CJOPS media roundtable
26 July 2016
David Johnston, Vice Admiral, Royal Australian Navy conducts an operations update discussing Exercise RIMPAC, operations in Iraq and Syria, and the South China Sea.
Interviewee: David Johnston Vice Admiral, Royal Australian Navy
D JOHNSTON: Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. For those of you who it's your first time here - I'm not sure there's anyone, but if you haven't met me before, my name is Vice Admiral David Johnston. I am the Chief of Joint Operations, and I have the pleasure of providing what has been part of our routine operational updates for you. As usual, I'll give you about a 15 minute overview of key operational activities since I last had the chance to brief you, and then I will open it up for question and answers from there.
Of course I will cover the Middle East area of operations, but I want to start, if I can please with Exercise RIMPAC and give you an overview of the activities that are underway in the exercise, which is the rim of the Pacific activity which is underway at the moment. The exercise is in its 25th iteration; it involves this time 26 nations, and for Australia more than 1650 ADF personnel are involved in the exercise. In total, 45 surface ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircraft and more than 25,000 people are participating in the US-led exercise, which, as it has traditionally been, is conducted both around the Hawaiian Islands and the Southern California area.
For the ADF, our contribution this time is three ships; the Canberra, the Ballarat and the Warramunga, AP-3 Orion Aircraft, an amphibious landing force team embarked in part in the Canberra from 2RAR and the group of Navy experienced divers. For Australia, we have been involved in every RIMPAC - they're held every two years since 1971 - and we have a few firsts and one last with this time. The first, of course, is the deployment of the Navy flagship Canberra for the exercise, but the last years our AP-C3 Orions - this will be their final RIMPAC as we then start to go through the transition from the P-3C fleet to the P-8 fleet.
The theme of RIMPAC this year is capable, adaptive partners, and its aim is to strengthen international maritime relationships, enhance interoperability and improve the readiness of participating forces for a wide range of potential operations. This year they'll exercise in a range of capabilities, varying from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime security operations, sea control, and more complex, war fighting. The 26 participating nations include the United States, United Kingdom, People's Republic of China, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines, Japan and Malaysia, so quite a diverse group of participants.
I turn now to operations in Iraq and Syria, and we are at a significant moment in the counter-Daesh campaign. It's estimated that Daesh has lost 45 per cent of the populated territory it once held in Iraq, and about 20 per cent in Syria. Conservative estimates have identified that Daesh suffered its highest net territorial loss in over a year in June 2016, including key ground near the Turkish border, and the last city it controlled in Iraq's Anbar province, Fallujah. Iraq forces raised the Iraqi flag over Fallujah on 17 June, and Iraqi military leaders announced the city's full liberation on 26 June. Since that time, we have seen clearing operations within the city as Iraqi security forces consolidate its gains and prepares for future operations, which will include handing over the security of Fallujah to stabilisation forces.
In the Tigris River Valley, so that's the Valley that extends from Baghdad up towards Mosul, Iraqi forces are conducting shaping operations to prepare for the eventual liberation of Mosul. On the Western Axis, Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service forces and the Ninth Iraqi Army Division brigades continue to push the attack north out of Baiji towards Mosul. Fighting on the Western Axis has ranged between light and moderate, with Iraqi forces making steady gains towards Qayyarah. On 12 July, the key airfield at Qayyarah West, which is 60 kilometres south of Mosul, was captured by Iraqi ground forces. Qayyarah West will provide a key logistics and staging base for the mission to liberate Mosul.
The liberation of Fallujah of course was much quicker than Ramadi. This reflects the improved capability of Iraqi forces as well as the reduced capacity for Daesh to retain control of the territory it has seized. Mosul is another step up in difficulty. With an estimated residual population, civilian population of up to one million people, and Iraqi Government estimates on the number of Daesh fighters in Mosul ranging from 6000 to 8000, the liberation of Mosul will be the most difficult operation yet performed by the Iraqi Security Force. As the pressure on Mosul increases, we expect to see increased small scale Daesh attacks throughout Iraq and in Baghdad in an attempt to both distract and delay the Iraqi Government force's advance. Overnight, improvised explosive device attacks in Baghdad are evidence of this approach.
Australia remains a key contributor in the fight against Daesh. Each of the Australian force elements continue to make significant contributions to the overall international commitment. For our Air Task Group, this October will be the second year anniversary of our commitment to that mission. As part of the broader coalition air effort, the Air Task Group has consistently proven itself to be highly reliable, and has significantly achieved positive, very positive recognition for the highly professional manner in which it undertakes all missions.
Since the beginning of 2016, the Air Task Group has conducted just over 600 strike missions and has employed in excess of 600 precision guided munitions. The efficiencies of these strikes has been essential in enabling the Iraqi ground forces to continue their mission to defeat Daesh. The focus of air effort in 2016 has closely mirrored the ground campaign, with the majority of strike missions during April to June completed in support of the operations to liberate Fallujah. Since the liberation of Fallujah, there has been a shift to the Tigris River Valley and Mosul, and its surrounding area. This has involved the conduct of a series of shaping missions in preparation for the assault on Mosul. The missions are focused on destroying the combat support that Daesh requires to sustain itself during the assault on Mosul, and air strikes have achieved the destruction of weapon stores and vehicle borne IED factories, to name a few of the outcomes.
Overall, the Air Task Group has successfully completely, since we deployed, over 1600 strike missions, and delivered almost 1300 munitions in our nearly two years of combat air operations. Over the same period, the vital commander control capability of the E-7 has completed 245 missions and has coordinated thousands of air strikes. Both the E-7 and the strike element are complemented by the refuelling capability provided by the KC-30, which has completed 721 missions and provided in excess of 26 million kilograms of fuel to both Australian and coalition aircraft. As I've previously discussed with you, on a typical mission the KC-30 will refuel between five to ten Australian and coalition aircraft as they travel into and from the operational area. Most refuelling missions involve the aircraft being airborne for in excess of ten hours.
For our land based contribution, the Special Operations Task Group personnel, as part of our Advise and Assist mission, performed a key role in the liberation of Fallujah. In concert with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service and coalition air, they worked tirelessly through their partner force to defeat the Daesh forces and successfully secure the city. The level of integration between the Counter Terrorism Service and Australia's Advise and Assist personnel, in coordination with air strikes provided the necessary elements to enable of rate of ground advance in complex urban terrain that we had not previously witnessed in this campaign. That this mission was completed in a significantly shorter period than Ramadi was testament to the heightened efficiency of these combined forces. The significant reduction in friendly force casualties is another key outcome of this increased capacity and effectiveness.
As part of the continuing efforts to improve the capability of the Iraqi security forces, the Special Operations Task Group continues to train and prepare the CTS for future operations. This has been ongoing throughout the campaign, and has constantly evolved to meet the ever-changing battlefield environment. Our training has involved the provision of specialist support in such areas as explosive ordinance detection, which has been especially important in urban terrain where Daesh have riddled cities with improvised explosive devices. We've also provided advanced marksmanship and mission readiness training.
In 2016 the advise and assist mission has also enabled more than 1400 airstrikes. Since the commencement of coalition air operations we've enabled in total over 3000 airstrikes. This has been achieved by the joint terminal air attack controllers, enabling airstrike facilitation in support of the Iraqi ground forces. This combined contribution has been a key enabler in the success of the Iraqi ground battle.
I wish to take the advantage of this opportunity to recognise the professional contribution of the latest rotation, our fourth, of the special forces, in providing the advise and assist support to the Iraqi security forces. For our building partner capacity mission, the recent Australian Prime Ministerial announcement identified changes to the scope of our partner capacity mission within Taji. These changes are aimed to meet the needs of the Iraqi Government, and one of the key changes is the commencement of training for Iraqi law enforcement personnel, which potentially includes training for Iraqi federal, local police, emergency response units, and border guard forces. Our training would be designed to provide the additional skills necessary for Iraqi police to maintain security in those areas that have been recaptured from Daesh. Our coalition partners will provide training in the police skill sets. The ADF will focus on the military skills that enable Iraqi law enforcement personnel to hold territory, maintain security in areas that have been liberated.
I expect that over the next few months the primary focus of ADF training will be on the Iraqi Army counter attack forces for Mosul. These training priorities will be driven by Iraqi Government requirements. In addition, Iraqi security forces can now be trained by Australian instructors at other secure locations outside of the Taji military camp. This does not constitute an accompany mission, or outside the wire, but is intended to enable a broader range of training, including weapons training, that cannot be conducted inside the Taji military facility. An example of this is larger calibre weapons training, like mortars, which we have not been able to do at Taji because it exists inside an urban environment and the training grounds are relatively small for weapons of that type.
The last element of the Prime Minister's announcement was the indication that pending operational requirements Australia may deploy a sense and warn or counter-rocket artillery and mortar capability to Taji, supported by an additional 15 Australian Defence Force personnel. This formal Government approval is in recognition of a possible future need, and does not relate to a specific threat. This would bring to total 315 people that are deployed to the Building Partner Capacity mission.
In closing on the Task Group Taji update, I would like also to take the opportunity to recognise the contribution of Task Group Taji 2, who completed their training mission in June. During their tenure, they delivered training for 3801 Iraqi Army personnel across a wide range of military disciplines. The combined efforts of the Australian and New Zealand contingent are worth of praise, and I commend all of them for the high level of professionalism that they displayed throughout their deployment.
If I can turn to Afghanistan and give you a short update there. The Australian Defence Force presence in Afghanistan remains constant at around 2700- sorry, 270 personnel, who are mainly located in Kabul. Following the recent US announcement to reduce US troop numbers from 9500 to 8400 in 2017, I see no immediate change to the current ADF commitments in Afghanistan. In our maritime contribution with the Middle East region, the Australian Navy frigate Darwin arrived back in Sydney two weekends ago, following a very successful operational deployment to the Middle East and African waters. During the five months on operations, Darwin confiscated and destroyed almost one tonne of high-grade heroin, seized from a variety of vessels conducting smuggling of illegal narcotics, and also seized a large weapons cache. Darwin's weapons seizure included almost 2000 AK-47 assault rifles, 100 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 49 general purpose machine guns, and 20 60 millimetre mortar tubes. These arms were subsequently handed over to the coalition maritime forces for disposal. Darwin has handed over its maritime security responsibilities to HMAS Perth, who is currently on its second patrol now in Middle Eastern waters.
A little closer to home within our region, as part of the Australian Government's commitment to the maintenance of regional stability in South and South-East Asia, the Australian Defence Force has continued to conduct air surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as part of Operation Gateway. There has been no significant change in the Operation Gateway flight's rate of effort in 2016. Concurrently there have been several transits of the South China Sea by Royal Australian Navy ships as part of our routine international engagement activities with nations in both South East and Northern Asia. Where interaction between Australian Navy and- Australian Air Force platforms with ships and aircraft from other nations has occurred, this interaction has been professional and courteous. The Australian Navy and Air Force will continue to conduct overflight and sea transit through the South China Sea in accordance with and respect for international rules.
In concluding, the campaign against Daesh continues to progress well, and the recent capture of Fallujah has secured the last significant pocket of Daesh resistance in Anbar Province. However, the threat of localised attacks from small Daesh cells throughout the Euphrates River valley remains. This is one of the key regions for enhancing the scope of Task Group Taji training to ensure the police have the necessary techniques and skills to stabilise these areas and enable the Iraqi population to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the preparations for the assault on Mosul have achieved an important local victory, with the recapture of Qayyarah West Airfield, as this will provide a firm base for the conduct of the assault to liberate Mosul. It is too early yet to predict the date for the commencement of the assault on Mosul, which will be determined by the Government of Iraq. But the momentum of the campaign is increasingly positive. Indications are that Daesh combat capacity is degraded, their morale is weakening, and they are facing the increasing realisation that they are losing territory and influence and are increasingly on the defensive.
Ladies and Gentlemen that completes my update, I am now happy to take your questions.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Where you began on RIMPAC, have we settled on which countries the LHD will visit on its way back, and there has been a suggestion it may pay a port visit to Fiji?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The ship on its return will visit Fiji. It's a follow-up visit to the very important but successful humanitarian operations that Canberra performed there with other Defence Force units earlier this year. So the chance for the ship to return is for the community and the Government of Fiji to thank those people who deployed on that operation for their efforts. It will conduct a port visit into Fiji on its return.
QUESTION: And what does that say about the relations now with the Fijian military?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think increasingly positive. I think I made the comment during or just after our humanitarian assistance activity there was I think a common joy both from the Australian Defence Force personnel but equally from the Fijian soldiers and military that we worked with to find Australian military and Fijian military working side to side together, particularly in an area that was very important to Fiji itself and the recovery of its own locals. Our ability to make a contribution was very warmly received by the people and military forces of Fiji, and provides a very good opportunity for us to continue to build that relationship. Canberra's visit will be an important part of doing so.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, do you have any estimates of the number of IS fighters in Mosul, or the number of civilians that might be there? And can you tell us anything about the way that the Islamic State people are actually fighting - are they standing and dying where they fight or are they escaping?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It varies. I'll answer the question on Mosul, and that- it's very difficult to be definitive about the number of fighters or the civilian community that remain in Mosul. The Iraqi Government's own assessments are between- the fighters, somewhere between six to 8000. So I think that's the planning basis that they're using is fighters of that number. The civilians, equally difficult. I think I quoted up to one million, but the range is from 500,000 to a million people remaining. That too is unclear, but it is a significant population of civilians and potentially still a very large number of fighters who are remaining.
To answer your question, though, of the nature of the way Daesh is fighting, and that is more difficult to discern because it's variable. They're not- I think- we saw and we expected Ramadi to be a very difficult fight. The expectation was that then the campaign in Fallujah would be as difficult as Ramadi was, It was not. In terms of the recapture of Fallujah was quicker than expected. So some of that is the nature by which Daesh fought there, and their withdrawal from Fallujah. Some of it has been around the increasing skillset of the Iraqi Army, which became increasingly adept at countering the Daesh tactics and therefore were able to penetrate more quickly than we had seen. So Fallujah is an example of a city that collapsed or the Daesh fighting collapsed quicker than was expected, but that's contrasted in part if I look at Syria and the current operations around Manbij up in northern Syria.
Manbij is important to Daesh because it's on a key supply line into Raqqa and in Manbij the fight is hard. The Syrian Democratic Forces and other forces that are- have been- have encircled Manbij and are closing on it have found it slow going, a very difficult fight, and Daesh is very resolute there. So I think the expectation, the common expectation for Mosul is it's important to Daesh, they will fight very hard to hold it. But we've seen Daesh fight in different means or its resolve to fight to be variable now, so there is less certainty about exactly what we might confront as the forces close in on Mosul.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, you said that they might actually carry out other attacks - IED attacks or whatever - elsewhere. Is that just inside Iraq and Syria, or further- is this what we're seeing happening further afield?
DAVID JOHNSTON: In my view, yes. Both inside Iraq and Syria and you will have seen the reporting of the number of improvised explosive device events in Baghdad, some of them involving significant casualties, is part of a campaign around a number of elements to reduce the viewpoint of the strength and security in the Baghdad environment, which means the Iraqi Government has to hold forces back to enhance the security there. That reduces the forces that are available to be committed into counter-attack operations. So we are seeing, particularly throughout Iraq, increasing IED attacks. I think Daesh has equally - and there is plenty of reporting on this - but seeking to inspire attacks outside of Iraq and Syria, and what we've seen throughout our region in Bangladesh, the recent attacks in Europe, are partly a manifestation of that.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, the last thing, and then I'll leave this. Are the- if the territory is recaptured in Iraq and Syria, the balance of the territory, and these people are driven out of that area, will that make it easier, do you think, to control the attacks that are happening around the world?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It will have to have an impact on the viability of Daesh for what it has claimed to be, as a caliphate that holds territory, governs people, and imposes its own systems upon the will of the people. In the absence of territory, the credibility for Daesh to be able to claim the caliphate is severely undermined, and I think we're- we are starting to see that in some of the assessments that around the potenti- well, particularly the flow of foreign fighters coming to are reducing in numbers, and elements of that are because Daesh is not seen to be what it was, and the hollowness of its claims is becoming more apparent.
QUESTION: Daesh's tactics swing towards using IEDs, but their capacity is dropping at the same time, from what you say, Vice Admiral. Do you expect in the months ahead we'll see, given that, a further increase in the deadly explosions inside and outside Iraq, or would you expect that to be tailing off with its decreased capacity?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Increasingly, I think there will be a move to what we would normally call the asymmetric tactics approach. The use of IEDs, either people-borne, vehicle-borne, or in houses, is a relatively easy tactic to exploit. I think we will see increasing number of IED attacks, but as Daesh is attritted and it is called to recall forces, either into Mosul or back into Raqqa, to protect what it most dearly holds, then I would expect that the asymmetric attacks to be coming back down.
QUESTION: And you don't know when that point is?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No. No. Partly because that's their judgment to make, but we do know Mosul, Raqqa are key to Daesh and its notion of the caliphate, so we would expect that that's where they will prioritise their effort.
QUESTION: There's been a lot of reporting about the very high number of civilian casualties in air attacks on Manbij. Has our Air Task Group participated in any of those strikes?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, if I can take you closer to home, you've mentioned the South China Sea area. What preparations operationally has the ADF undertaken in the event of an increasingly aggressive response from Beijing to foreign aircraft and ships, and do those preparations include the very real possibility of an air defence identification zone?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I can't answer the last one about the air defence. I think that's a question the Chinese are better placed. But I don't see an increasingly fragile environment in terms of military operations in the South China Sea at the moment. For our own approach, we've had a number of ships that have conducted regional engagement activities through there as recently as June, the last series of visits in the region completed. Those ships transited through the South China Sea as they moved from port call to port call or to engage with countries in that region. We have been conducting, as I mentioned, gateway flights through that area, both in the Indian Ocean and in the South China Sea, and I'll expect we'll- we will continue to do so in the latter part of the year, and our preparations for those activities are on par with our normal preparations for any of our patrol or surveillance activities in the region.
QUESTION: Those activities you've talked about have all happened before the international court ruling. Since that ruling, China has again put that air defence identification zone on the table. So is that part of your planning, that that may be a reality that military aircraft will have to deal with in the near future?
DAVID JOHNSTON: My job is to do as much contingency planning in a whole range of areas in order to provide advice for Government if it's required. So we look through a number of outcomes, both in the South China Sea and elsewhere, in order that if we are asked for options that we would have a sense of what might be feasible. But my key point really is we are planning to continue to do routine operations through the South China Sea, and everything I'm observing, even since the arbitration ruling was announced last month, is that from a military perspective or an operational perspective in the region, the status quo applies.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, when will our ships next go through that region?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I typically don't forecast that because of our own security considerations, but through the second half of this year, we will continue to conduct- have ships and aircraft operating in those regions.
QUESTION: Can you just clarify this thing that comes up all the time? We have freedom of navigation exercises, and the gateway operations are effectively freedom of navigation flights, and- but this question of going within 12 nautical miles of the artificial structures, we have not done that.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Brendan, I know that question's been asked to ministers who have declined to answer it, but can I perhaps rephra- without, and I won't deliberately answer the 12 mile question, but if I can help with terminology in part. We exercise freedom of navigation wherever we go. So our air flights in the region, our ship movements in the region, are an exercise of freedom of navigation. That applies whether you're inside 12 miles or outside, so we're operating consistent with international law. It gives us the ability to move through those regions. If I just help with clarity around terminology, the exercise of freedom of navigation is something that we do routinely, but the freedom of navigation exercise I find a vague term, because it- my interpretation of exercising something is we get out and practise it. So we don't practise in terms of freedom of navigation exercise, but we do comply with international law. We go and we exercise our rights to freedom of navigation and overflight everywhere that we go.
QUESTION: So are you saying you make no effort to avoid the 12 nautical mile zone around the contested islands that China is so precious about?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I'm not making a comment either way, I'm saying everywhere we go we exercise freedom of navigation.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, how do you feel personally about those rising tensions and rhetoric on both sides of this dispute?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I wouldn't have any more to add than what particularly the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister have indicated. The South China Sea is important to Australia: it's important because of regional stability in that area; it is impacted by what occurs in the maritime environment; it's important to us for trade, over 60 per cent of exports, 40 per cent of imports. And so the stability generally, whether it's for commercial purposes or because of the impact of the countries and various claimants of it, is important to us.
QUESTION: Do the arming of those islands, the putting of missile batteries and that sort of thing make you nervous?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Militarisation of the features in that area is an unwelcome development.
QUESTION: Can I just go back to Mosul for a moment. You talk about the importance that ISIS has to attack it, do you anticipate they will make a last stand effectively? There, and looking ahead, do you envisage a time, any sort of timeframe, for when ISIS would sort of lose control of all its territory in Iraq, is there sort of- based on the current trends and stuff.
DAVID JOHNSTON: I don't- in terms of whether Daesh would be prepared to make Mosul a last stand, if you'd asked me that question three months ago I think I'd have said probably, but only because of what we have observed now in Fallujah, I am less certain. I think, and why I characterise it, I think Mosul is important to Daesh and therefore it will be a very difficult fight there. But whether they're prepared to all die, those fighters that are there, to all die there or potentially, as we saw in Fallujah, fighters leaving the area as it was being increasingly recaptured by Iraqi forces, I'm not yet certain of whether there would be elements of Daesh fighters that would seek to withdraw potentially back into Raqqah and to reinforce their ability to hold those parts of Syria that they equally place value on.
QUESTION: And how difficult would that withdrawal be for them?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It would be very difficult, particularly if it forces them out into that very rural terrain, where as they had in Fallujah, they're increased-, the risk to them in being able to move in large numbers mean they become more targetable.
DAVID JOHNSTON: So as they move into open terrain it's much more difficult do, to disguise your movement, particularly if it's hasty or in large groups then they do become targetable.
QUESTION: There's that footage we saw that was extraordinary, it was like the Falaise gap where the retreating group in vehicles were attacked. Is there any- there were very conflicting, confused accounts coming from the Iraqis and the coalition on how many vehicles and how many IS people might have been there, but did we take part in that?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We didn't-, no, only because in fact we had an aircraft coming off task about the time when the convoy was observed and if you'd seen there were multiple convoys, so some went up to the north west, some pushed south west out of Fallujah. One of our aircraft as it was coming off task observed some of the convoy movements start but we weren't involved in the strike operations. But that is an example of a force, almost under panic circumstances, having to push out. The fact that some of it was in daylight, that they were grouped in the manner that they were, meant that they were highly vulnerable, and that provided a very- an opportunity for targeting to occur in the manner that it did.
QUESTION: If your trainers start operating outside Taji, does that make them more vulnerable? And how will they actually operate, will they travel with guardian angels? Will they be deployed for weeks on end or just day trips?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I expect that no, it shouldn't make-, so we will review the operating locations with the same degree of scrutiny that we apply to operations at Taji or elsewhere. So we'll conduct a force protection assessment of any of the potential operating locations, we will ensure that we're satisfied before our people deploy to conduct training. I expect those circumstances, they'll be relatively short in duration, measured in days, but it really depends on the type of training that we get asked to provide. But it will be from secure coalition facilities. We will be operating with other coalition partners in those areas, and the management of risks will be one of the key parameters that determine how and when we move.
QUESTION: But moving in itself is a risk.
DAVID JOHNSTON: I expect it will be an air move. So we won't be ground moving, we will deploy by air - as we do cu