-A. While these explosions caused no damage or loss of life, they do demonstrate the need for thorough clearance of the waterway.

Turning to Land Operations . . .

Our special forces continue with their job, undertaking vital reconnaissance work deep inside Iraq.

And now to air operations . . .

All our aircraft have continued with flying operations overnight without significant incident. Our FA-18 Hornets have again conducted a Close Air Support mission attacking a designated enemy position.

All crew and aircraft have returned safely to base.

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

QUESTION:

I wanted to ask you just a general question - given all the exposure that the defence force is getting during these weeks of war - whether this has affected your recruitment efforts, and whether you are, sort of adjusting your advertising campaigns, has there been more interest from the public in joining the armed forces, that sort of thing?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Look I can't give you a comprehensive answer to that, I haven't checked on that in some time. I will get some information on that for you and provide it to you offline and then report it back to the next briefing.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Kieran from SKY News. We understand that the FA18 jets have provided, have taken part in bombing raids near Baghdad. Have they experienced any anti-aircraft fire or near misses?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

I'm not aware of any, of any near misses, but certainly they're flying in areas which are dangerous and are subject to anti-aircraft defences.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Greg Turnbull from Channel 10. I know that this is a question that's very much in the air and been directed to others at the moment, but the question of rotation and of just the durability of our personnel out in the field - the SAS for instance. What is the latest thinking on whether they need to, need some R&R or whether they need to be replaced, and if so whether they can be replaced from within the 2,000 ADF personnel in the Middle East or whether more will have to go?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well look, rotation, extension of the force beyond its mandate, rotation of the force, are very much matters for government decision, and there's certainly been no decisions made in that regard. In regards to how the force is travelling at the moment, all of the commanders have reported back - and I've spoken to them all in the last 24 hours - reported back that their troops are travelling well, and that there's no specific concerns at the moment.

Now there are routine rotations of individuals built into our plan and they will take place as a matter of administrative action. And of course as we reported the other day, the ADF has contingency plans for rotation should government choose to make that decision.

Overall we understand the problem, and we've got plans in place to make sure that our people go the distance and we're able to do our job.

QUESTION:

Mark Phillips from News Limited. Could I just clarify what the role of the FA18s was in the raids on Baghdad overnight? Were they actually involved in bombing missions or were they providing defensive support for bombing missions?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Okay. The tasks that were allocated to our FA18s over the last 24 hours included counter defensive air tasks and strike missions.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Dung Gium* from Radio Free Airshow. There are some reports about the Iraqi troops with civilian clothes, attacking coalition troops, and also reports about Iraqi troops trying to seek American and British military uniform, then to attack the Coalition, and to attack the civilians of, in Iraq. And also reports about the Iraqi troops pretending to be civilians, plundering international aid. Do you have any strategy or any tactics to avoid such things happening from, in the future at all?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

I should start by saying that the Australian forces have not experienced any of these incidents to date. What I can say is that the, the role of the military in protecting civilians and ensuring that civilians are not subject to attack during war, is quite clear under the Genera Conventions. And that these actions on behalf of the Iraqis are illegal actions, and that our government would have some determination in ensuring that those responsible were brought to account.

The issue for us though is one of how do we behave in the field - on the battlefield - as these things play themselves out. We've discussed in the past the problem of our rules of engagement and the need to have good rules of engagement well thought through, well translated down into the orders of the troops in the field. But at the end of the day, these are problems which are confronted by the sailors, soldiers and airmen themselves, and they're problems where they need to make decisions about how they cope with those circumstances.

Now all of our forces are well trained and well able to make those kinds of decisions, and have a good reputation for doing so in operations in the past.

But, it makes their life much more difficult if civilians are being used as shields, if hospitals are being used as places of, where battles are being fought - then those decisions become harder and harder for them. But I think we can have some confidence in the level of training and the quality of the orders that our people have.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Paul Hammond* from The Sunday Times. I was, you said that there were no significant incidents to be reported in relation to the Special Forces. Could you elaborate a little bit on that, in terms of you know what they're actually doing and are they still closely, working closely with the British SAS?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well I can report that our SAS work closely as part of the Coalition Special Forces effort. Our SAS have a specialised role of special reconnaissance and they've been conducting that role.

Now the main purpose of that is provide information to Coalition commanders. So they're working behind enemy lines, reporting on installations, and looking for the sort of sites the Coalition commanders are interested in - commander control facilities, obviously anything associated with weapons of mass destruction would be of interest to us, and of course any missile sites or other similar sites would be of interest to us.

In addition to that, they will also carry out direct action against Iraqi forces - where that's appropriate and where the opportunity arises.

QUESTION:

None of ours, no direction action?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well there, we're not reporting any direct action over this, over this period.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, John Kerrin from The Australian. The Defence Study Centre at ANU was suggesting this morning that there's a real potential for this war to turn dirty, if you like, from this point onward. The Iraqis are clearly not playing by the rules - in fact they're breaking them. Individual commanders in the field - you were talking about them making those decisions. I mean is there a very real chance that, you know, you have to match them in the game that they're playing?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well I don't think there's any chance of that at all, to be honest. I think that one of the things that, that we would need to do to effectively win this war is to play by the rules. Failure to do that would be a significant defeat to, to our, to the Coalition position. We've taken a position from the start that we will make every attempt to minimise civilian casualties. That's being done, I think, very diligently, and I'm convinced that it will continue to be so.

But as I said, at the end of the day, after all of the rules are put in place, after all of the orders are issued, there is some soldier, sailor or airman who's making a decision. And the more the Iraqis muddy the water, the more they use civilian shields, the more they place military facilities in important civilian or cultural places, then the more difficult those decisions become for our people. And the more likely it is that occasional mistakes will be made, even by the most genuine and diligent commanders.

QUESTION:

Mark Forbes from The Age, Brigadier. Back to the Hornets. You mentioned that they had been carrying out some strike missions. What sort of targets are they striking? Are they striking missile sites or Republican Guard emplacements?

And also General Cosgrove has said that, you know, difficult or contentious targeting decisions are going to be referred up to the government. Have any of those decisions about these targets that the Hornets are striking gone up to NFC or the Prime Minister to make a final decision on?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

I'll just deal with the second half of the question first - and that is that I'm not aware that any specific target has gone to the government for decision. In terms of the overall policy though, our FA18s operate as part of the whole Coalition effort. When they go on a mission, they don't go on a mission on their own. If it is - it would be unlikely to be an all-Australian effort. They would be supported by specialist aircraft such as refuelers, AWACs aircraft and EW aircraft, to make up a whole Coalition package. And they fly those missions as part of the overall Coalition effort - that is, the targets are brought forward on the air tasking order, and allocated out to Australian aircraft.

Now the issue for us is to make sure that every target that we're allocated in that process, meets our targeting requirements - that is the specific targeting policy agreed by the government - and there is a rigorous process in place to make sure that happens.

QUESTION:

And what are they hitting?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well the targeting policy requires them to, to attack military targets.

QUESTION:

Over the past 24, 48 hours you've said they've done strike missions - against what?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Against military targets.

QUESTION:

Such as?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well, for example, against, against military emplacements, gun positions, anti-aircraft batteries, against armoured vehicles - military targets.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Greg Turnbull from Channel 10. In the last couple of days I think there's been reference to 31 Australian defence personnel working, attached or embedded if you like ...

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Yeah I don't, I don't think that was the number. I think 33 was the number that was issued by Brigadier McNarn. Yeah.

QUESTION:

Right. Is there any update on what they've been doing, and if not, I'm just wondering - as a matter of principle - whether they fact that they're attached to foreign military units puts them beyond the scope of these briefings?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Yeah. In general, in general terms it does because we don't have day to day visibility of what they're, of what they're doing. They cover a whole range of job types - from aircraft mechanics through to pilots, through to Special Forces soldiers and so on.

Each one of those individual personnel is given a specific set of orders to cover their circumstance, and to give them guidance about, about how they react with their host country, and so far we've had no issues or problems arising from that.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Kieran from SKY News again. With the first-aid ships due to arrive in, at some stage later today hopefully. Will there be any Australian role in ...?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

[Laughs]. Right, having ...

QUESTION:

... disseminating.

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

... having cleared the berth that they'll arrive at, I sincerely hope that the clearance divers will be waiting on the wharf to welcome those ships to Iraq, and to be waving an Australian flag there for all to see - because they've certainly played a key role in that.

Certainly I understand there'll be some Australian media there, and I hope that that's, that's gonna be well covered.

QUESTION:

What about the distribution of medical supplies, food and so on?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

No that's not really within the specialisation of our troops - the people we have there at the port facility - obviously the clearance divers - and as we've covered, there's still plenty of work to do, even after the first ships arrive, to get the rest of the port clear.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Dung Gium* from Radio Free Airshow again. Yesterday you were talking about the Australian troops set free a bunch of unarmed Iraqi soldiers. Would it be a possibility to see those soldiers, and many other Iraqi soldiers, to be rearmed in the future so, to attack the Coalition troops? And the other thing is that, is there any way of enforcing the Geneva War Convention if one party is found in breach of the Conventions?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well in dealing with your, the question of the Iraqi soldiers - what actions our troops take in these situations is a matter of judgement. And it's the commanders on the ground that have to make those judgements. And we have absolute confidence that they're making, that they make good judgements on these matters. They're very experienced and mature soldiers, and if they say that their judgement is that this was a good call, then I think that that's a good indication that we should, we should think that that was the right thing to do.

The issue about enforcing the Geneva Conventions - I think that the world community has seen fit, from time to time, to enforce the Conventions after a conflict, and there are now in place, better and more rigorous international law provisions than there have been at any time in the past. And there would certainly be an opportunity for us, at the end of this conflict, to bring those responsible for these kinds of acts, to book.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, you're, you know, clearly a foot soldier - albeit a senior one - in the Coalition's public information campaign. How damaging to that campaign is the sort of vision that we saw last night of Iraqis fighting over scant humanitarian supplies and then turning around and, to the cameras, condemning the American aggression against their nation? I mean that has to hurt doesn't it?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

Well the war is a huge enterprise, and there are many many images that will come out of it. Some of them will be images that are, at first glance, damaging to the Coalition effort. Others will be images that'll be very supporting. I think that there's a little perspective needed. To step back two steps from the immediate battle, and to actually look at the overall events that are taking place, to look at the overall actions of the Coalition, the small number of overall casualties bearing in mind - civilian casualties - bearing in mind the huge onslaught of weapons systems that are being used.

There's, there is a saying, as you say, I did spend my life as a foot soldier, and the infantry have a saying - there are no small wars for an infantryman - and I think the same thing could apply to an embedded journalist. What you see is what's happening 30 or 40 metres around you, if it's perfectly peaceful 100 metres down the road in each direction, you don't see that.

So what you're seeing at the moment is a lot of views of the war that, as though you're looking through a straw. And I think it'll take a little time for those to meld together into an overall picture, and for us to step back and see the, the abroad sweep of what's happening.

So I'd just encourage you to, to keep these things in perspective, to understand that there is some pretty narrow views being shown of very small segments of what is a huge enterprise, and that you need to take a good look at the over, the overall, the overarching sweep of events, to really get a feel for this.

UNIDENTIFIED:

We'll take one more question ladies and gentlemen.

QUESTION:

Brigadier, Paul Hammond at The Sunday Times. We're seeing the US sending more troops over. Wondering if there's been any indication or whether Australia's been asked to send any further troops at all, over - Special Forces or infantry?

BRIGADIER HANNAN:

There's been no, there's been no request to the Australian government. That would very much be a matter for government decision, and there is nothing under consideration at the moment.

UNIDENTIFIED:

Thanks very much ladies and gentlemen. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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