Transcript – Press conference with Chief of Joint Operations VADM David Johnston and CO Task Group Taji COL Matthew Galton – Update on Australian Defence Force operations – 18 December 2015

18 December 2015 | Transcript

Chief of Joint Operations VADM David Johnston

Commanding Officer Task Group Taji COL Matthew Galton

Defence Headquarters, Russell

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning, and I think I have actually met all of you. But I am Vice-Admiral David Johnston, the Chief of Joint Operations, and I’m delighted to have with me Colonel Matt Galton, who has very recently returned as the commanding officer of the first task group deployment to Taji as part of our Building Partner Capacity mission. And Matt will be available when we do our customary Q and A at the end to be able to take any questions about the Building Partner Capacity role, and what we have achieved there.

What I thought I’d do this morning was to do a bit of a round-up for the year for what the ADF has done on operations, and spend a little more time on the detail for the current status of events in the Middle East, but really walk you through some of the achievements through the course of the year in the sense of what we’ve done. It will take about 15 minutes, and then we will go into a Q and A session with you.

As all of you would well know, the year and the global events have been pretty significant throughout 2015, which have had a significant impact on the environment in which we are conducting operations. If I look just since I last gave you an update, some of the key events that have occurred: we’ve had the downing of the Russian airliner in the Sinai, the downing of the Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force, the attacks in Paris and the dreadful tragedy associated with that, and a number of national decisions by governments about changes to their contribution across the Middle East and South Asian region, including Afghanistan. All of those events have had and will have an ongoing influence on the way the ADF conducts operations.

If I start now from early 2015 and just refresh us all really on the key events in Iraq and Syria as context for where we may take some of the questions on where we are at the moment. But as I look through from the start of the year, you’d recall we were conducting air operations from October 2014 [indistinct] so into the start of this year. The air operations were really focused on reducing the expansion of Daesh influence at the time with a focus towards disrupting their progress, and that has clearly moved on from there and I’ll come back and highlight that. In late January 2015, Kobani was held by the YPG fighters, accompanied by an active campaign by Kurdish forces across northern Iraq. April saw the recapture of the city of Tikrit, and following that success Iraqi forces launched offensive operations in other regions, also backed by Coalition aircraft.

The Australian and New Zealand training team that Matt led conducted its final preparations for its Building Partner Capacity mission in order to be ready to commence operations in May of this year. On 17 May, in a reversal of the Iraqi ground forces operational efforts, Daesh forces captured the city of Ramadi. In June we had clashes between Daesh and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria, which intensified from then in. The counterattack by Iraqi security forces in Ramadi commenced in mid July; as expected, Daesh had used the period of occupation to prepare significant defensive measures, including heavy concentrations of improvised explosive devices and concealed fighting positions, and we have seen both used extensively. On 13 September the Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq captured on area 40km south of Kirkuk, resulting in the liberation of a further 10 villages. By 6 October, subsequent battles between Daesh fighters and Kurdish forces saw a further 17 villages regained in the countryside of Hasakah in north-eastern Syria.

In late October, Baiji, which we’ve spoken about a number of times in Iraq, home to the largest oil refinery, was largely recaptured by Iraqi security forces. This important outcome impacts a key Daesh supply line from Mosul to Baghdad, and into the Ramadi area. In November, the town of Sinjar in Iraq was liberated by Kurdish forces after a campaign that involved extensive air strikes by Coalition aircraft to isolate and degrade Daesh forces, which was then followed by a ground attack. In addition to the attacks against Daesh ground forces, there’s been a concerted campaign against Daesh oil production facilities. This has sought to reduce the availability of oil for the production of fuel for military use by Daesh. The recent deliberate air strikes against the Tanak and Omar oilfields in Syria are assessed to have had a substantial impact upon oil output.

I turn now to Ramadi in a little more detail. Over a number of months, the Iraqi security forces have made progressive gains in recapturing Ramadi. Progress has been made to the north, west and south of the city. Earlier this week the Iraqi security forces captured the area of Al-Tamim, an important area within the urban environment on the West Bank of the Euphrates in Ramadi. This has effectively split the Daesh forces and isolated several Daesh elements from resupply. While it’s too early to predict the date for the counterattack to be completed in Ramadi, there is consistent progress being made on the ground.

In general, within Iraq, Iraqi security forces and coalition momentum is increasing. Daesh now finds itself under pressure on multiple fronts in Iraq, at Sinjar, Baiji and Ramadi. This, in combination with successes in northern Syria and strikes on oil-generation facilities that limit their finances, is having a significant impact upon their force availability, their freedom of movement, and effectiveness.

The Iraqi Government, with coalition support, has continued to consolidate its operational position. Iraqi forces are reconstituting and improving their skills through the conduct of further training, often delivered by coalition partners, including our own efforts.

Turning to Australia’s particular contribution, we have remained a key contributor in the fight against Daesh throughout 2015. We are the second-largest contributor to the military effort on the ground in Iraq, and one of the major contributors to the air campaign. Each of the Australian force elements have made significant contributions to the overall effort against Daesh. I received overt recognition of the scale and quality of Australia’s contribution from several senior coalition military commanders, with whom I met in the past week while in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Australian special force element, who are conducting the advise and assist mission, have provided highly-effective remote-based joint terminal attack controller support to the first ISOF brigade of the Counter Terrorism Service. CTS of course is one of the lead units in the fight in Ramadi.

In addition to supporting their operational planning and manoeuvre, our advise-assist efforts included the enabling of over 917 strike missions. The majority of these missions have occurred in the vicinity of Ramadi, resulting in significant numbers of Daesh fighters killed, the destruction of more than 420 defensive fighting positions and 85 Daesh vehicles destroyed, many of them vehicle-born IEDs. This contribution has been a genuine combat multiplier in the grinding battle to recapture Ramadi, and has been a key factor in aligning the Iraqi security force ground assault with coalition air support. Additionally, the Special Operations Task Group continues to train and prepare the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service for operations. Our Special Operations Group has now qualified more than 830 Iraqi special operation force soldiers in a range of combat skills. This is building their capability and, importantly, their confidence.

On the Building Partner Capacity mission, Task Group Taji has now trained and has in training several contingents of the Iraqi army. Our training has upskilled over 3,000 personnel. This includes Iraqi army brigades, junior NCO academy, and specialised units, many of whom are now involved in operations around Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq. The feedback from the Iraqi Ministry of Defence and senior Iraqi military commanders regarding the building partner capacity mission has been extremely positive. Iraqi commanders have observed a commensurate improvement in the competence of their forces who have received this training. The first rotation of task group Taji returned to Australia very recently, and I would like to thank them all for establishing an excellent foundation for future training. This combined force of 300 Australian and 100 New Zealanders has made a substantial contribution, and we are very proud of their achievements. And Colonel Galton will be able to discuss these with you further.

On our air operations. Since the commencement of strike missions in September 2014, the Air Task Group has completed a total of just over 1000 air strike missions over Iraq and Syria. More than 600 munitions were released during these missions, including nine(*) weapons on 12 missions over Syria, three of which have occurred this month. I am aware of the recent interest in the percentage of missions that involved weapons being used. The Air Task Group is on par with overall coalition rates, which have been steadily increasing since September, and are currently between around 55 to 65 per cent of total strike(*) missions resulting in kinetic[indistinct] strikes, with some [indistinct]weeks for Australian aircraft up to 80 per cent of missions. Despite the increased number of [indistinct]strikes our efforts to ensure the minimisation of civilian casualties and collateral damage remains paramount.

There have been ongoing improvements in targeting techniques that, in combination with the Iraqi security force shift to offensive operations, has enabled an increased tempo of operations. This increased tempo has specifically focused in the following areas: support to the Iraqi forces in Ramadi, degrading Daesh oil supplies, and enabling the recapture of Sinjar. Our KC-30 air refuelling aircraft continues to provide a highly-respected coalition-wide contribution, having conducted 467 missions transferring more than 37 million pounds of fuel, both to Australian and coalition aircraft during this year. The E-7 Wedgetail, the early warning and control aircraft, remains a prized asset. It’s conducted 163 command and control missions, including 35 over Syria. To enable the ongoing sustainment of Australian Defence Force and coalition operations right across the Middle East region; since September of last year the C-17 Globemaster’s performed 94 missions, and the C-130 Hercules 445 missions, moving people and over 8 million pounds of cargo in and out of theatre. The performance of these crews, which doesn’t get often too much visibility, and the support from their own staff is critical to the achievement of our mission, and I am very grateful for it.

In Afghanistan, our presence is currently around 250 personnel, mainly located in Kabul following the return of our Kandahar-based training and advise(*) team in September. Our remaining people continue to support Afghan security forces through advisory and mentoring roles, including at the Afghan National Army Officer Academy, which I visited recently, where we are providing the future leadership and supporting the growth of the Afghan army leaders through their training. Our embedded staff will continue to advise the Afghan ministry, and at the headquarters of the Resolute[indistinct] support mission. Their performance in a difficult operational environment is outstanding.

At sea during 2015, HMAS Success, Newcastle, and Melbourne we deployed on Operation Manitou in the Middle East Region, providing maritime security to counter terrorism acts and related illegal activity across the region. During their collective deployments, the three ships have seized over 2 tonnes of narcotics. This has been a very significant contribution by the 861 men and women who have deployed to the region during that period. Australia’s maritime commitment continues to be an important contribution to the fight against terrorism.

Turning now to beyond Iraq and Syria to our humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations in 2015. The ADF of course remains postured to provide support to our regional neighbours, and in 2015 provided major disaster relief support for Vanuatu following Tropical Cyclone Pam, a Category 5 cyclone that caused significant damage across the island nation on 13 March this year. The ADF performed a major part in the immediate relief effort by repairing key infrastructure, restoring basic services, and delivering humanitarian assistance and disaster relief stores. In Nepal following the devastating earthquake on 8 and 25, the Defence Force delivered over 13 tonnes of Australian aid to Nepal, and evacuated 106 Australians and other foreign nationals to Thailand. We used two of the RAAF C-17 Globemaster aircraft to fly stores into Kathmandu International Airport, and bring the evacuees out to Bangkok.

In our nearer regions throughout 2015, the ADF has conducted routine regular navy, army, and air force engagement with our regional neighbours. We of course have a long history of engagement throughout [indistinct] Asia, including a broad range of bilateral and multilateral activities. One of the recent highlights was the navy to navy exercise with the PLA navy in China, as part of a Royal Australian Navy regular series of port visits and exercise through north and Southeast Asia. The visit to China, as part of a broad regional engagement activity, involved HMAS Stuart, Arunta, and Sirius, who conducted exercises and port visits to the Philippines, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia as part of that deployment. In Asia of course the ADF has been conducting maritime surveillance air patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea. Operation Gateway commenced in 1980, and is focused on the preservation of regional security and stability.

In addition to regional security, the ADF has continued our contribution to the whole of government efforts to protect Australia’s border and off-shore maritime interests. The ADF contribution, known as Operation Resolute, at any one time can involve up to 800 people at sea, in the air, and on the land. In addition to what has been a busy period of operational commitments, Defence Force maintains a busy training program to further develop our capabilities. The largest of these exercises, Talisman Sabre, involved over 30,000 US and Australian military personnel. The primary aim of Talisman Sabre was to improve training and co-operability between Australia and US armed forces. This year the exercise also included New Zealand and Japanese defence force involvement.

Now as we near Christmas, and in conclusion, I would like to recognise the contribution of the 2200 men and women of the Defence Force who will be serving overseas over Christmas, and thank them, their families, and friends for their contribution.

Thank you, and I’m also grateful for your attendance throughout the year at these operational updates, and I’m happy now to take your questions with Colonel Galton.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] There’s been obviously a perception that the Iraqi forces got hammered at the start [indistinct], were never going to actually be strong enough to resist them and force them out. Now you’ve spent time working closely with them, do you believe they are turning it around? Do they have the morale and ability?

MATT GALTON:

They certainly are. The momentum in that fight has shifted significantly I think, and whilst I wouldn’t put a timeline on it I think it’s only a matter of time now until the Iraqi army does actually succeed and defeats Daesh in Iraq. It’s very personnel for them as well, a lot of them have had families removed from their home towns because it’s areas that Daesh have captured. And one of the zones in particular that we were training soldiers from was up around the Mosul area. So they’re quite determined, and they have turned things around, I think that’s part of that, and through the coalition support that they’ve received.

QUESTION:      

So it’s not just a matter of the Kurds doing all the fighting [indistinct] …

MATT GALTON:

No no no, not at all. The Iraqi Army is heavily committed to the fight. So there’s operations going on throughout Iraq [indistinct] operations such as Ramadi, there’s other areas as well where they’re heavily committed [indistinct] state. Yeah, they have got it in them to win this fight, but the training has had a visible impact on them as well. They are more confident on the battlefield now, the forces that have had [indistinct] to train. They are committed to the training. It’s been a very busy training schedule for our rotations, [indistinct] continue the rotation [indistinct] but they still have [indistinct] training now [indistinct]. So yeah, things are on the improve [indistinct].

QUESTION:

[Inaudible question].

MATT GALTON:

I think you’d be very brave to put timelines on that sort of thing. Iraqis will do it on their own timeline, which is a good thing, they do their own planning for these operations, but they get supported by the coalition. They certainly lead the planning, they lead the execution of operations, so it’s on their timeline. So it’s just a matter of time until they do retake Ramadi, and hopefully in the not too distant future they’ll start moving further [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Can you tell us a bit more about what did the Iraqi [indistinct]soldiers that you’ve been training actually do in [indistinct] battle, including around Ramadi, how effective were they[indistinct]?

MATT GALTON:

The first brigade that we trained was 76th Brigade. They’ve taken a major role in Ramadi. So they’ve been involved in the advance[indistinct] from the east and then later from the south. So, we had hefty contact with a number of the officers that we were training, and we do get feedback from them occasionally. We make sure that we learn from what they’ve done on the battlefield so we continually improve the training. So yeah, the first brigade that [indistinct] training have had a major part to play in Ramadi. We’re still involved in projects out there [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question].

MATTHEW GALTON:    

Yeah, just- specifically one of the battalion commanders actually [indistinct] back to us that there’s a number of [indistinct] potentially [indistinct] training on some of the inner workings that are required to them through the US. They’ll be training them one day; they’ll put them to good effect on the battlefield. They’re more confident out there having received the training, and so they haven’t taken back the [indistinct] feedback.

QUESTION:      

Is there any indication as to how many soldiers, Australian [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I think overall we’re very aware that we’ll probably have a full year of training. So what Matt Galton’s team achieved is likely to be replicated through the future task group rotations. 2000- so up to 3000 now who were just over six months, and we’d probably see that level of training continuing up to- that will be about 12,000- 3000. So for the 12 months ahead I’d expect to see probably another 6000. But the feedback to me from Coalition commanders is that they can see 2016 being as intense a training period for the Iraqi security forces as we’ve experienced with the first rotation.

QUESTION:      

Admiral, can you [indistinct] about the actions of our special forces [indistinct]acting in the role of JTACs[indistinct] appreciate [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

As we had said from the start, they’re operating from inside bases. So we don’t have a combat role, but it is one of the areas that I am most impressed with. Now the [indistinct] have been in there [indistinct]. So we are deeply engaged with the- particularly the Counter-Terrorism Service in their planning, cooperation. The JTACs that we have deployed are working remotely, but have good communications with the Iraqi forces that are tactically in the fight in a very dynamic sense. So as they’re moving through their clearance(*) of operations, they’re talking to them as they do it, so maintaining very good situational awareness, and then coordinating the Coalition air support that’s providing deep and integral air support to the Iraqi[indistinct] ground forces.

So we’re- but, half a step back, we are training the forces for a particular operation. So there is generic training of up-skilling the CTS, but specific training for the operations that they’re about to commit to, that’s contemporary for the environment in which they’ll work. We’re involved in the operational planning, and giving them ideas. As Matt has said, it is their planning but they take very good advice, and our relationship with the CTS in particular is a very close one. So we’ll support their planning. As they move into the operational activity, our JTACs are talking with their forward air controllers to coordinate the insertion of Coalition air. And then, as they come back out of that operational activity we get debriefed by them, they look at the changes in tactics that Daesh have used, that comes back into the training program to update the forces that might be rotating back in there.

And I know there’s been a lot of commentary about does our role inside the wire[indistinct] limit us. I think- as I compare where we are now to even the operations that we’ve conducted in the past, whether Afghanistan or otherwise, there’s a real art form developing of how do you support another force in operations; that we have learnt by experience. We’re on the third rotation of the advise-assist mission. Now, each has built on the knowledge of the previous rotation, and the results they’re achieving are highly appreciated by the Iraqis. The feedback that they’re getting is that very much seeing them like brothers. While they’re not physically on the battleline with them, they’re all but there with them and that is having a deep impact on the Iraqi soldiers.

QUESTION:      

Admiral, can you take us through some of the casualties of the year? Just looking at it in the broad [indistinct] percentage of the [indistinct] as you call them [indistinct] combatants. How many people have been killed [indistinct] Daesh and so on?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I’ve made the comment before, we don’t use the number of combat deaths that occur as a measure of performance, because it isn’t useful for us. So I don’t have that visibility across the Coalition, how many deaths have occurred.

The numbers of Daesh fighters currently fighting I do see is it tends to still be an assessment of there being more than probably 10,000 Daesh fighters in Iraq; and more than 10,000 in Syria. And that number has been …

QUESTION:      

[Interrupts] This year?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

That’s at the moment. And while there have certainly been- and Daesh has suffered significant casualties in a number of areas. The numbers remain somewhat opaque to us, it is difficult to get the assessments around what remains. It is clear they’re continuing to get fighters flow in, whether that’s through those who are volunteering, or collusion through the communities, that can press people to have to fight for them. The combat casualties are important, as I’ve said, because we attrit their forces, we do decapitate their leadership, we reduce the experience levels of forces. But an accurate number of how many have died is almost impossible.

QUESTION:      

But you’d have a pretty good idea of [indistinct] air strikes, because you’d be watching that from afar. So I mean, with the strikes, the number of bombs you dropped, wouldn’t you know that the vehicle has got people in it. Have you got an estimate on that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Well our own operations … understanding, I would have- and across the Coalition for what they have heard in Ramadi, we’d think there’d be more than a thousand people would have, that is Daesh fighters, would have died in that environment. How many remain is probably the more important question for me, and that is where they are able to still move some …

QUESTION:      

[Interrupts] [indistinct] thousands [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

A combination of strikes. And even our own strikes are often partnered with other aircraft, so that is isn’t too often that we’re striking by ourselves [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

And what about civilian deaths?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

We continue to be very careful and very deliberate in our targeting processes and the application of weapons on the battlefield. I remain very confident in our processes. To my knowledge, from our strikes, I don’t have visibility across what other nations would be doing, very confident that to the best of our knowledge we have not caused civilian combat casualties as part of our air missions[indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Just to be clear, Admiral, it would be more than a thousand Daesh fighters have been killed in or around Ramadi to Coalition airstrikes.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes.

QUESTION:      

And how many …

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

[Interrupts] [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

… [indistinct] through the Iraqi security [indistinct].

UNKNOWN SPEAKER: 

[Indistinct] Yes.

QUESTION:      

How many Coalition casualties has there been? [Indistinct] thousand in Ramadi, how many have the other side?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

How many Coalition? Or how many[indistinct] Iraqi security force?

QUESTION:      

Yeah. Iraqi, yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I don’t have precise number for it because we don’t get visibility of all the forces, because we aren’t there with them on the front line to see how many casualties that they incur. They have certainly suffered casualties.

QUESTION:      

In the order of hundreds, or …

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I’m not certain. It wouldn’t be more than hundreds, I would expect. So relatively low compared to the number of Daesh fighters who are dying. But I don’t have enough fidelity over that to give you that number with confidence.

QUESTION:      

And just to clarify something, when you talked about the JTACs [indistinct] deliver(*) [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, both. So we have a- during a tactical fight that may be occurring, we’ll use Ramadi as the example, we will have JTACs in an operation centre who are in direct communication with Iraqis who are conducting the fight themselves. So as they might move toward and area and identify a border location or where snipers might be located, that information will come back through our JTACs in order to be able to get Coalition air to provide that support[indistinct].

QUESTION:      

And monitoring what’s going on through UAVs, or …

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

A combination. So reports from the Iraqis that are there at the front; with UAVs or other surveillance capabilities that are available, they’re able to monitor those. So they fuse all of that information to try to get as best an understanding of what’s occurring, and that’s where they bring the Coalition air into it.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] they can’t call in strikes.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

They do, but there can be- the processes would be for an operation centre into the Coalition ops room, who do have direct communications with the JTAC[indistinct] to be able to dynamically change the tasking of the aircraft. And that’s why [indistinct] just perhaps pick up on that. The statistics over the number of weapons that may be dropping per mission can be somewhat misleading if you don’t have an understanding. We perform a number of different mission types. A deliberate strike is where you’ve got a predefined target and you’ve gone through all the targeting processes, and the aircraft would go out and almost empirically always drop munitions [indistinct]. But some of the roles we provide are combat air support. You’re in an area where you’re expecting fighting to occur, and on standby to provide immediate support to ground forces where required. And because that’s a very dynamic environment sometimes there’s a need(*), other times there may not be a call to fire and on those occasions, the aircraft [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

So do the Iraqis on the ground give the JTACs verbal information, or do they send them pictures that they’re taking on the ground?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Bit of a combination. So they are in voice communications with our people, so they’ll be able to pass back a verbal report, grid references of the locations of where the activity is occurring. Much of it is verbal but it then gets consolidated into a picture within the operation centre where we will have people working there, double- we’ll have people inside the Iraqi operation centres as well to be able to fuse the information they may be receiving that could be different from the reporting lines of [indistinct] achieving that. A verbal picture is then fused together to be able to [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct]. A lot of activity – air activity – is around Syria [indistinct] Russian deaths [indistinct] Russia airline owner [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes.

QUESTION:      

And what’s being done to keep the separation between our aircraft and Russian, and are our pilots actually seeing Russian pilots, are the wedgetail planes- or is the wedgetail playing a significant role in that?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

There are both procedural and tactical arrangements in place. You’d recall the US leading Coalition has a memorandum of understanding in place with the Russians about how they will consult both on activities that are on the way, and manage those circumstances where the forces are close to each other. And- but there’s- but that’s a procedural approach to it. But in addition, the Coalition has put in place and the airborne early warning is a part of that framework where they will, from the air, monitor the airspace in which coalition aircraft are operating in order to be able to provide advice to all Coalition aircraft, including our own, on the movement of, whether it’s Syrian aircraft, Russian aircraft, that are occurring within the airspace where they’d be operating. We’re very confident in those procedures. We have had occasions where we’re aware of Russian aircraft activity that is in and around Coalition aircraft, including our own, and a [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Is the wedgetail playing a role?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The wedgetail is playing a role. I mentioned I think over 30 missions over Syria, and part of that is providing that airspace picture in order to be able to inform Coalition aircraft of what’s going on.

QUESTION:      

And Admiral, when was it [indistinct] earlier this year, none of this [indistinct] maybe Australian skies(*) [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yeah I’m aware of those reports and I think a number of them- we looked to check our own data. Of course, we’ve got pretty good insights. So, when a strike occurs, normally- not always, it depends on weather and other conditions. We’ve got rapid systems video and you’ve seen some of that used in the past that enables us to do that. Post-strike collateral damage assessment, and so on each- on every strike, whether there’s an allegation or not, we would step through with a thorough analysis of our activity to confirm to the best of our knowledge that those- that there has been no collateral damage associated with it. And as I’ve indicated, on every one of those so far we’ve got no indication that our strikes have involved collateral damage.

QUESTION:      

Sorry, slightly different subject but you mentioned Operation Gateway.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes.

QUESTION:      

Now, there’s some very intense interest in this. What happens is these operations take place [indistinct] organised it I’m sure very well, but the Department [indistinct] talking [inaudible] things that we’d like to know, just to sort out some confusion. Was our Orion on that occasion- around about 21 November, was it challenged by the Chinese? And was the broadcast [indistinct] from the Orion actually responding to a Chinese challenge? And can you tell us a bit more about the actual contact between our aircraft and the Chinese on that occasion, and [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

And I’ll come to the specifics, but I’ll paint a picture in part first. We have been conducting Operation Gateway since 1980. So it is a very long-standing arrangement that we have in place. It’s important for our engagement with other regional partners. It covers air operations in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea. But returning to that particular incident, the aircraft was challenged by a Chinese call. It is not an unusual event to occur. The response has been very professional, so we- and what you heard was quite accurate in terms of that a query from a Chinese- often a Chinese vessel that would be near one of their islands that they have established facilities on and claim as their own. And on those occasions an aircraft may be operating in the area, they would be called on radio and they would respond in the type of form that you’ve seen, where we indicate that we’re conducting operations in the area, we’re complying with international law, and that’s typical of the nature of [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Sorry did you just say call in that instance came from one of the areas claimed by China not a vessel?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, from a vessel.

QUESTION:      

From a vessel.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

So, it came from, we believe, a ship[indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Can I just ask- the flights have been characterised, I think, as sporadic. I know you’ve been doing them for a very long time and [indistinct] so I just wanted to see, have you increased those flights this year or over recent months, and how sporadic are they?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The number of times we deploy those aircraft has varied over time, so it depends on other commitments that we’re [indistinct] work [indistinct] 35 years worth even- the decade where we had our P-3(*) [indistinct] deployed to the Middle East have meant that we’re out of commitments there. So, naturally there’s fewer aircraft to be able to conduct it during that period, we’ve had less flights in the area. But it does vary with time depending on the level of commitments that those particular platforms have had. But the number- when the number changes it really just depends on whether it’s other commitments that are occurring at the time, what is available to us. The key event- or the key point I’d make is it is a regular pattern of those operations in the area over many years. So, yes the numbers go up and down, it depends on what’s occurring. But the conduct of the activity’s largely unchanged. What we’re doing now is consistent with what we have been doing.

QUESTION:      

Sorry, sorry, one more. Have we deliberately increased the tempo to send signals to everybody [indistinct] continue operating into [inaudible]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

We haven’t changed the tempo for the [indistinct] on purpose, but we are conducting the same number of typical deployments as we’ve done in the past with a bit of variation up or down depending on what happens. But there’s not substantial change in the numbers of what we have done in the past.

QUESTION:      

Can I just characterise, when we do flights, are they sort of relatively- I guess on- are you specifically avoiding areas that China claims is their space? Like are you- do you range across the 12 nautical mile zones specifically, or do you stay [indistinct] or, can you characterise the patrol [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

We go wherever international law enables us to go. So, I don’t intend to make a comment of the inside, outside law miles issue. But we do operate, as our ships do, or in other platforms, consistent with international law.

QUESTION:      

So on this occasion, [indistinct] inside the 12 nautical mile zone. Can you tell us about- was the aircraft within a particular area of concern to the Chinese?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

[Indistinct] self evidently the answer’s in part yes, because we got a call from a ship operating in those areas. But of course [indistinct] ship radars typically would pick up their movements up to about 400 kilometres around. So, their air surveillance is quite well spread and they’re able to detect aircraft movements in that region.

QUESTION:      

And to clarify that, you’re not saying it was inside the 12 mile zone?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No.

QUESTION:      

But are you saying- would it be consistent with [indistinct] Australian [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No…

QUESTION:      

No, but would it be, I’m asking you, just [indistinct]. Would it be consistent with international law if the Australian plane was in the 12 nautical mile zone?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

It would be, because international law would provide…

QUESTION:      

[Interrupts] Because it’s contested, yes.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

That’s right, because it’s contested and Australia doesn’t recognise any of it.

QUESTION:      

So, it might’ve been inside. It might’ve been inside the…

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

And I’m not offering any comment on that.

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes we have.

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

It wasn’t unique, no.

QUESTION:      

I’m sorry, the Chinese [inaudible]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

They typically would repeat the response until they either that they determine that they’re tired of doing so, and we would continue to provide a response that we’re operating in accordance with international law and are operating in the area [indistinct]. So when these events occur often it’s- they’ll- say a message will respond with a message and the pattern will continue for a period.

QUESTION:      

How far from mainland China are we? Our aircraft?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The- our aircraft they can range from broadly in the South China Sea. So we operate at the national [indistinct] in Malaysia for these flights so that brings us down into the South China Sea rather than up towards the East China Sea. But we can control rights around there in those- in that area that is outside of sovereign airspace for any of those [indistinct]

QUESTION:      

The Chinese media seems to be very aggressive towards the [indistinct] government control – is that what he said?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I think that was a small segment of the Chinese media and one that is known to take a probably more conservative approach than other parts of it. No, I don’t think it’s a great concern.

QUESTION:      

Vice-Admiral, can I just ask quickly there were some reports, I can’t remember [indistinct] my colleague wrote that an Australian ship on operations in India within the next few weeks, possibly months, is going to be diverted specifically to past through the South China Sea. [Indistinct] report was correct and in that sense that would seem quite different to, say, the passage of the crew ships that are up in China for that exercise, which have to pass through there to come home. But this ship seems to be specifically been diverted to go through that area?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, the report isn’t accurate. We will have ships operating in that area in 2016. As we’ve done this year they will conduct a series of port visits as part of our engagement plans with other countries. To get there you have to get through the South China Sea [indistinct] so we will begin through the South China Sea throughout next year but it is part of port visits.

QUESTION:      

Sorry, the HMAS are not taking a different route from the one that [indistinct] otherwise in order to [indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Darwin will conduct visits in south-east Asia prior to its subsequent operation but that’s part of a planned range of activities. And that will mean that it is visiting ports in those areas and [indistinct] through the South China Sea area.

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, no, it’s on its way across. So it’s doing this as part of [indistinct] port visits before moving on to operations.

QUESTION:      

Oh I see.

QUESTION:      

Vice-Admiral, can I just quickly ask you. Can you just characterise the 12 nautical mile limit. I mean as I understand it the only applies to established islands whereas official islands are [indistinct] the state’s own. So what is the policy of what Australia recognises?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Our viewpoint is consistent with the international law of the sea and the [indistinct] but you’re quite right, the definition is around and it does get technical about a low tide elevation. And effectively a simple description would be if the island blushes, that is you get water over it during a high tide, then it wouldn’t generate a 12 mile claim but if the island is dry all the time then a 12 mile boundary could be claimed. But the main- the sovereignty claim is a separate question to that. But the law of the sea is quite clear on when there’s a [indistinct] boundary.

QUESTION:      

Would it be consistent with that interpretation of the law [indistinct] still be [indistinct] international law?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

For those areas ….

QUESTION:      

[Interrupts] Yes.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

… of the sovereignty is contested or …

QUESTION:      

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

You could fly …

QUESTION:      

[Interrupts] [Indistinct] 101 metres, yeah.

QUESTION:      

And what about the arguments [indistinct] the right of innocent passage or war ships travelling through other areas [indistinct] sort of [indistinct] helicopters [indistinct] and Stuart I think were up there and now we’ve got Darwin coming through the same area. Would they fly their helicopters through [indistinct] radar?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

If you- there are particular present provisions around international passage, the right of international passage, or innocent passage rather. And that applies to when you move inside the 12 miles of the territorial seas of a nation and it does- and that is part of the UNCLOS(*) restrictions. There are limitations on the way a war ship can act in those circumstances and that includes an inability to fire aircraft. So it- the nature of- because you’re close to a sovereign country what you can do is limited but you can steam through it. Those provisions only apply inside the territorial sea and there has to be- and a recognised territorial sea [indistinct]

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] admiral, do you anticipate increasing[indistinct] in any way with the current Australian Special Forces soldiers in Iraq. How many are there ?[indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

About 80 [indistinct]

QUESTION:      

About 80.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes.

QUESTION:      

I have to ask [indistinct] request formal or informal [indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The US, and I think it’s common knowledge, has written about 40 nations seeking a [indistinct] further contributions and for that- there has been a formal request go out to many nations but not specifically Australia.

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Special Forces has been a part of that environment. All the requests have made been put to those nations. We, of course, already have a Special Force contribution and government will make its mind up and respond to that. I’m not anticipating a significant change. During my visits in Iraq in particular there was widespread recognition of the number of Australian Forces and our relative contribution and the quality of that which we have been providing, and that was extremely well-appreciated.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] quite recently about the possibility of raising the [indistinct] Is that an issue for people we’ve got [indistinct] got there or [indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The Mosul Dam and its- and the structure of the Mosul Dam is by its nature one that requires constant maintenance to be performed to it. It’s a matter of is the dam is sitting on the floor of the dam [indistinct] erosion that occurs under it. So there is a need for a continuing maintenance to the Mosul Dam. That’s why we advised it be lowered[indistinct] out during the periods that maintenance hasn’t been able to occur because of the level of fighting in and around the dam area. Were the dam to break it would have an enormous humanitarian impact. But the dam- the consequence of the dam breaking would be felt in Mosul and all the way through to Baghdad. And we do have, as does the Coalition, contingencies in place to manage that were it to occur.

QUESTION:      

[Inaudible question]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Of the dam breaking itself or …

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

[Indistinct] more about the times that the flow of water. So it would take about 72 hours for the flow of water to reach Baghdad from when the dam break occurred.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] several metres deep?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

It could be, yes.

QUESTION:      

Can I ask [indistinct] this question in time Admiral but are you prepared to say [indistinct] against ISIL adequate or [indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Absolutely. I think I used those words and if I gave you a sense of [indistinct] the discussions that I had in Iraq the language that’s being used now is it’s a matter of when not if ISIL will be defeated in Iraq. Where I mentioned the series of operations [indistinct] to the north in around the Sinjar area has been significant. The recapture of Bayjii is a significant outcome and the momentum in Ramadi is also positive.

And what that’s doing to ISIL is in the past they’ve been able to more readily move forces to wherever their particular operation was. Now, they’re under pressure in each of those locations. That their ability to reallocate their own logistics, move fighters around, is under significant pressure. Increasingly, [indistinct] to the Iraqi Government and that was a very strong vibes from all my discussions with them.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] very clear in my mind. There are thousands of Daesh who were killed(*) in exploits in which we have partici- played a role [indistinct] this year?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes. So we and other Coalition countries and groundforce so a combination of, yes.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] Sorry, just going back to the South China Sea. Just quickly, when you said the number of flights that Australia announced over there really varies according to operational demand, can you just characterise though how rare that flight was? I mean, [indistinct] fly through that area every few weeks or is it every few months? Or- you know, just how [indistinct] I mean how often are we over there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Okay. We deploy from an operating base [indistinct] and will remain there for one or two weeks to be able to conduct a series of flights both into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The number of times we deploy varies. So that’s why it goes up and down. The deployments tend to be a couple of weeks in duration when we go and aircraft will fly for most days once they’re deployed. So that’s why I said it’s a fairly regular [indistinct] but the variance is largely around the number of times we go. But once they’re there it’s about a two week period of deployment, and they’ll fly most days during that.

QUESTION:      

How often do we deploy there?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Oh, it can be between four to eight times a year. So it goes up and down in that timeframe.

QUESTION:      

Just going back to Ramadi. There’s been suggestions that the IS forces there are very hard pressed [indistinct] they’ve actually been indiscreet enough to talk about this on communications calls. Is there anything you can tell us about that? Is that [indistinct]

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

In Ramadi itself or …

QUESTION:      

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

We are- I think part of that comment I made about being an [indistinct] front is causing them to have more difficultly with supply lines and keeping up with that requirement. But we see at different times pressures on a number of buyers and recent [indistinct] to them but that changes almost on a daily basis, but comment I’d offer you is in the [indistinct] that pressure has increased and it having an impact on the ability to regenerate forces, regenerate supply lines and keep themselves equipped at a level without head freeze(*).

QUESTION:      

And what’s the population demand, if attached to, as you said, to [indistinct] you know, house of the [indistinct] gets more and more [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Yes.

QUESTION:      

How many are still there and what’s the civilian population there? How does that compare to [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

The number of fighters that are in Ramadi is difficult to determine because they are moving in small packets in there, so it’s – I think it’s measured in the hundreds, not in the thousands …

QUESTION:      

Give estimates [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

In the hundreds. So it would probably be I think more than 500 but I don’t know how much more than that. The civilian population’s much harder to determine, but there is a sense that there is a civilian population there. We’ve seen in part that Daesh has stopped civilians leaving, partly because they may seek to use them as cover at some point and increase the difficulty for arriving forces operating in that area. But precisely how many are either families of Daesh that have come with them or are previous civilians in Ramadi who have been held in there. There are civilians, but the numbers [indistinct] …

QUESTION:      

[Talks over] Just so we’re clear, you’re saying that roughly about two-thirds have been [indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Well they continue to regenerate numbers in there.

QUESTION:      

Right. And is the civilian population in the thousands?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I’m not sure. I don’t have that specific information- [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] to retake Ramadi in bullet(*) or is there any option of just sort of reaching service stage and keeping that trap on(*).

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

My expectation is [indistinct] we will retake Ramadi, and central Ramadi in particular, which is where the focus currently is. They will seek to clear that, and that will take time, in part because there are tens of thousands of IEDs. We think they’re probably being placed there based on what they have seen, so when we look at the pace of operations there that almost [indistinct]every house in some areas, and the clearest process for next time.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct] Australian in highest spirits might be?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

There’s no indication of leaving Iraq or …

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

No, no indication at all. But I don’t- others may, but [indistinct].

QUESTION:      

Do you mind saying what [indistinct] particularly with inmates which we … we consider [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I think I’ve made the comment before, we don’t draw a distinction. If they are lawfully entitled, as the … and meet our lawful requirements for it then potentially they could be.

QUESTION:      

Do you know how many Australian members of IS have been killed[indistinct]?

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

How many Australia?

QUESTION:      

Yeah.

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

I don’t know. Like I said, because I don’t track them in particular [indistinct] either in or out, that’s what I say. Yes.

QUESTION:      

[Indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Thank you. I hope you’ll do get some form of a break over the Christmas period and I will look forward to the chance to continuing these with you next year.

QUESTION:      

Well all the best for the end of the year and Christmas, and please don’t stop the briefing [indistinct].

DAVID JOHNSTON:     

Thank you. And we’re- I’m happy to do that. It’s a difficulty[indistinct] being able to do them in a regular sequence(*) and then with all the other activities that are underway, whether it’s my visits to various operations in areas, but I recognise their importance[indistinct], we will continue in the future[indistinct] and I’ll do the [indistinct]. You’re welcome.

 


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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