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

7 October 2015 | Transcript

DAVID JOHNSTON:              
Most of you have been to an operations update before, but my name is Vice Admiral David Johnston, I am the Chief of Joint Operations. And we’ll do it in the usual format, I’ll spend about 15 minutes giving you an operational update on events that have occurred since I last briefed you, and then I’ll be happy to take your questions from there.

 But before I talk about the Middle East region though, I thought I’d cover just a couple of key ADF domestic activities that we have been involved in in the months of September and early October that are noteworthy.

I’ll start with Exercise Northern Shield, which I know has received some coverage, and occurred over last month. A number of you would be aware that it concluded recently, it was conducted in the vicinity of Exmouth in North Western Australia, and it was an important activity for the ADF because it gave us the ability to demonstrate our capability to project military forces into North Western Australia in the event of a possible threat. In this occasion the activity involved maritime surveillance performed by ships, air operations including surveillance, transport and close air support, and a parachute insertion followed by land force and offensive ground operations. For us it went very well. It was an excellent opportunity to engage with the community in the Exmouth area, and we were really pleased with their response. I think we demonstrated to them and others the ability of the ADF to respond to short notice threats where we are required to do so.

Concurrent with Northern Shield we’ve had an important activity that’s been underway on the east coast of Australia, and that involves the HMAS Canberra, the new landing helicopter dock, and the amphibious-ready element. And [indistinct] the ship and the embark(*) forces have been conducting a certification training activity in-between Cairns and Townsville, all around certifying them for future use.

The focus for the certification and training they performed was for a humanitarian aid and disaster relief scenario, so how the ship and embark forces would come together to provide an option for government there, as well as an evacuation scenario. So those circumstances where we might need to withdraw Australians from a location at short notice and how we might perform that.

Now to the Middle East, and there have been a number of key activities that I will brief as part of this update. I’ll just highlight first a couple of the major events for you. First, on 14 September we started the commencement of air operations in eastern Syria. We’ve also undertaken a further rotation of the Special Operations Task Group that is performing the advise and assist mission, as well as adjusting the size of that force. We’ve continued the transition in Afghanistan with the drawdown of the Australian contribution to the 205th Corps, we’ve been providing a Coalition advisory team there since around April 2010, located in Kandahar in Afghanistan. And finally, we’ve just past the anniversary of our first 12 months of conducting air operations in Iraq [indistinct] reinforcing the Coalition efforts to disrupt, degrade and defeat Daesh. I’ll go into a little more detail of each of those various elements of contribution.

But I start with just a national level overview of operations in Iraq and Syria. What we have seen since I last briefed you is that the Iraqi [indistinct] forces progress, as I had indicated I think in the last few occasions, is generally measured in weeks, not days – that is the campaign from their forces continues to progress, but it is measured progress.

Daesh no longer owns the operational initiative that we had seen it possess a year ago. The recent expansion of Australian and French air attacks into Syria has also increased the vulnerability of Daesh forces, and enhanced the flexibility of Coalition air operations.

The Iraqi Government, with Coalition support, has consolidated its operational position and is conducting and preparing for future counter-offensive operations. While there remains at times occasional set-backs, the Iraqi Government with Coalition support, not Daesh, now dictates the pace of operations across much of Iraq.

In Ramadi, I’d previously informed you that the complexity of the terrain and the use of the time available to Daesh to construct obstacles and conduct operations to disrupt the build-up of the Iraqi security forces through the persistent use of improvised explosive devices and snipers, are factors in the pace of progress to retake Ramadi.

I’ve also indicated that tactical gains would be measured in streets and buildings, rather than in square kilometres, and that remains the case. The isolation phase for this Iraqi mission has progressed and continues to set the conditions for the seize phase – that’s the phase when the ground currently held or dominated by Daesh is recaptured. It’s important to acknowledge that it is a very challenging fight in Ramadi, and the Iraqis are moving on the timeline they have set, and are able to manage themselves.

Both our advise and assist, and Building Partner Capacity missions continue to provide key support to the Iraqi security forces. Specifically, for our advise and assist mission the rotation of our Special Operations Task Group that has been performing the advise and assist role occurred in the middle of September. From our national contingent size of approximately 200 special force personnel, the advise-assist mission is now 80 persons strong. There has been no change to the Special Operations Task Group role as it continues to advise and assist the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service. It continues to provide training and mission support, and we’ve applied the lessons that we’ve learned from the first two rotations to refine our core structure of the current Special Operations Task Group and achieve a number of efficiencies.

Elements of Australian-trained and supported counter-terrorism service teams have, and continue to be, actively involved in the Ramadi operation. [Indistinct] the mission to recapture the tactically important Anbar University, located in the southern parts of Anbar, as part of the isolation phase, was assigned to counter-terrorism forces who have been successful in securing what was a complex objective.

Despite significant Daesh opposition, the counter-terrorism service used skills acquired from the AA training, supported by Australian joint terminal attack controllers in a distant support role, to enable them to recapture that important objective. Our Special Operations Task Group has now qualified approximately 800 Iraqi special operations force soldiers in a range of combat skills.

For our Building Partner Capacity mission, a highlight since I last briefed you has been the graduation of approximately 200 Iraqi Army junior leaders from a junior non-commissioned officer course. This six week course focussed on enhancing the skills of a large group of junior tactical commanders who were drawn from across the breadth of the Iraqi Army. So, different to some of the other training that is based on battalions or brigades, this course drew non-commissioned officers from right across the brigades of the Iraqi Army.

The course was an invaluable opportunity to support the growing capability and resilience of the force that will be ultimately responsible for defeating the Daesh threat to their nation. The task group has now commenced training a group of about 900 soldiers and officers from the 71st Iraqi Army Brigade. Task Group Taji in total has trained several contingents from the Iraqi Army, totalling approximately 2100 personnel, many of whom are now involved in operations around Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq.

For our Air Task Group operations, since my last update to you, as I said we have past the 12 month anniversary. In operational terms, the government decision to commence air strikes in Syria is an extension of the existing Australian air contribution. As Daesh controls a large amount of territory in eastern Syria, it serves as a source of recruitment, as a base from which it continues to train, stockpile and launch attacks in both Syria and Iraq.

If I looked and gave you an update on the last 12 months of Air Task Group activity, and these figures are accurate as of 2 October, the Air Task Group has completed a total of 434 strike missions over Iraq.

Specifically, the Super Hornets completed 209 missions, releasing 278 weapons. The F18 Hornet, known as the Classic Hornet, has completed 225 missions, releasing 258 weapons; that includes nine missions over Syria against two targets. The KC-30, the air-to-air refuelling aircraft, has conducted 411 missions, transferring approximately 15 million kilograms of fuel to Australian and Coalition aircraft; that includes five missions over Syria.

The E-7 Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft has conducted 142 missions, including one over Syria. This contribution as part of the Coalition force has been significant, and the continued professionalism of the Air Task Group and those involved in our air mobility operations, the C-17 and the C-130 continues to demonstrate their professionalism and ability to support operations on the ground and in the air. Their efforts have made a genuine contribution in the fight to firstly halt the advance of Daesh and the continuing mission to degrade and destroy this threat.

But switch to Afghanistan now, Operation HIGHROAD for us. The ADF led training and advisory missions supporting the Afghan National Army 205th Corp in Kandahar, concluded on 1 October, and did mark a significant milestone for the ADF mission in Afghanistan.

This element of the ADF training and advisory mission is concluding as part of the NATO led Resolute Support Mission plan transition. Since 2010, seven separate rotations of advisors and their accompanying security elements and support personnel, totalling about 420 people, as well as embedded staff in the Coalition nations have contributed to the success of the 205th Corp over the last five years. 205th Corp is ready for the transition. It will continue to be supported by Coalition personnel from the Kandahar based Coalition headquarters.

With the departure of our advisory assist team in Kandahar and their supporting staff, the ADF presence in Afghanistan will reduce to about 250 people, mainly located in the Kabul area. These people will continue to support the Afghan security forces through advisory and mentoring roles, including at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, the General Command Police Special Unit and in embedded roles advising Afghan security ministries and at the headquarters of the Resolute Support Mission.

For our maritime operations; HMAS Melbourne has recently returned to supporting Coalition Maritime Force operations in the Middle East. The ship was last on station during the period September 2013 through to February 2014. The ship has picked up where it left off, from a previously very successful patrol by interdicting several suspicious dhows and conducting boarding operations.

I can make public here for the first time that on Friday of last week, 2 October that Melbourne seized 427 kilograms of heroin with an estimated value of $126 million. While on patrol, Melbourne was directed by the Coalition Maritime Force headquarters to board a suspicious fishing dhow in international waters in the Indian Ocean. During the inspection of the dhow and her crew, a hidden compartment was discovered that was filled with a suspected narcotic later identified as heroin.

In combination with other drug seizures that our ships have achieved, this makes a total of almost five tonnes – 4800 kilograms of heroin seized by Australian Navy vessels since February 2014. We know that one of the key sources of terrorism funding is the illegal narcotics trade, and this latest fall is part of the ongoing Coalition counter-terrorism contribution. I wish the ship’s crew well for another successful tour.

In conclusion, although the ADF is not involved in the operation in Kunduz that has been the subject of considerable public profile, we are closely monitoring the efforts of the Afghan National Defence and Security Force operations to eject the Taliban forces from the town. There are positive signs that the Government forces have recovered much of the capital and demonstrated their will to take the fight up to the Taliban.

Regarding the Russian air operations in Syria, I emphasise the ADF is continuing to conduct their operations to combat Daesh in Syria and Iraq. The operations of the Air Task Group will continue to be coordinated through the US led Combined Air Operations Centre, and measures are in place to enable the safe operation of Coalition aircraft.

I’m aware of course that the US and Russia have begun discussions to ensure safety of flight between the activities of Russian and Coalition forces, and we will continue to monitor the outcomes of those discussions.

ADF forces generally continue to find themselves operating in a highly dynamic environment. Whether it is training and supporting partner forces or conducting kinetic operations in support of host nations, our forces continue to equip themselves extremely well. Thank you, and I am happy to take your questions.

QUESTION:                           

Why is the [indistinct] Special Operations Task group being reduced from 200 to 80 persons, and also last time in the last briefing you said that Australia joining the fight in Syria wouldn’t be a game changer, but now we’re saying we’re making a significant contribution to the efforts against ISIS – how has that changed?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’ll answer both of those questions. The change in size but not the role of the Special Operations Task Group has come about because we’ve learned lessons. So you might recall when the first Special Operations Task Group went in, it was about 200 people, the environment was uncertain, the mission was still evolving.

We’ve now conducted two rotations of forces, we understand the mission better than when we started. That’s enabled us to make adjustments in the force size that we are using. There’s some efficiencies that we’ve been able to draw because we know what we are dealing with, and in particular where we’re able to make an important contribution the counter-terrorism services.

So we are delivering the effect that we had previously delivered, we’re just capable of doing it with fewer people than what we started with.

For the operations in Syria, we are making a valuable contribution, and you might recall that I did say at the time it will provide flexibility to operational commanders to be able to move aircraft across the border that the Daesh doesn’t recognise itself. It free- it does move its forces between Syria and Iraq. That is the flexibility that we have. The comment that I made has been I think selectively used. It hasn’t substantially changed the way we operate. So we continue to assess risks carefully, we’ve got the ability and we had previously conducted operations right up into the Northern parts of the Iraqi border. We’re now able to cross the border.

So it’s not a significant change for the air operations, but it does bring significant latitude for a mission commander to be able to respond to circumstances as they present.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] worthwhile Australia being there then?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes, it is.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] you gave for the air missions [indistinct] …

QUESTION:                           

[Interrupts] Sorry to [indistinct], but I- that’s just- what are we actually doing? I mean, we’re … if you’re talking about one university at a time, we’re not going to be finished until 2060, 2064 at least. I mean we’re not- we’re not the Iraqis, we are building the Iraqi forces, but they’re just not interested in having us. For a year, we- you mentioned that there’s been something like 1400- sorry, 1200 missions, air missions over there – that’s 1200 doctors because we’re having to operate out of the … the Gulf rather than closer in, in actual- we can’t even base our people in Iraq. But how … the Iraqi people that the US have trained have already turned up in Germany, I mean, it’s … the allied mission is falling apart. That’s just the reality.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Nick, I don’t agree with your assessment of that, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear. We are there because the Government of Iraq has asked us to be there. We’re part of a significant coalition that is making a contribution. It is a battlefield – particularly in Iraq, that is owned by the Government of Iraq, and we have to work in a manner that suits the environment that they are working in, where they’re prepared for the Coalition to make a supporting role. The training we’re delivering to the counter-terrorism service is important. We’ve talked in the past about building their capacity, building their ability and resilience to be able to conduct operations. All of that comes around being well equipped, having a mission, and being well trained for the role that you have.

We contribute to that. So my view- it is an important contribution that we’re providing. But the alternate scenarios aren’t clear in terms of well there may questions around whether the campaign is right or wrong – there aren’t too many credible alternatives that people address. This is the one that- the approach that the Government of Iraq wants, they are the sovereign nation dealing with the issue, and we’re supporting them in the manner they wish to be supported.

[Cross talk]

Sorry, we will come around to all of your questions.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] air strikes, you gave figures up to 2 October, and you also mentioned that Russia and the United States are talking at the moment about the clear passage, if you like, in that contested airspace. Are Australian missions in Eastern Syria currently on hold while those conversations take place?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No they’re not. We continue to have the ability to fly in Syria but when the tactical circumstances require it.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] capabilities you do sir…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Then we will…

QUESTION:                           

…but are we actually doing it is what I’m…?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have continued to- our tasking depends on the priorities of the day that come out of the air operations centre. There is no change in our availability to conduct air operations in Syria.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] has been flown a mission over Syria since last Wednesday sir?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We have not but not because there’s any restriction. Tactically our focus has been elsewhere. But there’s no restraint to if- to properly answer your question, if there was a mission tonight to do so we would do so.

QUESTION:                           

Just on point if I could on the point that Nick raised. I know you won’t give us- and I wouldn’t expect you to give us a timeline for the retaking of Mosul for example, but is there one? Does it exist? Have the Iraqis got a time for running the reclaiming of their territory and have you seen it?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

That’s a better question put to the government of Iraq because it is their campaign.

QUESTION:                           

Surely sir…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No with that- what we do need to know is their campaign approach where their focus is. Whether their troops are fighting in Ramadi, fighting in the eastern part of Iraq or they’re preparing for the counter-offensive into Mosul, we will be part of training them for that. We do need to understand what their operational campaign is so that we can tailor our training around it. But the timing is determined by the government of Iraq. So they have objectives in places that they need to build to. That is a better question put to them. It’s…

QUESTION:                           

They’re not telling you?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They are still- they have work to do in terms of- I think they have a figure in their mind. I can’t tell you whether it is October this year or February next year. Our focus is all around providing the support to the forces that are enabling them to achieve that mission.

QUESTION:                           

My question without [indistinct] to be too pedantic is are they telling you that or are we blind in terms of our time commitment here?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

The time commitment for Australian forces is a question for our government. So there are two parallel elements there. The timing for the government of Iraq and how quickly it will move through its operations and the question for our own government of how long Australia may contribute to that but they are just different questions.

QUESTION:                           

Could you just outline some of the risks of Australia and Russ…coalition forces as well as Australia and Russian aircraft operating in the same place? And why there’s- and you mentioned before there’s discussions between US and Russia to avoid any incidents. What procedures are currently in place to avoid those?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I won’t specify the exact procedures because they can be exploited if you know how we’re managing safety, you can use that information. I can say unequivocally we’re very confident in them. So there are unilateral, that is the coalition has its own procedures in place to ensure the safety of flight over Syria. What has changed with the Russian presence of course is that there is another participant that is flying operations in Syria but we have to make sure that we can preserve safety of flight and those arrangements have been put in place by the US, while they also go through that dialogue and discussions with the Russia authorities how best to manage those outcomes.

QUESTION:                           

Does that mean that the [indistinct]operations of the Wedgetail for instance is more important given that we do have another plan?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Wedgetail’s always been important. It’s a fantastic platform. But it is the type of capability that enables you to know what aircraft are moving across Syria or Iraq and that certainly enables you to assist in safety of flight.

QUESTION:                           

Is there any change to the air-to-air weapons loadout?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

For our missions over Syria, no.

QUESTION:                           

And if the Russians are there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

I know we have- we’re not stopping missions over Syria but have we changed the way that we’re operating over Syria now that- have we issued new orders to pilots or told them they should behave differently over Syria or be on a lookout for certain things now that we know that the Russians are invading(*) the same space.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

There are instructions of how to ensure that safety of flight to- were the circumstance to occur where aircraft were found themselves operating closer to Russian aircraft, what they would do in those circumstances so those instructions have certainly been developed within the coalition so the nations operate in a consistent manner and that is what aircraft are operating by.

QUESTION:                           

What’s your assessment Vice Admiral of how much damage has been done to Islamic State by Russian attacks in the last week?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It’s not yet clear but the strikes are only about a week old. We’ve seen a variety of targets hit. Of course we’re not there monitoring in terms of the specifics of who might be engaging. Too early to tell. The Russian advice is that they are striking Daesh targets. That assessment and validation needs to occur.

QUESTION:                           

They’re not as I understand it bombing targets anywhere near where Daesh is most active in Syria are they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Their operations have been across a relatively wide part of Syria including areas where a number of forces are operating including Daesh.

QUESTION:                           

Afghanistan, we’re obviously winding down in Afghanistan. Overnight in the US the Americans suggested they might need to slow the withdrawal or even put more troops back in again. Is this a discussion that we’re going to have or are we going to continue on this path of winding down? Will we slow down as well?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think we’re waiting to see that- the US with NATO and other forces will be looking not only at the circumstances that occurred in Kunduz over the last week but the campaign generally. We are on a path that has been built with both the Resolute Support Mission and the Afghan forces. What the US, NATO and all the participation nations might do over the period of the next- and particularly the next few years and I think the largest question is what might extend beyond 2016. That’s where we may see some changes made. So in terms of the transition that we’ve just made in Kandahar I think we’re all confident that’s appropriate that the 205 Corps is ready for that. But what further adjustments might occur both amongst the NATO mission, the US mission and its contributing forces aren’t yet clear to us and that will be part of a review and discussions between national capitals.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] you have the total number of missions over Syria and the total number of targets and have there been [indistinct]missions that have been abandoned because of your concerns of where the targets are? Can you also give us an indication of the nature of those targets – have they been successfully destroyed and what conditions are [indistinct] they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Two targets were struck. One was an armoured personnel carrier. The other one was a Daesh checkpoint. The strikes were successful. I won’t go into the specifics of the location of them. I think- and I’d have to go back into my notes. So I think it might be nine, I may have said nine or seven flights in total. Will- I’ll make sure you’ve got that information but I think it was in the commentary that I gave.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] 30 targets were successful. Is that correct? I think you mentioned 30 targets in Syria and two…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, no, I only mentioned two. So we’ve struck two but we have flown more flights than two over Syria. Like our missions in Iraq not every air strike mission involves the delivery of weapons depending on the circumstances the air crew find. But there have been- those two targets have been engaged on missions that have been performed over Syria.

QUESTION:                           

Have the ADF(*) for the coalition had a guarantee from Russia that they won’t strike down or come, you know, inhibit Australian aircraft or coalition aircraft at all?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think that’s part of the discussion the US and the Russian authorities are having. But I’m aware that this…

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] it’s not that guarantee at the moment?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No.

QUESTION:                           

But we would want some sort of- we would want to know what the Americans and the Russians are talking about if we’re committing our aircraft without [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

And we do. Those discussions are still very much in their early phase and we’ll look forward to their conclusion in getting that advice from them.

QUESTION:                           

And you’re still confident in Australian aircraft if there was a mission tonight flying over Syrian air space with Russian aircraft in the same area, even though we don’t have that guarantee, that potentially they wouldn’t be shot down by Russian aircraft?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m very confident the safety measures we have in place to manage that risk, yes.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] Syria, is there any [indistinct] information on more detail. I mean a checkpoint could be a couple of guys in a tin shed [indistinct] or bigger. Is there any more information on that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Most checkpoints are only about that size. This one was of that dimension as well.

QUESTION:                           

Can I just clarify with that as well. Were they strikes on different days because we were aware of the vehicle…

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes they were- different days.

QUESTION:                           

So the checkpoint with that, do you have a date on when that was [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No I don’t, no.

QUESTION:                           

Do you have any idea of how many people were killed at the checkpoint?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I’m uncertain but it prob…our knowledge is probably about there were two people operating out there that we were aware of but a relatively small number.

QUESTION:                           

And have there been any civilian casualties?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No. We’re very confident in that. As with all missions that post mission analysis is pretty thorough. That’s for all whether they’re in Syria and Iraq and I’m very confident of that assessment.

QUESTION:                           

What about over the last 12 months, any estimates on Syrian casualties over that period of time?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Our assessment is none from our air strikes. There’s been a significant amount of weaponry delivered in those two statistics I gave you for both the Classic Hornet and the Super Hornet. Every one of those missions that involved weapons delivery is analysed and we’re very confident in the outcomes.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral the Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister now say that a military solution’s not possible in Syria. What are you telling- what would you advise them about your conviction that a military solution is still achievable in Iraq? Are you absolutely confident it can be done as a military [indistinct]solution?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I don’t think they’d characterise that way and I’d be cautious of offering too much advice, I think my understanding of what they’ve said is it does require a political solution. That’s the case with most military campaigns, they do- they’re there to set the conditions for a political outcome and that’s certainly the case in Syria as well.

QUESTION:                           

And in Iraq?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes. And we’ve seen that in the past in terms of an inclusive government that looks after the Sunni and the Shia. So most military campaigns are about providing the political conditions for long term stability.

QUESTION:                           

Have we engaged in any way with the current discussions between the Iraqis, the Iranians and the Russians about the renewed offensive that they’re talking about conducting?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Have we- Australia?

QUESTION:                           

Yeah, well has the west?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I can’t answer for the other countries at all, I’m not aware of Australia engaging in that manner, you know we do have of course a mission in Iran, the Foreign Minister and others have been active in that consultation, but on this occasion, since that announcement I couldn’t say.

QUESTION:                           

There has been a suggestion that there might be Russian air support to assist an offensive by the Iraqi military. If that were the case, how would we regard that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

If the Russians- well that would be a matter for the Government of Iraq so that’s their decision to make of whether they think that’s suitable. I’m sure they would get advice from the Coalition on how to manage the consequences and what the impact of that would be. That would have to be worked through fairly carefully.

QUESTION:                           

Just asking a question about some other things- the Americans have recently signed an agreement with the Chinese as to how they should behave during air interceptions over the Spratly Islands. We do [indistinct] would we be looking to sign a similar agreement with the Chinese and can I also ask has there been any change to or any orders to ADF personnel to look out- aware for their safety, any changes in the last week or so in light of events in Sydney?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Right. For the first for your question around the air-to-air measures- they are important to ensure that in that case over the South China Sea, aircraft can operate safely together. I’m not aware of any negotiation for ourselves, with the Chinese but we’re very interested in the way that the US and China would be managing that. In terms of the question around the safety of ADF personnel, there’s no change to our- where we are in terms of our normal safe base conditions, as we have it but we’re clearly monitoring those circumstances and what may come from them very carefully.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] you say that the Russians claim that they are targeting Daesh in Syria and Iraq and that needs to be verified. Do you share the concerns raised by NATO that they may in fact be targeting moderate opposition forces to the Assad regime?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Not really a question for me to answer, particularly on NATO’s concerns or otherwise but it is increasingly a complex area in Syria, the entry of Russian forces increases that complexity further. Our mission is all around fighting Daesh and degrading Daesh including in Syria and not beyond that and that’s very much where our focus is.

QUESTION:                           

You say [indistinct] Australia flying in Syrian airspace, Russian pilots being there as well because we’ve got appropriate mechanisms and plans in place does that mean we have permission to engage if they engage with us?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Engage with..?

QUESTION:                           

[indistinct] you know, if a Russian aircraft strikes an Australian aircraft, does that mean we, you know, have permission to attack their rocket launchers or, you know, planes?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Our procedures are all about making sure we don’t find ourself in that position but as always with military forces anywhere, we have self defence, but all our procedures are to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in that position.

QUESTION:                           

Vice Admiral you’re saying that Russia’s involvement makes this complex situation more complex, ideally, would be good to have a less, you know, ideally be could see Russia out of the conflict then, in your words, it’d be ideal if it was less complex as a result of Russia’s involvement?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It would be ideal if it was complementary and working to the same objectives that the coalition are working to.

QUESTION:                           

So inferring from that you don’t believe that Russia’s involvement is complementary to the coalitions?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

But that’s still to be determined so we’re not yet sure where it’s complementary and it’s about fighting Daesh, then there’s a clear complementarity of effect there, beyond that it becomes much more complex if the missions are different.

QUESTION:                           

Admiral we’re all grown up here, when you look at New York Times’ reports which quite clearly display exactly where there source from the US military source is showing where the bombs have been hitting in Syria., the majority 80 per cent of those bombs have been in areas that are occupied and where there are non-Daesh units operating. Effectively, doesn’t this change the situation, I mean we now have a new participant in the struggle and this emphasises the point you made earlier that we really require urgently a political solution.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It does change the situation, I think that is self-evident. And it- and as you have seen in terms of the dialogue that’s occurring around how to manage the politics of it, that is a factor that has to be worked through. That’s politically- that’s not my area of responsibility but it is where nations will need to come together to work through what is the consequence and how best to manage that outcome.

QUESTION:                           

How closely are Australian special forces working with the Iraqis as in the jtax(*)JTAC role?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

We do that behind the wire still. So one of the remarkable developments that our special operations team have taken to a new art form is the ability to provide distantly remote support using communications and other means. So we’re not proceeding outside of the work as we’ve called it with the counter-terrorism forces but we are very intricately engaged in their support when they’re in a tactical situation in order to help with the integration of Coalition Air.

QUESTION:                           

So there’s a conduit from the Iraqi forces to [indistinct]the CAOC?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes.

QUESTION:                           

How would you define Russia’s involvement in Syria as being complimentary to what Australia and coalition forces are doing? What would be the disposition or target?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

If they were- their target set was Daesh.

QUESTION:                           

So from that, one can infer – to go back to Frances’s(*) point – that their targets at this point are at least in part not Daesh. You do acknowledge that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

They could be.

QUESTION:                           

Are you providing any intelligence as to what their targets are? Are you involved in determining where the targets are?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, we’re not because- while there are others that would be doing that work that’s not information- the raw information is not where we have the capability to provide that assessment.

QUESTION:                           

Just in general terms, you were saying it has been a year since we started our involvement overseas there – how would you describe, if any, the improvements that Australian and Coalition forces have had in fighting against ISIL? Where are we at?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yup. The training has been vital. So we have built confidence and capacity. While Australia hasn’t done it alone, other nations, the US in particular, equip- helping equip the Iraqi forces to give them the means to be combat effective.

Of course, the air contribution generally has enabled Daesh to be disrupted- and we’ve talked right I think from the start the freedom of movement that they exercised, initially, to be able to mass force move relatively at will and reap the operational benefits from that.

That isn’t the case now, so we’ve been able to degrade and disrupt the ability of Daesh forces to give the government of Iraq time to re-build its security forces to enable them to achieve the outcomes that they need.

QUESTION:                           

Can I just clarify something Tim asked earlier. You said we’ve haven’t flown any missions in Syria since last Wednesday. Have we flown missions anywhere?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Yes…

QUESTION:                           

[Interrupts] to Iraq?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

…so we’ve continued missions in Iraq. And I don’t want you to misunderstand that that is just because of the tasking that we’ve had – it is not a restriction in place for operations over Syria.

QUESTION:                           

Given the small number of missions in Syria since you began operations in that air space, is there any reason why there are so few?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Missions across Syria?

QUESTION:                           

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It depends on the analysis of target sets, against when our particular aircraft are flying. So other aircraft have been flying. Our missions change from day to night – different target presents themselves during that period. So it is driven by where we need to deliver the operational effect at the time.

QUESTION:                           

[Indistinct] complexity in the area – is that why?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

In Syria?

QUESTION:                           

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

It is- I mean, understanding what’s occurring on the ground in Syria with the various elements that are operating there is a complex activity to pull apart.

QUESTION:                           

One other question – would the ADF(*) have released footage of air strikes in Syria. We were told for about a year that you wouldn’t release footage of air strikes, and then all of a sudden, there was footage of air strikes dropped to 60 Minutes I think which was fairly frustrating to some of us. Would you now be – now that you’ve set the precedent – would you be willing to release footage of air strikes on a more regular basis?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

I think the approach we took right from the start was when we thought it appropriate that video of that nature would be released. You would all recall I’ve said in the past that we don’t seek to make it- glorify the conduct of the activities that we’re doing, and the video is fairly graphic in a number of circumstances. So on select occasions where we think it is warranted- at- on that particular occasion I think the video was released coincident with the announcement of the commencement of air operations over Syria. So where appropriate – not as a general basis – video will be made available.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE:         

Last questions please.

QUESTION:                           

Just to clarify – you said 434 strike missions in Iraq over the last 12 months. Are there any word on the number of fatalities sustained by ISIS over that period?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

In a general sense or in a specific in terms of our strikes?

QUESTION:                           

General or specific.

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

No, I don’t have those figures available – partly because we’re not the only ones of course that are conducting those combat air strike missions. And, typically, and I’ve made this point before, we don’t count operational success by the number of bodies that are killed. That is the effect being generated on the ground in terms of recapturing territory, reinforcing the government of Iraq’s access. So that’s- the body count element is not a measure of performance for us.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE:         

Last one.

QUESTION:                           

[Talks over] In making those assessments, sir, do you have ground intelligence to tell you- and to help assess the success of the strikes you are making? Or is it simply done by aerial reconnaissance?

DAVID JOHNSTON:              

Principally by aerial. Well, where we may have – if there are Iraqi forces operating in the area then we will get feedback on the effectiveness of the mission from them. So that applies more when we’re providing close com- air support. If it’s an interdiction mission where they’re may not be Iraqi forces, then we rely on our means to be able to collect data about the event, monitor the environment, post it and form a judgement.

Ladies and gentleman, thank you, I will look forward to seeing you again in a while. Thank you.

*         *         End         *         *


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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