Press "Enter" to skip to content

Operation Falconer: Defence Department Daily Briefing

This is the transcript of the Daily Media Briefing conducted by the Australian Defence Force in Canberra.

The briefing on Australian operations in the Middle East was conducted by Brigadier Mike Hannan and Air Marshal Angus Houston.

  • Listen to the briefing (31m)

Transcript of Defence Force briefing.


Good morning everyone, and good morning to those of you watching this brief at home – welcome again to our regular update on our operations in the Middle East.

Before we start in detail, I would like to clarify two key points from yesterdays brief. Firstly, the HMAS ANZAC did not fire missiles whilst providing gunfire support, as detailed in some media reports. The ANZAC used its main armament, which is a 5″ Gun.

Secondly, I would like to recap yesterday’s story about the aborted FA18 strike mission. Some reporting of the incident would lead you to believe that this was an exceptional event likely to cause friction between coalition partners.

This is not the case. Any coalition pilot would make the same decision in any case where there is insufficient information or support available to positively identify and hit a target. The event was unexceptional and has not caused any friction between coalition partners.

Starting with Maritime operations . . .

We briefed yesterday that HMAS ANZAC had again been in action providing Naval Gunfire Support to British force on the AL FAW peninsular on Saturday night.

I have some further detail of this action that I can now provide to you . . .

  • ANZAC engaged a number of different targets, including enemy bunkers, artillery positions and coastal defensive positions.
  • A total of 46 rounds were fired in the engagements, using the ship’s main armament, its forward mounted 5 inch gun.
  • Reports from the ground indicated all targets were successfully engaged.

So all in all, ANZAC continued her good work from Friday night.

Meanwhile, Captain Jones and his headquarters on-board HMAS KANIMBLA – remains in charge of multinational interception operations in the northern Persian Gulf.

HMAS DARWIN, along with a number of coalition ships from the United States and Great Britain in this task group, are conducting these operations under Captain Jones’ direction..

The Army’s Landing Craft continue support operations in the area.

Turning to Land operations . . .

Our Special Forces continue with their reconnaissance missions deep within Iraq, and I have no new information about significant issues today.

I’d just like to bring you up-to-date on the Special Forces action briefed yesterday.

As you will recall, at yesterday’s brief I provided some limited information relating to an action in which our Special Forces called in an air strike on an enemy installation.

A review of the information now available indicates that the site contained a number of pieces of equipment that could have been used to handle missiles. These included a crane, fuel tanks and buildings.

An air strike was used to destroy this facility.

We have no information about Iraqi personnel in the area and I don’t know of any Iraqi casualties.

There were no Australian casualties and the troopers involved are now continuing with their missions.

And now to air operations . . .

Overnight, our Australian FA-18s led and conducted a strike mission on identified enemy targets in Iraq.

The Hornets worked closely with a number of other coalition aircraft during the successful attack.

Strike missions of this type are usually conducted by a number of aircraft working together as team. In this way they provide a number of different capabilities that when combined allow the strike to be undertaken safely and effectively, minimising the ability of the enemy to interfere with the mission.

During this attack, the Hornets dropped a number of laser-guided 2000-pound bombs onto the target.

Prior to the engagement, the necessary steps required to assess the validity of the target in order to meet our strict Laws of Armed Conflict obligations were performed in an appropriate timeframe.

On completion of the mission, the Hornets returned to base safely.

This was an integrated coalition mission involving a range of aircraft types and capabilities, and was typical of the type of coalition cooperation underway.

Meanwhile, there has been no significant change to the on-going missions being flown by our P3 Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft and C-1-30 Hercules transport aircraft.

Before I finish up for the day . . . I’d like to bring you up to date on our “support for the troops” messages program.

Last Friday I briefed you on the numbers of e-mails and faxes we have been receiving in support of our personnel – and their families – currently deployed in the Middle East.

Since Friday, we have received in a further 2,000 e-mails and faxes –bringing the numbers received over the past six days to around six thousand five hundred – with the vast majority overwhelmingly positive.

I must say for us here in the Australian Defence Force, this has been a quite humbling experience. The messages are from across the entire spectrum of the Australian community and the words are incredibly sincere. This sort of support from the community is one of the most important reasons why we wear the uniform.

Included in these messages have been ones of support to the troops from a number of leaders and groups openly opposed to the war – but emphasising their support for our deployed folk.

I’d just like to share a couple of short examples of these messages with you. . . . .

  • Keep your head high and remember all the support you have from home – from Laurie and Carly in Victoria
  • Be assured your families will be respected and supported during your time away. God speed and safe return – from Sydney

One of the very important aspects of these messages is the level of support they show not only for the deployed men and women, but also their families back home. This is greatly appreciated and on behalf of the Chief of the Defence Force – General Cosgrove – and the whole Defence family, I thank the people of Australia for this very important support.

O-K. That completes this morning’s brief.

Before I take questions, I’d just like to let you know that there will be some new vision of our operations being released through our people at the Coalition Media Centre in Qatar later this afternoon. – At 3.30 our time – so you will need to keep in touch with your people over there.

Brigadier McNarn will be giving an update on Operations then, and he may have a little more clarity on some of these stories.


Good morning. I’m very very pleased with how everything’s going with the Air Force people in the Middle East. Indeed, I think all the Australian Defence Force operations have been going very very well, and it reflects the high quality of our people in theatre.

The focus in Air Force has been very much on the flyers, but I’d also like to bring to your attention the great efforts of our support people. Our maintenance people and our combat support people. Our maintainers have been doing a fantastic job. We’ve had, of the 14 Hornets, on average we have 13 available every day. That’s an availability of over 90%. And our C130 serviceability, we’ve usually been getting three out of three. And our P3s have been also maintaining a very high level of availability and have met all mission requirements.

It’s often on these occasions where those people are forgotten. I’d just like to bring to your attention the fact that it’s a team effort, and without those people providing that vital support we wouldn’t be doing as well as we’ve been doing thus far.

I’d now like to focus a little bit on the operations of each element, and I’ll start first of all with the Hornet people just to give you some sort of idea of how it’s affecting the people who are involved. They’re working in a very demanding environment. It’s a very difficult environment to work in. A lot of sand blowing around. And the generation of those aircraft has been a great achievement, given that environment.

The fighter pilots spend about six to seven hours airborne on each mission. And, of course, with the very essential preparation before the mission and the vital debriefing after the mission, that’s a very very full day. And that’s typical. They probably spend a fair bit of time preparing for the mission the day before as well.

Those missions are conducted, if we’re doing the defensive counter-air mission, they’re conducted with the full support of air-to-air refuelling tankers. Routinely the aircraft refuel three or four times during a sortie, and of course they’re fully supported by other coalition assets.

Essentially, our aircraft have been providing top cover for the vital tanker aircraft airborne early warning aircraft and obviously contributing to the air defence of the coalition bases south of the Iraq border.

We’ve also been conducting the odd strike mission, or the odd strike mission against targets of opportunity. Now, I’d just like to stress what they’re about. We carry a 500-pound laser-guided munition for that. A GBU12. And if a target of opportunity comes up, we could be diverted from the defensive counter-air task to that task.

Obviously the sort of targets that could come up could be surface-to-air missile batteries or some sort of military headquarters or some sort of military leader who might be moving from one place to another. They’re the sorts of targets of opportunity that we might be called to engage.

Now, in regard to the situation that arose yesterday with the aborted mission, I’d just like to clarify that because some of the reporting has been wildly speculative. Essentially what happened, the aircraft were on a defensive counter-air mission. Right at the end of their mission they were called to engage a target. They were required to work with other coalition assets, those other coalition assets did not arrive on time.

And because of a number of environmental and operational considerations, not the least of which was the fact that weather necessitated a fairly long and extended process to acquire the target, the pilot, the leader, decided to abort the sortie.

They then went back to their base and what happened was really quite routine. If everything’s not 100% right we don’t proceed with the task. And as has been stressed many many times over the last few days, we don’t engage targets unless we’re absolutely certain that we can engage them in accordance with the laws of armed conflict. Which means that we have an obligation to avoid damage to non-combatants, damage to civilian infrastructure.

On the strike missions, I think the Brigadier described quite accurately to you how we will operate there. But I’d just like to stress the nature of the way we’ll operate. We’ll operate in teams with other coalition assets, and the whole idea of that is to maximise the effectiveness of the team and to maximise the survivability of all elements of the team.

It’s like a good football team, you have a combination of offensive and defensive assets and you employ them in a way where you get an integrated approach to ensure that you do the job that you’ve been given.

Just turning now to the C130s. The C130s have done an extraordinary job. They provide 2% of the C130s in theatre. They’ve carried 16% of the load. And that really is a remarkable achievement.

Yesterday they were also involved in a routine aero-medical evacuation task, and that’s the sort of thing that they can be called upon to do at any time.

Again, the serviceability of those aircraft has been a highlight, and our maintenance people have done a magnificent job.

The P3s have been operating over the Gulf and they’ve been doing a maritime surveillance task, and that’s often in the dead of night. They operate at all levels, sometimes at very low level. They do that very very effectively. And, of course, they have a very cohesive team on board each of those aircraft with some highly sophisticated sensors that contributes to the situational awareness of the whole naval element that’s out there in the Gulf.

Finally, I’d like to just pay tribute to our families. Our people have got very high morale at the moment, that’s because they’re getting outstanding support from the Air Force families. And I’d just like to take this opportunity, because I know a lot of them will be watching this Press Conference, I’d like to thank them for their support and the way that they’re contributing to Australia’s contribution in this coalition.

I think I’ll leave it at that, and I’m ready to take any questions that you want to put to me.


It’s Mark Forbes from The Age, Air Marshal. I’ve got a question for each of you, but maybe to you first. Are you saying that the aborted mission was not aborted because of concerns about the target or collateral damage, but because of the non-arrival of other forces?

And also, in these difficult decisions involving possible collateral damage, can you explain how far up the chain of command are these decisions referred?


Okay. Well, perhaps if I answer it first by saying that every single mission that we conduct of a strike nature requires a pilot to properly identify the target and to assess the target as being legitimate in terms of the laws of armed conflict. He then takes every measure to ensure that he minimises damage to civilian infrastructure or the risks to the civilian population.

On this particular occasion, there was really, given the weather conditions that prevailed at the time and given the operational circumstances, there was insufficient time to go through that whole process. And what happened was quite unremarkable, because if it isn’t all set up correctly, if the weather is a factor, we will say, ‘Sorry, we can’t do the task.’ And that’s exactly what happened in these circumstances.

There was a number of operational factors that unfortunately I can’t go into with you, but there were five or six factors among which was there was insufficient time to properly assess the target.


And to the Brigadier, we do seem to have a situation again, Brigadier, where there appears to be more information coming out about our Special Forces operations from American sources than yourselves. Over the weekend the New York Times reported that our SAS had been engaged in operations against Iraqi command centres. It said that they’d killed at least 10 Iraqis in one of these engagements, and that they’d attacked these command centres specifically because they were seen as significant in that they could order the use of chemical and biological weapons from these sites and that’s why our SAS were in there. Can you confirm if that’s the case?


I’m afraid I couldn’t comment on the speculation of an American newspaper. The information we give you here in these briefs is factual and is based on the incidents that happened on the ground. Various media outlets will interpret that as they will. Clearly they’re reporting the same information that we’ve provided.


Air Marshal, Kieran Gilbert from Sky News. Are you surprised by the number of accidents in the air that have occurred among coalition forces?


Well, first of all, I’d just like to say that we deeply regret all of those accidents. Any time you have an accident, we’re deeply sympathetic to our coalition colleagues and we’d like to extend our condolences to the families and the Services involved. That’s obviously the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. And we’re very close to both Services.

But unfortunately, with the complexity of the environment, there will be, from time to time, accidents of that nature. Now, in terms of what we do about it, I think the planning process is absolutely a key, and that’s why we’ve got as many people as we have involved in the planning processes.

The other thing is that it’s imperative that all our aircraft are fully equipped with the right form of identification friend and foe equipment. And that we comply with the coalition procedures that are put in place. For example, there might be entry and exit corridors to facilitate aircraft going out and aircraft coming back.

So we do everything we can to minimise the risk, but there is always the possibility of this sort of situation, as we’ve seen in recent years. I mean this is not the first incidence of fratricide: it happens from time to time. And if you go back over the last 15 years, there have been several of those occurrences.


Air Marshal Houston, Jo Ball from Channel Seven. Were our Hornets always to be involved in strike missions? Or has their role changed because of the way the war is panning out? And have they come under enemy fire?


If you go back a couple of months, I was questioned quite extensively by some members of this group about the role of the Hornet. I always said that the Hornet was a multi-role aircraft, a highly flexible aircraft and that it would be employed across the full spectrum of its capabilities.

What we’ve seen here is that it’s been employed in the defensive counter-air initially. We actually have equipment in our Hornet upgrade, 2.1 – the HUG 2.1 aircraft, which is the latest version of the Hornet, which makes it particularly suitable for the defensive counter-air role. It has a combined interrogator transponder which gives it a much better identification friend and foe capability against – well, it can better discriminate against friendlies and foe than perhaps some of the older systems.

So we have really good equipment, state of the art equipment, which actually puts us in a very good position for the defensive counter air task.

But it was always envisaged that as the campaign developed that we would be used in a very flexible way that utilised the Hornet’s multi-role capabilities. And it does, as we’ve seen, it does carry laser guided munitions, either the GBU12 the 500-pound bomb, or the GBU10, the 2,000-pound bomb. And it can be used very effectively against military targets.


Has that come under enemy fire?


In terms of coming under enemy fire, we’ve actually seen – we’ve actually seen some anti-air defences, but we haven’t actually had any near misses or anything like that. But the guys have been out there and they’ve actually seen anti-aircraft artillery. And I don’t think they’ve seen any missiles, at this stage.


Brigadier, Paul Sterrick [phonetic] from The Advertiser. What information do you have about the extent of the casualties, both coalition or American and British and also Iraqi?


Well, we tend to – we try to keep these briefings restricted to the Australians. And, as I said this morning, all our people are well and accounted for and we’re very pleased about that.

The reporting on other casualties is a matter that we won’t report here. We’d rather to defer to the other coalition briefings that are taking place.


Brigadier, Jason Consuvis [phonetic] from The Age. If I could just draw you back to that New York Times report, I mean it’s clearly more than speculation. I mean, is it true or not? And, secondly, just in terms of the friendly fire casualties that the US and British forces seemed to have sustained, what sort of precautions can the Australian Defence Force take against actions like that happening? Is there any danger of that happening to our forces?


Okay, just dealing with the SAS matter first. The incident is as it was reported by us. That is, the SAS came across a facility, which was a communications facility. They involved themselves in a firefight with the people who were there. There were Iraqis killed. They then destroyed the facility and moved on.

Now, the purpose that that facility was used for is a matter of speculation. And, as you know, we never report on the body count from battles. We don’t think it’s helpful because it’s not particularly useful in determining the success or otherwise of a mission.

So that’s information that wasn’t reported from us and we would not be reporting that information.


In terms of the second part of your question in relation to avoiding fratricide, I presume you want to sort of explore it in terms of the air environment? Well as I said earlier on, it’s imperative that we comply very rigorously with all of the coalition procedures particularly those relating to the use of IFF equipment, identification friend or foe. That really is the best protection that you’ve got. Other than that, there’s not a lot you can do.

And when you consider the number of sorties that are being flown, the number of aircraft that are airborne over the area at any given time, those systems usually work quite well.


Peter O’Connor from the Associated Press. My question is to either of you. We hear a lot about negotiations between the US or the Coalition and members of the Iraqi military over surrender and that sort of thing. I was wondering are any Australian officers involved in those negotiations and are you able to comment on them?

And just a second question while I’ve got the mike, have any of the SAS reconnaissance teams yet reported on or seen any refugee flows coming out of any of the towns or cities in Iraq?


You can take the second one. I’ll take…

Yes, I think in regard to your first question, I don’t think I can comment on that. I’m not aware of how those negotiations, if there are any negotiations, are being conducted. So I would be unable to comment. I’m sorry, I can’t help you.


We don’t have any specific reports of undue refugee flows moving from those areas. In fact in some areas of the country there’s, as has been reported in the open media, a great deal of calm.


Sorry, are you able to comment on whether any of our officers are involved in negotiations with members of the Iraqi military?


No, we’re not able to comment on that.


Rob McGurk* from AAP. I’ve got one for both of you as well. I’ll start with the Air Marshal. Have any of the Hornet strikes been directed at Baghdad and has the burning trenches that we’ve heard about affected targeting at all?

And Brigadier, you said our troops, personnel were safe and well. If you could elaborate on safe, and whether the SAS – have any SAS groups been involved in multiple contacts, specific groups?


Well first of all, we haven’t been anywhere near Baghdad at this point. We’ve been deep into Iraq but not to Baghdad. And as a consequence, we haven’t actually been affected by those fires that are burning around Baghdad.


Are you aware if they’re having any effect on the coalition targets?


Well, not at this point, no. I think that what we’ve got at the moment, everything is continuing to go according to plan.

Brigadier, Mike. Sorry, are you going to answer…?


I’ll just finish this answer. I guess ‘safe’ is a relative word. In this case, our people are proceeding with their missions and there are no undue difficulties with those missions that would place them at extra risk or danger.

The second part of the question was…?


Were there any individual units…


Oh, had been involved in with them on contact. I don’t know the answer to the question and I’m not sure that we’ll have that level of detail until much later when the forces are actually back where they can be fully debriefed and we can get to that level in terms of the detail.

I assume that you’re talking about individuals?


Well I understand the SAS role is to be, not be seen, [indistinct] secretly once they’ve been in contact, obviously their locality is known, I would imagine that they’ve jeopardised their safety.


Yep, and that is correct. But of course the SAS have tactics and techniques which allow them to melt away again and to carry on with their mission in a secret manner. And that certainly occurred. As to the level to which any particular element of the force had been engaged, I think that’s detail that will come out much later.


Brigadier, Mike Secombe from the Sydney Morning Herald. On the subject of fratricide, we’ve seen one unfortunate instance of a US soldier apparently turning on his own people and the indications are that it’s because of some Islamist sentiment on his part. Have the Australian forces taken any steps to ensure that there’s no such sentiment hidden anywhere within our troops over there?


Yeah, I think we have taken quite a lot of precautions, and those precautions start with the earliest training of our troops. I think the one thing that sets our small, professional forces apart is that we have very high standards of professionalism and very high standards of training and competence.

As for the political motivations of individuals, all of our people have their own views and approaches, but we’re extremely confident of their cohesion and their levels of training, discipline and capacity to get on and do the job regardless of their own personal views.


Michelle Grattan of The Age, just on the SAS, can you tell us, given that they are deep inside the country, what – is there any provision then for moving them back or, once engaged, do they sort of have to stay engaged for the duration? And what sort of consequences does that have?


Well obviously we maintain considerable flexibility in how we employ these troops. The aim with them is that remain secret, to the extent possible, and that secrecy allows them, allows us some flexibility to deploy them or redeploy them as required.

They have missions to carry out and they’ll be pressing forward with those until they’re complete. Beyond that, there may be other tasks for them and that would require some redeployment. But all of that is speculation about the future.


Last question thanks, ladies and gentlemen.


Mark Phillips from News Limited. Air Marshal, you can probably answer this one best. Just the F- 18 strike mission that was referred to. Can you tell us anything more about the target, whether it’s envisaged that Australia will be leading further missions or are we generally going to be in a support role? And what is the size of a combat or a strike team in that type of mission? How many Australian planes are involved?

And just secondly, just on the aborted mission, you referred to the weather. Was that a dust storm or what type of weather conditions caused, partly caused that to be aborted?


That’s a fairly detailed question. But in terms of all the targets that the F-18 have engaged thus far, they’ve all been military targets, very strictly military targets. And I can’t really go into it any more than that, but classical, military targets, okay?

In terms of the number of – well first of all, we will be leading some of these teams that conduct these strikes. Indeed, the Brigadier referred to one a short time ago.

In terms of the number of aircraft involved in a strike team, well it depends on the circumstances that prevail at the time. But you obviously have a certain number of aircraft that will deliver the weapons and then you have a number of other aircraft that provide supporting capabilities, both in terms of electronic support and obviously suppression of enemy air defences. They’re the sorts of capabilities that would be in the package.


Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. That concludes this morning’s brief.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024