Press conference with Chief of Joint Operations Vice Admiral David Johnston, who gives an update of Australian operations in Iraq

12 February 2015 | Transcript

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Ladies and gentlemen, are you all ready to go? For those of you who haven’t been to one of the operational updates, my name is Vice Admiral David Johnston. I am the Chief of Joint Operations. What I will do this morning is give you an update on operational activities in the Middle East region that covers what we have been doing for the last few months. In this time, we have seen Daesh continue to commit a number of atrocities, particularly actions against innocent civilians encompassing enslavement, the rape of women, mass executions, including against their own fighters who have tried to leave them and barbaric acts such as the immolation of the Jordanian pilot that we saw last week.

The Coalition strategy to counter Daesh consist of nine focal areas: supporting effective governance in Iraq; denying Daesh safe havens; building partner capacity, enhancing intelligence collection on Daesh, disrupting their finances, exposing their true nature, disrupting the flow of foreign fighters, protecting our national homelands, and humanitarian support. And that strategy encompasses both military objectives which we contribute to, but also the civilian efforts to counter them.

On the military side, in general terms, the advance of Daesh has been halted in Iraq. The Coalition has launched more than 2000 air strikes in Iraq and Syria since our operations commenced in August of 2014. The Coalition continues to strike at Daesh’s command and control, their supply lines, fighters and leaders, buildings and equipment, and their revenue raising sources. It is too early to talk about success but there are increasingly positive indications.

Daesh is on the defensive and trying to hold their territory that they have controlled. Their forces are suffering significant casualties, and are sending raw recruits into the battle front. Iraqi and Kurdish forces are estimated to have reclaimed approximately 700 square kilometres of previously Daesh-controlled Iraqi territory, while a reported 8,000 Daesh fighters have been killed in operations. It’s estimated that Daesh have available forces of between 20,000 to 31,500 fighters, including about 3,400 foreign fighters from the West. The international community’s efforts in stemming the flow of foreign fighters to the Middle East remains a key focus.

The Daesh campaign to take the Syrian border town of Kobani has failed, costing them countless lives, material, and delivering a significant psychological blow. Following the execution of the Jordanian pilot last week, the Jordanian Air Force has launched more than 50 strike missions against Daesh targets in Syria. In the north and west of Iraq, Daesh forces have continued to face focused assaults form Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, and intensive attacks from Coalition air forces. Coalition operations are focused around a number of key areas. In Anbar the security situation remains contested, with Iraqi Security Forces, with the support of Sunni tribes, currently fighting for control of the province’s largest city Ramadi. Daesh maintains control of Fallujah and ISF continues to contest the approaches to that city.

The Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River remains under Iraqi Government control and the Daesh threat to capture that strategic infrastructure has diminished. Despite repeated counter attacks by Daesh, the Iraqi Security Forces continue to hold the important Baiji oil refinery to the north of Baghdad. In the past couple of days, the Iraqi Army has cleared through to the oil refinery, encountering a large number of improvised explosive devices during the clearance operation, which was ended 48 days of isolation for the Iraqi forces in that area. This cost Daesh dearly with dozens of fighters killed, and the loss of considerable amount of equipment. Australian strike aircraft have provided valuable close-air support to the Iraqi forces in the vicinity of the oil refinery.

Peshmerga forces operating to the north have gained control of the Kisik Junction, which is on a main transport route between Mosul and Syria, which is denying Daesh access to what has been a major supply route for them between Syria and Mosul. Shaping operations involving air strike operations in the vicinity of Mosul are supporting efforts for future Iraqi Security Force operations.

The signs of rolling back Daesh-controlled territory look promising, but we need to be prepared for setbacks. Daesh is a determined and brutal force who care little for civilian casualties and are increasingly resorting to using suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. The Coalition air campaign has disrupted and degraded Daesh and has helped the Iraqi Security Forces gain time and space needed to mount a determined counter offensive. Coalition forces are using this time to train the Iraqi Security Forces to further improve their combat skills.

In developing the Iraqi Security Force’s military competencies, the Coalition, led by the United States, has developed a number of training sites. For operational security reasons I’ll not discuss precisely where Australian Special Forces are working, but the troops of the special operations task group have been working with Iraqi Security Forces both within the Baghdad area and outside of Baghdad within an Iraqi Army operating base.

Our forces are providing specialist support to Iraqi operations planning, and conducting training of them. Training has included 46 students trained in combat casualty care, 220 Iraqi Security Force personnel have received explosive hazards awareness training, and additional training has provided to about 600 students in urban combat skills. This training is bringing the capability of the counter-terrorism service to a level where they have improved confidence in their own combat capabilities, which is a key to their willingness to fight.

Within the counter-terrorism service there’s a cell that is training military working dogs. A Special Operations Task Group dog handler has been working with the specialist tactical unit, an Iraqi unit, and their K9 team to train and grow the number of dogs that can identify explosive devices and neutralise threats in a non-lethal manner. This capability has quickly expanded, and will soon add to the ability of the Iraqi forces to safely engage threats in close quarters, while also identifying improvised explosive devices.

In support of Iraqi ground operations our advise and assist personnel have co-ordinated the provision of Coalition air strikes to support ground offensive activities. We’ve today released imagery of the special operations task group training the counter-terrorism service on to the Defence imagery gallery which is available for your use. You will see that we have sanitised the identities of our soldiers. For air operations since the last operations update, Australian aircraft have continued to conduct regular air strikes against Daesh targets in Iraq, in support of Iraqi ground operations. The Australian rate of effort has contributed to about 13 per cent of the total Coalition air strikes. In January, our Air Force deployed 53 laser-guided and GPS-guided bombs, while the tempo in December was slightly higher with 61 500-pound bombs deployed.

Sixty per cent of the strike operations are being conducted in the north predominantly around Mosul and Sinjar areas, and Baiji and Salahuddin province. The remaining air strikes are being conducted in central Iraq near Ramadi, Fallujah, Al Asad and Rawah. Ninety per cent of the air strikes target Daesh fighters, with the remaining strikes focused on Daesh leadership and logistics. Since air operations commenced in September – that’s Australian air operations – more than 2,200 hours have been flown by our Super Hornets, 815 hours flown by the E-7 Wedgetail, the airborne early warning and aircraft, and more than 1100 hours by the KC-30 air-to-air refueler. The KC-30 has dispensed fuel to of course Australian aircraft but also aircraft from the United States, United Kingdom, France and Canada. New imagery of air-to-air refuelling operation s is also available on the defence gallery.

As an example of how our people are contributing at a very local level, we have a four-person combat support element currently assigned to the US Air Force defence fuel installation where two people in our team have received recognition from their American counterparts for their tireless work, delivering in excess of 8 million litres of fuel in one month alone. That’s enough fuel pumped per person for 600 Super Hornet aircraft. They’re working pretty hard. The Wedgetail crew in our AEW&C aircraft also made history recently with a record 16 hour, 18 minute mission in performing their command and control right. That mission required two air-to-air refuelling activities by that aircraft to remain on station for that long.

The first rotation of people for the Air Task Group is now mostly complete with the return to Australia of about 200 Air Force personnel, after almost four months of operations. There’s also been a change in command for the Air Task Group with Air Commodore Steve Roberton having returned after a very successful command period and handing over to Air Commodore Glen Braz.

 Our other operations in the Middle East region which I’ll mention briefly; HMAS Success has arrived and is now the Navy’s contribution, working with the Combined Maritime Forces and the US 7th Fleet. Success, which is a tanker, has been providing logistic support to operations of the CMF Forces, but also conducting boarding operations against counter narcotics in her own right, and the ship is doing very well.

In Afghanistan, our Operation SLIPPER is now Operation HIGHROAD with the transition from the NATO mission now to the resolute support mission. We continue to provide personnel, about 400 people, to the train, advise, and assist mission. Recently we commenced delivery of a counter improvised explosive device which was designed and developed in Australia and is now being delivered to the Afghan National Security Forces, providing a light, robust counter IED force protection capability that enables them to better protect their own personnel.

It has been a busy period for us over the last few months. Deployed Australian forces across our Middle East area, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East where we conduct our supporting operations, and into Iraq have been very successful in the activities that they’ve been performing. I am happy to take questions from you.

QUESTION:                           

Julie Bishop said yesterday that she fears the spread of IS into Afghanistan. Do you have any thoughts on that, whether that is a likelihood or can Australia contribute to trying to stop that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have seen reporting suggesting that there are pockets of IS now starting to gain some influence. But there is a range of views. Some of the views suggest that the approach by some of the insurgency inside Afghanistan is not compatible with Daesh’s view. Much of the insurgency has always had a very local view in Afghanistan and that’s been their focus and have been less influenced by a more global jihadi campaign. So, it’s not certain yet. There are small potential pockets of it. Nothing on a large scale but we are aware of that influence and in our train and advise role and our work with the Afghan National Security Forces, that’s part of the mindset and the intelligence that we bring to their own activities.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral there’s been – President Obama, you would have followed the announcement, is looking at a more active role for American Special Forces. Is that likely to have any impact at all on the role that we play? Are we likely to send additional personnel or would the personnel who are there change their role from restricted advisory role to something more proactive?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’ve seen some reporting. I think that the President’s approach to his own houses was only made last night. But there is no intention, neither to my understanding on the Iraqi Government’s side, in transitioning to a more combat-oriented role by any of the Coalition forces and certainly our own focus remains very firmly in the training function from those forces that are inside Iraq, and the continuing with the air combat role for our Air Task Group outside of Iraq.

QUESTION:                           

President Obama I think did say he’s authorisation for American Special Forces to start actively targeting IS leadership on the ground. This is my understanding, and that’s what the reporting said. I mean does that not – that signals quite a change in what people might call creep, isn’t it?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It depends on what it means. At the moment we are providing intelligence support like other Coalition nations where we can around the Daesh senior leadership which means that could become an eligible target for the air campaign. Our own people are involved and I’ve mentioned what we called joint terminal air controllers. So we are providing support that integrates Coalition air into the Iraqi ground offensive activities. So if he’s referring to those authorities in part which we are performing now that are enabling us to bring Coalition capabilities to assist Iraqi forces in a manner that takes our offensive capabilities from the air, and integrate it into the efforts they’re performing. So some of those tasks we are conducting now.

QUESTION:                           

There’s no immediate prospect of independent ground operations by Special Forces too?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Absolutely none. No.

QUESTION:                           

Do we have the status of forces agreement with Iraq yet?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have an agreement with the Iraqis that have enabled our people to go in there.

QUESTION:                           

So no official status of forces agreement.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Many of you would be aware the Iraqis are sensitive to any commentary about the nature of it. What I would say to you is we are satisfied that we have the necessary protections for our people, to enable them to operate safely in Iraq.

QUESTION:                           

Okay, are our soldiers on diplomatic passports?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I can’t go into the details and the nature of it.

QUESTION:                           

It’s not an OPSEC matter surely?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s not an OPSEC matter, except for the fact that the Iraqi Government has asked us not to talk about it.

QUESTION:                           

So, our soldiers are on diplomatic passports? Because if they weren’t, you’d say no they’re not.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I would say I can’t reveal the nature of it, but we are satisfied with the protections we have in place.

QUESTION:                           

Are there any assessments being made as to whether Australia’s role in Iraq is inflaming the recruitment of foreign fighter and indeed inflaming potential lone wolf terrorists in Australia?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

There are many views and I’m sure you have seen them. Some suggesting that may be the case, others indicating that the ideology that is being exported by Daesh from Iraq and Syria is prevalent, regardless of whether countries have forces that are combating them at the moment. We have seen that ideology being exported, we’re aware that increasingly they have the ability with equipment, whether it’s explosive devices, that they are providing details on, for people to pick up and conduct attacks around the world. So I think, regardless of whether countries have forces there, that ideology and the means to enact it is being exported from Iraq.

What we’re able to do, through our contribution, is to go to the source through our air strike capabilities and to have an impact on the factories that are producing these equipment, the leadership, where it’s possible, in order to blunt their effectiveness and their ability to export it.

QUESTION:                           

In the short to medium term what is the likelihood of further territorial retreat by the ISIL forces?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think the prospects are good. You may have seen General Allen was recently – made some comments that the counter offensive, which would be the move that would take the Iraqi Security Forces back up towards Mosul, would start within weeks. Now I think what that means is that they’re preparing for the operations that would support it rather than potentially a large force starting to move in the highway between Baghdad and Mosul. But we expect increasingly the momentum shift that we have seen and there are areas where it goes both ways but the general momentum is that the territory under control of Daesh is reducing.

QUESTION:                           

Are you aware of any other Australian or ISIS fighters that have been killed by Australian air strikes?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not that I am not aware of, no.

QUESTION:                           

There was legislation passed last year about ASIS providing intelligence to the ADF in supportive military operations. Has that specifically without going to into the operational detail, has that specifically helped you target operations since that’s passed?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s worth just explaining the nature of targeting operations. So we contribute our aircraft into a pool effect and all information from all sources from each of the international contributors from what is produced by the Iraqis themselves is consolidated from which a prioritised targeting list is developed. And we then apply our effort down that list with other Coalition nations. So we don’t so much contribute intelligence for our own aircraft to be conducting strikes it’s a more joined up effect of that and we contribute aircraft to the broader effect that’s being generated on a priority basis.

QUESTION:                           

Would you know how many people roughly have been killed by the Australian forces since the start of operations?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I couldn’t give you a precise figure it but we have certainly our strike operations have resulted in the deaths of Daesh fighters but that metric of the number of people we killed is not one that we think has particular value to it. I think monitoring the territory and the effectiveness of Daesh is an important measure of how well they are performing or the work of the Iraqi Security Forces are performing but the metric of the number of fighters killed by ourselves or for that matter by the Coalition is not a measure of success that we…

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct]… the metric on the number of the leadership killed would be of great deal of interest to the military. You have suggested that 10 per cent of the air strikes carried out by the Australians were aimed at Daesh leadership. What do you know about the success of those strikes and whether they have killed key Daesh figures?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The Coalition air has been successful in killing a number of significant Daesh leadership group but equally and that is important because it causes a loss of momentum and a disruption in their own command and control but they are adept at reorganising and reallocating responsibility. So it does blunt them, it is important but it is not terminal in terms of their effectiveness.

QUESTION:                           

What about specifically the Australian strikes – the 10 per cent of Australian strikes you referred to that were targeted against Daesh leadership? Do you know whether they were successful and how do you know and how successful were they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Our ability to measure precisely the impact of it is limited because we don’t have people on the ground who can gather evidence of that nature. While our strikes have involved some of the leadership capability, to my knowledge it is not the most significant leadership group out of Daesh but it’s been more at the mid-tier level.

QUESTION:                           

Are you aware of any civilian deaths?

QUESTION:                           

Can you give us an indication of whether it’s tens, hundreds, thousands of Australian strikes?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, I can’t it’s certainly more than the tens. It would be – and I’d be somewhere over the full range of strikes we have been conducted since October I would expect it’s probably in the hundreds.

QUESTION:                           

Are you aware of any civilian deaths from Australian air strikes?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, we’re not. We remain very careful there. We brief in part before our targeting processes are very calibrated right from the planning through to the execution by the aircraft and very pleasingly we have worked very hard at it and been very successful at it.

QUESTION:                           

As you’re aware the Canadians have indicated their assisting the Peshmerga in the north. Are we doing the same thing?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Assisting the Peshmerga? No our efforts are around the Iraqi Security Forces themselves.

QUESTION:                           

You’ve indicated that we are serving and as opposed to the air force the on the ground assistance has been based and I would say Area 4 in the international airport compound and you said – sorry – have we been outside Iraqi bases with the Iraqi military?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have operating outside of Baghdad from an Iraqi base.

QUESTION:                           

In the Iraqi base.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

So effectively our role is training?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is, yes.

QUESTION:                           

Did you say whether that’s in [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I can’t say that. Only because I don’t want to reveal. There are a number of training sites that have been established. There’s not that many of them but you could draw conclusions pretty quickly.

QUESTION:                           

So have we, Vice Admiral, been operating outside the wire at all?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have not been operating outside the wire, no.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] You mentioned earlier that there had been a reduction in the number of experienced IS Daesh fighters. Can you give us a little more texture on what that has actually done to the nature of the campaign and, if Iraqi troops are now consolidating in the area around Mosul, how would you see that campaign actually working out? Well there is obviously a very large civilian operation there, so air power would be – would have limited effect. Would we continue to use air power to isolate the city, perhaps? Is that effective?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It would I think – Mosul will be a very difficult campaign, partly because Daesh have had a long time to prepare for it. They know it’s an objective of the Iraqi Security Forces. The nature of contribution by air is likely to be in isolating it so it can’t be resupplied, you can’t get ammunition, equipment, further fighters in there so the air campaign will contribute that but in the end it will have to be won on the ground and that will be a slow and complex process to achieve.

QUESTION:                           

Is it achievable?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is achievable. I think that there will be a number of elements to it, potentially from inside Mosul as much as outside Mosul and how that may come together but it won’t be an easy win.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] What is the current estimate on a timeframe for a ground offensive against Mosul?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is not clear. I think partly because it is not just the development of Iraqi Security Forces’ military capability. We’ve learnt from long experience that if you are to be successful once you recapture a town or an area you have to be able to hold it. You need to be able to bring all the government services to that. So in bringing together the effect that would enable Mosul and other areas to be secured, the military component is one but Iraq being able to provide all the supporting services is another element of it and they need to come together that will take them some time to still develop.

QUESTION:                           

You mentioned counter-narcotics; HMAS Success is in the area now. Is IS using drugs to finance this war and how much of a concern is that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I am not so aware of Daesh using drugs, partly because of where they’re based but I couldn’t discount it. What we are seeing them use is, they’re continuing to smuggle particularly oil when they can. Extortion is a large part of how they will draw money from the communities that they’re with. We know they gained access to significant money when they capture ISIL and some of the territory that they have. But that’s why starting to choke their ability to continue to finance them is important and where the various efforts by the global community in constraining their ability. Whether it’s from targeting – as we have done- targeting some of the mobile oil generation capabilities to stopping the flow of finances and money, all of it contributes to the outcome we need.

QUESTION:                           

What about the weaponry? Where are they getting the weapons and how can that be cut off?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Movement either from Syria into Iraq but equally when they have captured previously Iraqi army bases they have taken the weapons that are available to them there.

QUESTION:                           

Thanks very much for this. It’s not the military’s fault that we’ve got Canadian outside the wire assisting with Special Forces and actually in combat there. We have got American troops outside the wire. Why aren’t our troops actually outside embedded with ISOF, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I am not sure so much that I would characterise them outside the wire. In terms of you refer to the Canadians which acted in self-defence. We could find ourselves very much in the same circumstance. So we are operating from Iraqi bases, similar in part to the other advise and assist. If those bases come under attack as they had in those circumstances, we have the right to defend ourselves. The nature of the actions by both the Americans and the Canadians is in a self-defence capability from the locations in which they’ve been working.

QUESTION:                           

But they’re actually outside the Iraqi bases. They’re embedded with the Iraqi forces whereas our troops aren’t. Why – It’s I presume a political issue that our politicians haven’t been able to engage with the Iraqi military.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Nick, I don’t think that’s accurate. So the Canadians are working in the north with the Peshmerga, the expectations with the Kurdish forces are very different to the view that the Iraqi Security Forces have about where Coalition forces would operate so the circumstances are quite different between the two.

QUESTION:                           

Can you give a timeframe on when Daesh might be thrown out of Iraq? Are you talking years, are you talking, what sort of time are you talking?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That is a difficult question obviously to answer. But there’s a number of experts starting to comment, particularly on the US side, that it’s years is the timeframe in order to achieve the outcomes, not only what needs to be achieved is regaining the sovereignty of Iraq over its territory but also in securing its borders, that is a significant task.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral, you don’t disagree with their assessment that we are looking at years?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think that to achieve it there’s two separate questions in part there. To achieve the outcome is likely to be years. The length of the Australian contribution to it, well that’s a question for government.

QUESTION:                           

But you did I mean yourself say that a win on the ground in Mosul will be slow and complex to achieve. Fair to say you don’t see any end in sight to Australia’s mission there at this stage?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That is a government decision. So there will be decision points for us on how long we may continue to contribute, how long the Iraqi Security Forces need us in the capacity that we have, those decisions will be made by government in time.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral, you mentioned the number of air strikes that Australia has carried out. In terms of the proportion of air activity, where does that put us? Are we close to the Americans are they doing most of it or..?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The Americans are working of course both in Syria and Iraq. Our operations by air are limited to Iraq. But we are about on par in terms of the number of strike aircraft compared to the strike missions performed. We are about on par with most of the nations that have got air capabilities there. What I would add is that because of the capabilities of our aircraft we are often the platform of choice for some of the more complex activities, particularly where there is a higher risk envelope associated with them, our aircraft and air crews are very capable in those environments so at times we get some of the more complex activities because of our ability to deal well with those circumstances.

QUESTION:                           

I’m going to just clarify, sorry, what you were saying before about Special Forces and targeting ISIL leadership. Is it not your understanding that President Obama’s authorisation referring to US Special Forces independently targeting the ISIL leadership?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I haven’t seen what he’s announced. But if I can talk to our Special Forces we are not independently targeting ISIL leadership.

QUESTION:                           

Based on everything you know and quite apart from what happened last night, do you have an understanding either way of whether the Americans are actually planning to start doing that with their Special Forces?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Everything that I have seen indicates that the Americans will not be performing a combat role.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral you mentioned some of the more complex operations are coming our way. Is that because we have a fairly comprehensive self- contained group with the basically the control aircraft refuelling and the Super Hornets? And could you give us again a little more texture just an idea of what sort of operations might be coming our way that are considered complex?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is in part because we are very integrated. So because we have our air-to-air refueler and the AWNC, not all of which may operate in the same location or be airborne at the same time. So our flexibility is greater than that. But the training levels in our aircraft particularly mean in those circumstances where there may be an area where there’s a risk of civilian casualties, our ability to target accurately to bring the full effects together right from the planning activities we perform in a mission preparation through to the capability of the aircraft means that in some of the more difficult circumstances, both at night and in the location where some of the targets are, but we are a very good choice for those operations.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct question].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We are very accurate. The Coalition air has some fantastic nations with a lot of capabilities in it. But we have proved to be very good and we continue to be used often in those circumstances

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] the hit rate was something like 100 per cent at one point. Is it still that high?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have been – no civilian casualties to our knowledge, our proportion of our ability to strike the targets that are allocated to us is very good. There’s rarely 100 per cent in anything but we have been very satisfied with the performance both of the full aircraft system and of course that is from weapons all the way through to targeting capabilities in the aircraft it has performed very well.

QUESTION:                           

Just in regards to the first rotation has nearly finished at 200. Just to clarify, does that mean there is another rotation of 200. Is that the same figure, that’s the second rotation, it’s now back [indistinct]…?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes. So we’re maintaining the status quo in terms of numbers there.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] in previous briefings you’ve talked about specific targets that have been hit by Aussie air strikes. Over December and January, were there any of particular note that were destroyed?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

None that I think in the past I talked about particularly, where we had led some Coalition operations. Some of that work around Baji had been particularly important and we’ve continued to conduct air strike activity there and in the Western Anbar province. I don’t – there are none that stand out to me as being particularly noteworthy, but at the next operational briefing, I’ll be happy – we might do a roll up of some of those activities, and we can present some vignettes to you that might give you a little more colour around the types of activities that we’ve been performing.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] around Mount Sinjar?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They have had them through, but up north of Mosul in through the Sinjar area. So we have operated well to the north and well out to the west.

QUESTION:                           

But no hope for a Syria trip in your…?

QUESTION:                           

In your introduction, sorry, you I think you gave the figures of 8000 killed in operations of the ISIL fighters and currently an estimate of 20,000 to 31,500. That’s across Iraq and Syria?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes, correct.

QUESTION:                           

And do they have more or fewer fighters now, do you believe, than when this campaign started?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s really difficult to judge, partly because the ability to track the movements into both Syria and Iraq is not quite quantifiable, but what I think is important is that by continuing to lose experienced fighters, while they may have new fighters coming in, they don’t have the experience or the background that those who have been fighting both in Syria for many years and in Iraq have. So what you see is a diminution of capability. While the numbers may remain about what they are, the experience levels continue to drop and their effectiveness drops with that. That makes them more vulnerable.

QUESTION:                           

Would you colloquialise that as they are losing and we are winning?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not yet. So I – it’s an important element that continues to diminish them, but I wouldn’t use that as a measure to say that the momentum has changed on its own right based on that.

QUESTION:                           

Are the number of foreign fighters dropping? Has there been a successful co-operation across the world to stop qualified foreign fighters getting into these areas?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t think we know yet. The numbers of foreign fighters moving in do appear to be continuing. Reports that that’s levelled out or there may be additional foreign fighters coming in there, that – it isn’t clear just how many foreign fighters continue to move, mainly because tracking people through the border regions is, as I said, very difficult to the form.

QUESTION:                           

Are the capabilities that our military working dogs and the units that support them have unique in any way or are they fairly shared among Coalition partners?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They are shared. We have been very successful with our use of military working dogs in the past, our training of them is very good, so their ability to apply a non-lethal capability – but particularly important, to find improvised explosive devices – has saved our lives in the past, and the work that we are doing will help us save Iraqi Security Force lives as well.

QUESTION:                           

And what are you seeing in trends with the use of IEDs? I mean, you mentioned them very briefly, but what have you seen in the last month or two in terms of trend?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Increasing use of them. So that’s – because of the switch, in part because Daesh isn’t able to amass force. Its freedom of movement is restricted now, so it is moving to what we would call that asymmetric approach to its operations, and increasingly, the use of improvised explosive devices is part of that. They do have the ability to generate significant quantities of IEDs in factories, we believe, in Syria and potentially some in Iraq as well. So they’re turning to that in the absence of other options in order to try to slow the momentum shift to the Iraqi Security Forces.

QUESTION:                           

And what does that mean for the risk that our soldiers are facing, along with the increasing use of suicide bombers that you mentioned? What is that risk for [indistinct]…?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

For Australians? Because we’re inside the wire, the risks are quite manageable for us. Now, we’ve made sure our people are well prepared for coping with an IED – IEDs in the areas that we’re operating, but it’s quite fundamentally different, particularly to our operations in Iraq, where the potential for us – sorry, in Afghanistan, where our potential – as we had multiple IED strikes from our soldiers there. The fundamental nature of this mission is different because we’re stay… we – well, where we are operating.

QUESTION:                           

What about as the ground offensive begins? And General Allen was talking about within weeks. Do you expect our people to start going out beyond the wire when that begins, and what will that mean for the risks that they face, particularly in terms of things like IEDs?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The answer is possibly, though we have consistently said that our advise and assist mission to the Counter-Terrorism Service is at the battalion headquarters level. If the battalion headquarters moves, then our advisers may move with them. So, that is an area where we watch and manage the risk very carefully. We make sure we’ve got the equipment that we need if we have to move. There’s partly an assumption there that we’d move by ground; that may not be the case. If we move as a rotary wing move then we can manage a number of those risks. So, we’re very aware of it, we’ve got the equipment to be able to manage it and it’s a very key part of our operational planning.

QUESTION:                           

As you’re aware, ISOF have actually moved, they’ve moved from – one of their brigades has moved from Anbar across to the west, northwest of Baghdad. Our troops obviously, because they’re inside the wire, they didn’t move at that time, did they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

And, sorry, one other – I’m assuming – oh, sorry, I shouldn’t assume anything – our aircraft, have they overflown Syrian territory at all?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We do not operate at all over Syria.

QUESTION:                           

Just returning to the IED, suicide bombers. What sort of an impact is that having on the ground? Is it proving effective, or not really?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Like in all operational areas, IEDs do have a corrosive impact, particularly on confidence. So that’s why the work that we’re doing – I mentioned that one of our tasks has been the explosive hazards awareness training, building the military working capability. It is important that the Iraqi ground forces can counter IEDs. They have been very successful in doing that and I mentioned the push back in to the Baiji oil refinery was about overcoming IEDs as they made that approach in. So everything that we’re doing is helping to build that confidence that they can go out and be successful on the ground. But it is a key part of the training we’re delivering.

QUESTION:                           

You may not be able to answer this, but has any action so far, is it likely to see bravery medals or commendations for any of the defence forces that have been over there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Often – I can’t answer that precisely, but the general answer is, often the circumstances that we do that are where we’re conducting combat operations. We are not conducting combat operations.

QUESTION:                           

You mentioned that the Wedgetail had created history with that flight. What was the previous record and what was the significance of that length?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’d have to turn to my Air Force colleagues and I’m sure we can get that, but as you’re aware, that aircraft is based on a civilian air frame and when I talk about the time in-flight, it’s the longest ever for that air frame. In one of the special capabilities that the E-7 has is the air-to-air refuelling. The circumstances of that particular mission was that some of the other airborne early warning capabilities that were meant to perform a mission directly after it became unavailable. Our aircraft got asked to extend, we were able to manage that refuelling activity to give it the endurance and it performed a pretty extraordinary role over a very long period.

QUESTION:                           

That was a Project of Concern, was it not? The Wedgetail? There were serious issues getting it ready.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

[Indistinct]

QUESTION:                           

During the purchase of the aircraft, radars and things like that. Are they all – is this a total vindication of the aircraft and the work that’s been done on that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The E-7 aircraft is increasingly the AW of choice in the operational environment because of its reliability, because of the systems that it has and it’s clearly a very modern aircraft. It is performing outstandingly well.

QUESTION:                           

Well is it – you could have hoped for?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes. And remembering that this is a capability that’s largely still entering into service in the ADF, so we’ve taken a capability that was still going through its full integration with the ADF capabilities and deployed it overseas where it has performed above expectations.

QUESTION:                           

The KC-30, Vice Admiral, that is – our KC-30, I gather, is almost unique in the world. What has Iraq taught us about whether our brand of air-to-air refuelling is working?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think the best way I can answer that is – and the aircraft has been very successful at refuelling our own aircraft. Increasingly, we’re seeing other nations seek to be able to use that platform as well. Some of the reasons for that is, one of the particular capabilities of the KC-30 as we have outfitted it is its radio capability. Unlike other air-to-air refuellers, there are a number of radios that are available in the KC-30 that enable it to monitor the conduct of the ground operation. What that enables the crew to do is to move to where a particular ground offensive is occurring and where, through their other radios, they can see the air effect being applied.

So they can move over top of a particular activity, which means that strike aircraft need to either come off a target to refuel, instead of transiting 30 minutes back to a normal tanking corridor, they’re finding that they’ve got a tanking aircraft sitting directly above them. So it’s that battlespace integration, not just the capability of the aircraft to transfer fuel, it’s actually the way it fuses its information to understand in a very dynamic sense what’s happening on the battlefield and what’s happening with the air fight that’s being organised into a strike activity, that it places itself where it needs to go in order to be able to provide fuel on queue.

And there’s at least one occasion, with our own aircraft, where we had a circumstance where a target was going to present itself for a narrow period of time, the air crew were concerned that they may not have enough fuel to be able to grab that strike window and return. The KC-30 moved and was listening to the fight, moved to where it needed to be to support the aircraft and the aircraft were able to achieve the strike window and refuel.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER:     

I think we might just wrap it up there, if there are no more pressing questions.

DAVID JOHNSTON: 

Thank you, have a good afternoon.


post
Issued by Ministerial and Executive Coordination and Communication,
Department of Defence,
Canberra, ACT
Phone: 02 6127 1999 Fax: 02 6265 6946

Subscribe to our RSS Feed