Press conference with Vice Admiral David Johnston – Update on Australian Defence Force operations

19 August 2015 | Transcript

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Are you ready to go? Good.

Welcome to all of you and if there are any that- and I think most of you have been here for previous operational updates, but my name is Vice Admiral David Johnston, I am the Chief of Joint Operations. What I will do again, is spend about 15 minutes giving you an update on some of the key issues since I last briefed you. That’s been a little longer than I’d have preferred but in between times, Exercise Talisman Sabre has kept me pretty busy and I’ll talk a little bit about that but I’ll give you an update across the Middle East region and then as we’ve done in the past I am happy to take your questions. I do have a hard stop towards the end so I will need to leave on time for another commitment.

But let me start first with Talisman Sabre and I think some of you may have had some insights into that and I know we had some media with us up in Darwin in particular but that was the key activity that we were engaged with through the period of July in terms of domestic activities, many of you would know, this was the sixth in the series of Talisman Sabre events, it is the largest military exercise that the Australian Defence Force conducts at home, this year’s exercise involved about 30,000 people so there are a lot of people involved in it across navy, army and air force. It is the most important US and Australian bi-lateral training activity that we perform. It’s where we work through our interoperability; check our procedures and our equipment and our people get to know each other.

This year for the first time we had New Zealand and Japanese elements participating in and amongst either the Australian or the US force contribution. The other change that was important to us for Talisman Sabre ’15 was its location. So typically in the past it’s been heavily oriented around the Shoalwater Bay training area near Rockhampton in Queensland. Quite deliberately we moved that event this year to have two locations up in the Northern Territory, where we conducted one of the largest amphibious landings. certainly that we’ve performed in our country. at Fog Bay. So new ground for us, concurrent with ongoing activity in the Shoalwater Bay training area.

And I’d just finally like to thank particularly the communities having that many people come in and pass through them, whether it’s because we’ve got army trucks on the move as they were through Northern Territory and Queensland but both in the Northern Territory and Queensland both the local communities and authorities were very accommodating for what is a very important training activity for us.

To the Middle East, what I will do this morning is provide you with an overview of where I see the current Coalition and Iraqi force effort being applied and as you- we have talked previously, our focus remains around disrupting, degrading and ultimately destroying Daesh. I’ll give you some insights into the particular contribution of the various force elements and how we are working towards a number of objectives with the Government of Iraq and then provide just a couple of very short anecdotes around an element of our contribution in Afghanistan but significant and an update on where navy’s contribution in counter-piracy and counter-terrorism is.

So let me start with the overview, and as we look at the situation for Daesh and Iraq and Syria today compared to where we were a year ago and it has been a year, it is clear to me that the operational environment on the ground has changed. Instead of seeing as we did mass Daesh forces waving black flags traversing the countryside of Iraq and Syria in big convoys, with then relative immunity and capturing fairly large swathes of territory as they progressed, you do now see an adversary that it fighting to hold or regain ground. I’ll address explicitly the situation in Ramadi shortly and you’ve got a map in front of you that will be useful as talked through some of the terrain but what you’ll see depicted on the map is a number of towns that we have highlighted where the relevance of these particular towns is because they have been retaken by either the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga or Syrian Kurds and they include the centres of Kabani, which has had plenty of publicity over it but some of the other ones probably less so – Tel Abyad, Hasakah, Sinjar Mountain, Samora (*), Jalawla (*), Amirli, Tikrit and in the Dohuk province, which includes where the Mosul Dam is, where over the last few months in particular the ISF has taken and holden [sic] ground.

Additionally about two-thirds of Syria’s northern border is now held by anti-Daesh forces and that has been a significant development in the past two months since I have briefed you. Consistent and effective pressure against Daesh leadership has caused that organisation to be more centralised and less flexible. The loss of several thousand Daesh fighters from the battlefield as well as dozens of the organisation’s senior leaders has caused Daesh to replace leadership in key positions. Every time they do this they replace them with less experienced individuals into these leadership role. This has gradually reduced the organisation’s overall effectiveness in decision making and tactical planning.

In Ramadi, the counter-attack commenced in mid-July. As expected, Daesh had used their time to prepare significant defensive measures, particularly heavy concentrations of improvised explosive devices and concealed fighting positions. We are seeing slow and steady progress by the Iraqi Security Force operations to retake Ramadi. This is consistent with the environment and threat as the Iraqi Security Forces enter the built-up areas of Ramadi. It is a well-planned and deliberate Iraqi operation that reflects the complexity of the terrain. While gains here are measured in streets and buildings rather than square kilometres, it reflects a growing level of resilience and provides evidence that progress is being achieved.

What we are seeing is that instead of Daesh moving forward or going on the offensive, they are often forced to be defensive and to try and slow down and delay Iraqi forces. This need to react to the offensive operations of ISF, supported by the Coalition that we are conducting, reflects the fact that Daesh no longer has the same freedom of manoeuvre as previously and that the Iraqi forces have an ability to influence the pace of operations. It is important at this juncture that I acknowledge that Ramadi is just part of a broader objective in a much broader overall campaign and there is a long way to go. The Iraqis do have a solid plan to retake Ramadi. They are executing the plan on the time line that they set and we are supporting them.

I’ll now highlight a couple of examples of where each of our force elements are contributing. Our Special Operations Task Group is continuing the advise and assistance role that we have to the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. The advise and assist mission, you might recall, was established on the premise that assistance to the Iraqi CTS would empower the most capable component of the Iraqi forces in the initial stages of the fight-back against the Daesh advances. Australian Special Operations Task Group soldiers working from Iraqi bases have assisted the(*) develop the Ramadi counter-attack plans, have provided continuous tactical advice on the manoeuvring of forces, have enabled the close air support to ground forces and are assisting with intelligence. The Special Operations Task Group has developed behind the wire advise and assist to an extraordinary level of competence and their contribution is highly regarded.

To date, our SOTG has trained some 776 ISF soldiers, they’ve exploited around 88 improvised explosive devices that are brought back into the bases, and our joint tactical air controllers have enabled in the order of 370 advise and assist strike missions in partnership with the Iraqi Special Operations Forces. For our building part in capacity missions.

Since we commenced operations with the Australian and New Zealand Task Group Force in Taji we have trained about 1600 soldiers. Around 700 of those soldiers came from the Iraqi army’s 76th Brigade who graduated from training at the end of June. They have since deployed to Ramadi to participate in the counter-attack, and the reports we are seeing on their performance have been encouraging. A further 600 personnel from the Iraqi army’s First Battalion of the 22nd Brigade and 450 people from the Iraqi Army’s first Battalion of the 23rd brigade commenced training on 27 July and completed their training with us last weekend. Task group Taji has been training officers and soldiers in weapon handling, building clearances, obstacle breaching techniques as well as training in the tactical and procedures for squad through to company level operations, and the application of laws of armed conflict.

We maintain interest in how the units perform following our training with a view to receiving feed back that allows us to constantly improve the training that we are providing. There is a consistent view that has been expressed to us from Iraqi senior staff that the troops that have completed the BPC training programs are performing to a much higher standard than prior to their training, and that with additional training has come greater confidence and skill. As part of the enhanced training program, the task group has recently commenced a new range of junior leader training. For about 200 Iraqi army, junior non-commission officers and senior non-commission officers. This is a valuable investment in the future tactical commanders of the Iraqi Army.

Our training contribution and advise and assist role is making a difference on the battlefield. The establishment of a capable Iraqi security force is fundamental to enable the Government of Iraq to defeat the Daesh threat. To our air operations, since the last update the Australian Air Task Group has continued to deliver precision air affects across Iraq. Australian classic Hornets have conducted a range of precision strike and close air support missions. KC-30 air-to-air refuelling aircraft continues to support both our aircraft and several other Coalition aircraft in order to maximise their range and time on station over Iraq. The E-7 Airborne Early Warning Control aircraft continues to play a pivotal role to control and coordinate the delivery of Coalition air power.

In June and early July the strike element provided armed over watch to friendly forces across Iraq during preparations for the Ramadi counter-attack and the clearance of Baji, the town south of the Baji oil refinery where there has been intense fighting. The strike element also provided close air support to Peshmerga forces in the north of Iraq, around Mosul and west of Sinjar. Our aircraft supported Iraqi security forces in Baji and Kirkuk and have supported ground forces in the vicinity of Ramadi and Fallujah to the west of Baghdad. Support was also provided to Iraqi forces conducting operations against Daesh in the regions north of Al Asad in the Euphrates River Valley.

 Since mid-July, the Task Group has been extensively tasked to support the Iraqi Government’s campaign to retake Ramadi, with Hornets conducting strikes against enemy forces attempting to disrupt the ISF advance. Typical targets include Daesh mortar sites, weapons caches, command and control nodes, defensive fighting positions and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. In situations where Iraqi ground forces have become engaged with Daesh, Coalition air power has provided swift, precise and decisive effects which enable the Iraqi ground forces to maintain their momentum to retake territory held by Daesh.

The Hornets recently conducted a strike attack against a number of Daesh fighters, including a Daesh key leader in Anbar. This leader controlled Daesh operations in an area of western Iraq and directed attack planning and execution by Daesh forces. He coordinated the facilitation of fighters and supplies using Daesh controlled river crossings. The removal – and it was a successful removal of this individual – has caused significant disruption and degradation to Daesh offensive operations and has also benefited the force- protection of Coalition and Iraqi forces in the Anbar province.

At the end of June, the strike element passed a milestone in providing over 1,000 hours of on-station armed overwatch which is equivalent to about 41 days of continuous flying over Iraq. The strike element continues to fly approximately 60 sorties a month, with each sortie averaging in excess of seven hours.

 Since the last round table the E-7 – the airborne early warning aircraft – has flown 22 sorties, totalling 286 flight hours. A recent E-7 sortie over Iraq was extended to 16.5 hours for operational reasons which set the record for the longest Australian E7 sortie to date. The extended mission was enabled by several extra in-flight air-to-air refuelling events.

In the last month the KC-30 recorded its largest transfer of fuel, approximately 72,000 litres in the Middle East region. Notably the KC-30 provided air-to-air refuelling support to Coalition aircraft that were required for several hours to continuously track a moving vehicle suspected of carrying Daesh fighters, which led to the delivery of a precision air strike onto the target. Without the continual support of the KC-30, Coalition aircraft in this case, we would not have been able to execute this particular strike.

I will conclude with a few insights into our contribution in Afghanistan and at sea in the Middle East region. As you are aware we have approximately 400 people continuing to work with the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces to support capacity building activities. One of the major contributions for the ADF is in support of the Afghan National Army Officers’ Academy, where in June we witnessed the graduation of the first group of female Afghan Army officers. The event was noteworthy for a number of reasons but particularly because the Duntroon sword, which is awarded – it’s an Australian award – awarded to the best overall cadet was won by a female Afghan officer cadet.

Whilst the people and Government of Afghanistan face significant challenges to provide enduring peace and stability to their country, this step in recognition of the role that women can bring to achieving this outcome is important. We wish of course all the graduates of the academy success in their future careers as officers and especially those female graduates as they face the challenge of leading soldiers and educating the people of Afghanistan of the opportunities available to women.

So HMAS Newcastle, who is ending- towards the end of that ship’s deployment to the Gulf, provides me with an opportunity to recognise its very significant achievements over this deployment prior to its handover to HMAS Melbourne, who is back in the Middle East region for her second deployment in the last two years. What I’d like to do is recognise Newcastle’s extraordinary performance, because they’ve been responsible for total seizures of narcotics – about 1.3 tonnes of heroin valued at approximately AUD$1.b – that they have intercepted during their six month deployment. It has been a remarkable effort.

In conclusion, it’s worthy for me to reflect that the Iraqi and Coalition efforts against Daesh have now been progressing for about one year. There have been successes and setbacks over that year period, but the Coalition’s approach of enabling indigenous ground forces and advising and assisting our partners, helping them to build their much needed capacity is the right approach. Our own contribution is significant and our men and women continue to set and maintain the highest standards of military professionalism, and this is reflected in their achievements. I’d like personally to take the opportunity to express my appreciation to these men and women for their commitment and the personal sacrifices they continue to make.

Thank you and I’m now happy to take your questions

QUESTION:

Who is the key ISIL leader?

DAVID JOHNSTON:

I won’t mention him(*) name, but he was working in the Anbar province. It occurred around the July period and he did have a significant role in managing the Daesh forces in that region.

QUESTION: 

And you refer to his successful removal, meaning he was killed?

DAVID JOHNSTON:

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

By Australian air power.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

Could you tell us a little more how? What kind of munitions were used, from what aircraft?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Now, with all our airdrops or strike missions off the F18s has involved either 500 pound bombs or 2000 pound bombs. This was an attack executed with 500 pound bombs onto the target. It was a beddown(*) location, so an area where we know that they are using as a staging base. The leader was with a group of about 15 other fighters, and they were all successfully targeted.

QUESTION:                           

How did you confirm their … that you’d killed this particular individual?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have as part of our normal targeting process a very deliberate series of battle damage assessment that occurs. So typically that involves an analysis of the weapon system video that comes with the aircraft pre and post strike, often with overlayed full motion video, or video by various ISR platforms that are supporting the strike activity, and the assessment is based on the imagery analysis that comes from that.

QUESTION:                           

And is he the most senior Daesh figure that Australian forces have killed?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

He’s not the only senior Daesh figure, but he would be one of the more senior ones, yes.

QUESTION:                           

So where in the hierarchy? Just, at what sort of level?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

A local leader, so not in the hierarchy that tends to operate out of Mosul or Ar Raqqah, but they deploy quite senior commanders into the field as we would do, they’d be providing that headquarters level support to deployed forces. So he had an area of command he was operating in, it was in a part of Anbar. So significant enough. In a very lose term I would say, and it’s not necessarily a very good equivalent, but at the battalion headquarter type level of the command. So he had range over a number of fighters, the activities they’re performing, the movement of logistics for them – so quite a comprehensive role.

QUESTION:                           

So sort of the equivalent of a battalion commander, or?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Roughly so. ISIL isn’t structured neatly in that manner, but if I looked at his responsibilities compared to how we might structure them it would be a broad equivalent.

QUESTION:                           

Also …

QUESTION:                           

[Talking over] Would they have known the attack was happening?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I suspect not.

QUESTION:                           

Would he also have been a …

QUESTION:                           

[Talking over] [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m not sure. We are flying both day and night operations, I can’t recall with this one whether it was a day or night activity.

QUESTION:                           

Do we have any idea whether he was also a propaganda figure as far as recruitment, or was he more focussed on the military aspects of things?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

He … to my knowledge, and I don’t track all of Daesh propaganda, but he was more a tactical commander.

QUESTION:                           

Might they [Indistinct] an Australian connection?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not that I’m aware of, no.

QUESTION:                           

Can you speak to the way you received the information necessary to target him? This obviously reflects on intelligence, your intelligence capabilities to track the guy.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No I can’t because of all those very reason about how we would reveal the target, but we knew he was there, we had a pretty good idea of the location he was operating in. The normal strike processes require a degree of confirming a target in a location before it’s executed, but we had high confidence of the circumstance and it proved accurate.

QUESTION:                           

Could I rephrase my question this way then. You talked about targeting vehicles from the air that carry IEDs, which obviously also requires a fairly sophisticated amount of intelligence. How would you describe the intelligence flow to our forces and other forces now compared to a year ago?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It has improved because the array of forces, particularly some of the ISR capabilities is now more significant than what it was early in the air campaign. So that additional capacity has meant that we are able to get insights that weren’t available to us, but equally because we’re working very closely with Iraqi forces, and that too has improved over time, we’re able to better access information that might be available to them, combine it with the more technical means that are available to Coalition air, and over time our understanding of targets, the situation on the ground has continued to improve.

QUESTION:                           

I was just going to confirm the month when this attack occurred.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

In … you’re referring to the strike against the leader?

QUESTION:                          

Yes.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That was in July.

QUESTION:                           

Can I just ask you a different question for a second. The Australian Government is kind of giving some consideration as to a widening of strikes into Syria. I just wanted to ask, President Obama’s point man Brett McGurk on the Coalition gave a long interview to Turkish media the other day and said that in his opinion that it would be better for operations in Syria to be based out of Turkey rather than elsewhere, that to be effective they would have to be based out of southern Turkey – the airbase there. He said that – and he mentioned Australia in the interview and written – and said that there would be likely an invitation coming from the Turkish Government to potential Coalition members on an expansion into Syria.

I’m just wondering whether you could give any opinion onto- I’m not asking you what Australia might do, but just on the effectiveness of operations, would it require a shift of operations out of southern Turkey? Is that necessary, or what would be your thoughts?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

You would be aware and seen reporting that Turkey’s Government has already opened up some bases or one base in particular for American forces to operate from. There is a value in proximity, so the closer you are to the fight – particularly for aircraft – the more time you can spend on station being able to provide effects. So proximity does come with a value to it for a military campaign. If Turkey was to open those bases I’m sure it would be welcome. Whether we would operate from them is a very, very different question, and it would be part of our strategy but we’re part of a large Coalition. If other Coalition elements are able to take that opportunity and it leads to increasing operational effectiveness, that’s a good outcome.

QUESTION:                           

We’re spending an enormous amount of time over Iraq. Obviously in order to get to Iraq we’ve actually got to spend twice as much time getting there and then getting back. Is there any indication that there may- a year into this conflict, that there might be some possibility of basing our aircraft down in southern Iraq?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

From an Australian perspective no. I think we’re reasonably settled. I’d describe in the locations that we are operating with it’s proving effective. It is a long transit time to get our aircraft onto station, but we’re able to accommodate and manage that.

QUESTION:                           

And, sorry one follow up, when I was in the KC-30 over there a USAF aircraft was calling for it to come over into Syria to refuel. Are we now doing that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No. Our air operations remain limited to within Iraq.

QUESTION:                           

Right. So that would obviously … that would be an obvious first step to enable- presumably … there’d be no need for the electronic and the surveillance aircraft to move over Syria, but the KC-30 would be?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s … I think Government hasn’t made any decisions around whether we would or wouldn’t operate in Syria. That’s an option.

QUESTION:                           

Could I ask about the Iraqi Government environment? This week the Prime Minister announced a very big reshuffle of the cabinet there, I understand, including getting rid of the Women’s Minister, getting rid of the Human Rights Minister. Are you sensing that there is a hardening within the government in terms of … sort of- of a religious nature there that may make your job a little more difficult over there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’ve seen the same reporting and my understanding of it is slightly different. It’s had an anti-corruption focus, which has been popular with the Iraqi community. And I think in various elements of government recognise that that’s an important step for them to take. There are winners and losers in that. So we are watching it fairly closely. There’s been some important clerical support been provided from Al-Sistani from Prime Minister al-Abadi is seeking to do. It’s still very early days to see how they actually manage their way through this. But I think all of us would view measures around anti-corruption are important, but how it’s implemented will be the challenge.

QUESTION:                           

So you’re happy with Al-Sistani’s kind of support for the whole [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Neither happy or unhappy. I don’t have a particular view, I just note that he has supported it. And his commentary is always important in Iraq.

QUESTION:                           

If you were to carry out operations over in Syria, what would that mean in terms of how you- what you’d have to change in terms of how you did business? And would there be a greater threat big threat to raft jets operating over Syria? And also, I’ve seen some reports that ADF personnel are now working on drone strikes in Syria – is that correct?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

There’s a couple of questions there.

What would it mean for us to operate in Syria? Not too many changes, so we would- the areas that would be of particular focus would be threat levels and the further west you go in Syria the more capable some of the air- anti-aircraft defences become. So we would be very focused on where the threats originate in Syria and it’s not homogenous, it is different across the country.

We’d have a- be very focused around the personal recovery arrangements – that’s the downed aircraft status of how well that might be managed to make sure it would satisfy our own risk thresholds. But we already operate up to the Syrian border. To take that step across it is just a matter of bringing all the other enabling components together. So in a physical or practical sense, there’s not too significant a change for us. We would do our homework around threats and how we would manage the recovery activities or the assurances around that.

You mentioned also the- and I think you’re referring particularly to the announcement around the Reaper(*) operations where we have a very small number of ADF personnel living in the US, who have been doing some training. They are still in the training program so we haven’t commenced flying operational sorties but that Reaper(*) platform, the unmanned aerial system, does operate both over Iraq and Syria.

QUESTION:                           

Do you believe that there would be benefits to Australia, you know, conducting strikes in Syria? Do you think that would help operations?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I would answer your question in part. To Daesh, the border is irrelevant. So they- we do know and we’ve seen repeatedly, they do operate from Syria into Iraq. So they don’t treat the border in the same way other countries do. But there is activity already occurring by the Coalition in Syria. So it is not an untreated area -the US is operating air strikes there, a number of the Arab nations have been. Some of the other- the UK hasn’t but Canada has. So there is effort already being applied in Syria now. The contribution of Australia, why always welcome, isn’t a game-changer one way or the other. In part, there is a bit of a zero sum game. We’ve got a number of aircraft there. Whether we’re operating in Iraq or in Syria, the capacity is the same. How you apportion just is around mission priorities.

QUESTION:                           

Considering- sorry, considering you currently fly up to the border, as you said, what would be the sort of tactical advantage of simply having the freedom, especially where dynamic targets are concerned, of being able to treat that border like ISIL does, as if it’s not there, and pursue whatever mission that you’re embarked on?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It may- so we operate- we don’t always operate in the north. I mentioned much of our focus has been out in western Iraq around that Ramadia(*) and Anbar corridor. So it’s not quite as simple as it just operating more opportunities, particularly in a dynamic strike environment. We may not, for long periods, be working up in the northern border. But it does- and I as a Coalition sense quite instinctively we’d say if you had more aircraft that could be able to move around to wherever the priority at the time was that provides a military commander more flexibility. But I don’t underestimate the complexity of our commencing operations in Syria. It is a significantly more difficult environment. In Iraq, it’s pretty clear that Daesh forces operate there. In Syria, there are many other groups operating. So understanding what’s occurring on the ground in Syria, depending on which part of Syria you’re operating in, is a very complex environment.

QUESTION:                           

So do you think that we will see Australia eventually conduct air strikes over Syria? Is it inevitable?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s a question better for the Prime Minister than for me. That’s a decision for government.

QUESTION:                           

You able to give us an up to date- an update on numbers in Daesh? You said that you’d killed off some of the hierarchy. It’s been suggested that they’re relying more and more on foreign fighters to make up numbers. So total numbers of fighters operating and how you think it- how many are coming in and how many are being killed each month?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s a great question. But one that is almost impossible to answer. And we would like to know the precise statistics as much as anyone else. The broad numbers continue to be something between the mid 20s to 30,000 fighters. But we’ve seen that now for a pretty considerable period of time. So unquestionably we know they are taking losses. The ability to resupply fighters, either whether that’s foreign fighters coming in or fighters generating out of Syria. That’s a really opaque question, so we’re not- what the short answer is we are uncertain.

QUESTION:                           

Have you done any work on costings of potential savings of Australian aircraft flying out of bases in southern Turkey and having just minutes to fly rather than the seven hour sorties you were talking about? And if you haven’t got specific numbers, can you give us a sense of just how significant the saving might be?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t- it’s not a saving in a dollar sense, so we may well fly – for the moment to Saudi is eight hours – we can still fly eight hours, but you might spend more time over the area that you would see- yeah, so it might be more effect- so I don’t see it- it’s not a cost or an airframe usage question, it’s more a question of how much time you may apply over a target area.

QUESTION:                           

If you actually were asked to go into Syria, is there a mechanism in process – presumably there is – for other Coalition aircraft to deal with the regime’s missiles, Assad’s Russian missile systems that they’ve got up there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have – like many of the other Coalition air- good defences on our aircraft, we fly in a manner that minimised the risk, we pour over the intelligence data to understand where the threat may present itself, and whether it’s over Syria or Iraq, we are very conscious of different threat level, it’s constantly under review, and part of our air flight planning to … it doesn’t matter where we’re operating, we very much have those threats and risks at the forefront of our mind and we fly in a manner to minimise that.

QUESTION:                           

There’d have to be some liaison wouldn’t there, with the Syrians, presumably?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not necessarily. If you know where they’re operating and your intelligence is good enough, you might just seek to avoid those locations. It doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be a degree of consultation.

QUESTION:                           

Has the Syrian Government ever tried – and does it ever react to Coalition strikes that are taking place in Syria, that was a bit of a challenge [indistinct] …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not to my knowledge, but my visibility, that’s limited because we don’t fly so I don’t give it a great deal of scrutiny to whether there have been occasions of – I presume you’re asking – taking action against Coalition aircraft flying through there. It’s hard to know in some locations, even where you do see it. We have – even over Iraq, we’ve seen what could be ground to air fire occurring, who it’s originating from is not always clear. And in Syria that’s even more complex to answer.

QUESTION:                           

You- Vice Admiral, you mentioned I think that ADF personnel are exploding IEDs that are being brought back live from …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

[Interrupts] Exploiting.

QUESTION:                           

Exploiting? Sorry, what do you mean exploiting?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

So what I mean by that is an IED might be defused in the field or it may have activated but there’s parts still around – those parts are collected, brought back and from that you can do analysis around the technology, biometrics screening. So we would look at the componentry to understand size of the blast, trigger mechanisms for it, the technology that’s being employed.

QUESTION:                           

I thought you were saying they were being brought back to [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

[Interrupts] No, no, that would be an interesting journey, back in a vehicle to bring it back [laughs].

QUESTION:                           

You wrote before that the shaping operations that the Iraqis are conducting at the moment are quite deliberate, and very effective for all of that. Naturally the slower the operations are, the more opportunities Daesh has to lay IEDs around and other things like that. Do you feel that some of the troops – particularly the counter-terrorism service that we’re training – might actually be competent at some point or another relatively soon to do what Daesh did, bypass the centres of resistance and strike at the blitzkrieg, if you like, at the head, the nodal point of Daesh?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t see that yet. Not because they’re not capable of it, and the CTS service in particular has proven to be quite capable, partly because of the seeding on defences has been so extensive through parts of Ramadi. The time taken to identify those vulnerabilities – and this is where we are applying our military skill sets – I mentioned the special operations task group is op- it is in the operation centres that are controlling operations though Anbar, and applying the expertise of our SF community, of looking at the tactics that Daesh are employing, seeking to identify exactly as you mentioned those key points of vulnerability and working with the Iraqis on how they may exploit them.

But I think if I characterise your question as do I see a catastrophic success scenario where we might find a key vulnerability and be able to exploit it – I don’t think that’s the environment in Anbar.

QUESTION:                           

Do you have any …

QUESTION:                           

[Talks over] What the current forecast on re-taking Mosul … sorry, just quickly …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Sorry?

QUESTION:                           

What’s the current forecast on trying to re-take Mosul?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That would be a brave call to make. Partly because the focus …

QUESTION:                           

[Interrupts] It’s been made before.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

[Laughs] Yes, yes it has been, not by me. It would be Anbar province will be the focus. So we talked, I think in the … in some of my earlier briefings of there was a question between is it Mosul first and hold in Anbar, I think increasingly the view is Anbar needs to be addressed, and potentially all the way out to the Syrian border at Al Qaim, and then Mosul may occur around that. But it is in part likely, [indistinct] questioned that trade off – the longer you take to get there, the better the defences potentially become. But the focus for the Iraqi Government at the moment is securing – sufficiently – Anbar province.

QUESTION:                           

Do you have a sense of a time frame for when Iraq might be secure?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

Just on another matter, an Afghan officer has gone missing while being trained in Sydney, we found out about it yesterday, apparently he was last seen on 9 August. Your concerns for where he is or why the public hasn’t been told maybe to keep an eye out for him?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m aware of the incident occurring, and I understand the officer was coming to Australia for training, which has been an important part of our support to the Afghan military. I don’t know where he is, and I’m not involved in either the search – I’m sure the Department of Immigration, supported by the ADF would be working to ensure his safety as much and hopefully getting him to do the training he came here for.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] as to why he has gone missing though?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

To my knowledge there’s no concerns over his personal safety. But I’m not best place to answer that question.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral, some successes on this map are successes of Kurdish forces …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

… does it worry you that the Turks, the Turkish Government has relaunched attacks on the PKK and abandoned a couple of views of cease fire, seemingly greatly muddying the waters on who are our enemies and who are our friends in this part of the world?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

PKK are considered to be a terrorist group by Australia as well as many other countries, including importantly Turkey, so I think actions against PKK don’t surprise us. The YPG, which has been a militia which has been very successful through Northern Syria, is a key part of keeping that pressure of Daesh. I think the work that is important is the Coalition – the US in particular -working with Turkey to keep a complimentary outcome to their objectives, which including defeating Daesh, I think they share a fairly significant outcome that all the Coalition is seeking to achieve, but as a coalition we need to make sure our objectives remain complementary with each other. And it does become more complex, particularly if the security environment in Turkey was to change as a consequence.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral, do we have any relationship with Iran, or Iranian forces inside Iraq? Is there a liaison, or …?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, we don’t have a relationship with them. On a country to country level we clearly do, with an embassy in Tehran, but we have no military relationship on the ground with them.

QUESTION:                           

So is there any issue with possible clashes? People arriving in the same place at the same time?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s the part where the Government of Iraq has that key role. So they – either it’s with the Iraqi security forces, or with the militia groups -to the extent that they have control, that de-confliction is a matter where we work with the Iraqis to achieve, because that’s not part of our outreach or consultation.

QUESTION:                           

Our embassy in Iran of course represents American interests. Is there any- or do you think it would helpful if we had an independent voice, so that we were not necessarily perceived as being certainly not the … puppet of the great Satan, but is there any advantage in operating separate independent lines of communication with the Iranians?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think we have that, because we have the embassy there. So while we may be able to represent the views of various coalition nations, we do have quite a valuable means of engaging with the Iranian Government. So I think that independent voice is there. The consultation with Iran at the government-to-government level is important, particularly around explaining what the Australian contribution is, why we are there, seeking to work with the Iranian Government so that what is occurring in Iraq is suiting both the interests of the Coalition and Iran. So my view on that consultation is it is really important, because it does offer opportunities that are not available to all coalition partners.

QUESTION:                           

You mentioned the Newcastle’s efforts over there, how crucial is it to stop that money flow? Is that actually having a concrete effect on the ground, the whole idea of Daesh trying to fund itself?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is important because we know the sale of narcotics, the sale of charcoal, which is one of the other key commodities that’s traded in the region, does fund a whole range of both criminal and terrorist activities. So, one tonne worth of heroin is a lot of heroin in anyone’s figure it’s at a billion dollars worth of street value. So while I wouldn’t say that that is a large portion of the narcotics that are moving through there, every effort that we have of reducing the narcotics and the sale that comes from them is a useful contribution to make.

QUESTION:                           

Can I just quickly ask you two questions. You spoke before about Australian considerations of personnel recovery in Syria, I just wondered can you just talk us through how that might work? I mean, would that be something that we would rely on sort of US …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

… capabilities for, or does Australia typically do it them- ourselves …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

… right. And the second thing is, moving right to the other side of the world, I just wondered whether there’s been any Australian fly-pasts in the Spratlys or any sort of operations that were talked about last time you spoke? [Indistinct] happened there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

There’s two very broad questions. I’ll answer the question- joint personnel recovery, no we don’t have any assets there that are engaged in it. It’s an area where the US in particular provides the bulk of the assets. What you find there’s a mixture of V-22s, long-range helicopters, so the notion being if aircraft from whatever cause, mechanical or otherwise, is forced onto the ground then you have a team that’s capable of rapidly moving in, securing them, and recovering them. So that is very much a part of the framework for how air operations are conducted. The stand-by readiness of the joint recovery capability, where they operate from, we monitor that, particularly for all our flights, so that we’ve got a good understanding of the responsiveness of those assets. And if for any reason they’re unavailable then the operations are modified around those constraints to ensure we come back within our risk thresholds.

For your question on the South China Sea, the ADF has been conducting operations, routine operations in the South China Sea for decades. Our ships pass through there routinely, we conduct air operations both out into the Andaman Sea, or the Indian Ocean, on the west of the peninsular and out in the South China Sea. So every year we would have multiple deployments, particularly the P3 aircraft, in part because that’s how we contribute to security in the region. Many of the activities that we do are operating from the Malaysian Air Force Base at Butterworth with Malaysian air riders on board our aircraft, and it is a long-standing arrangement which we continue to perform now.

QUESTION:                           

But has anything passed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands in the past three, four months?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I won’t answer that question, partly because it gives some insights into our- the particular tactics that we may employ, but we are very conscious of the issues within the region and we operate within a set of policy guidelines that are given to us.

QUESTION:                           

Are you avoiding the islands? Given the recent conflict- or given the recent tension around them, are you changing your flight- air flight?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We haven’t changed our approach to flying for what we have been doing over a number of years.

QUESTION:                           

Just to freshen up on a piece of information, the- well we’re not doing strikes inside Syria, presumably the AEWACs(*), the command and control aircraft …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

… and the refuellers are refuelling and controlling the directing Coalition aircraft that are going into Syria?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They have certainly been refuelling, so aircraft that may tank off us and proceed. So we have indirectly been supporting a range of air operations, but not conducting strike operations [indistinct].

QUESTION:                           

Have command and control aircraft also been involved?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Its sensors can cover through that. So where our tasks are around de-conflicting aircraft movements, supporting their movement back to a tanker, we are able to operate – that is, provide advise of what’s occurring on either side of the border and support aircraft that are operating in those areas.

QUESTION:                           

One last thing on the ISIL leader from- who we were talking about at the start. Can you tell us anything about his background? Was he a former Iraqi officer or anything like that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, I don’t have that level of detail.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] just when in July was that, are you able to say?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

As I’ve used previously, I’ve avoided giving precise details because they can be used in propaganda against us. So it was early-ish July in the Anbar Province, and that’s about as far as I’m comfortable with going.

QUESTION:                           

The advise and assist troops, I think the timetable was roughly for them to sort of draw down over the second half of this year. Is that still the plan?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s a decision still with government at the moment. So we’re coming towards about the end of the second rotation, so that will be about 12 months from when we started, and we’re waiting a government decision on how long and in what type of capacity we may continue to contribute to. But we’re still in the second rotation at the moment.

QUESTION:                           

And it’s still roughly the same number that were there, say …

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Earlier, yes it is.

QUESTION:                           

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yeah, it’s in the order of 170 that we’ve got there.

QUESTION:                           

But you have no indication that the Government might keep them rotating?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m expecting to find out soonish.

QUESTION:                           

Vice-Admiral, just on the Spratlys, when you say you can’t tell us whether we flew close to them or not, when the US flew close to them not only could they tell us they took CNN along.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yep.

QUESTION:                           

Are you saying that we will never know whether Australian aircraft have flown near them?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, no I’m not. Partly because that’s not my call to make. All I’m saying is we haven’t changed our pattern of aircraft deployments. I think the US haven’t said either how closely they go to some of the disputed territories in particular, so I’m not sure your statement’s entirely accurate. But they did have a media crew on board one of their maritime surveillance aircraft filming from that aircraft, but I think the circumstances of it are probably a little less clandestine than may have been indicated.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think we’re done. Thank you, always good to see you and I look forward to seeing you again. Thank you very much.


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

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