Press Conference - Vice Admiral David Johnston, Chief of Joint Operations, provides an update on operations
29 April 2015
DAVID JOHNSTON: … morning. Thank you for joining me for today's operational update. For those of you I have not met before, my name's David Johnston, I'm the Chief of Joint Operations.
Today I will focus on an update on operations in Iraq for you, but I'll also provide an overview of some of the recent humanitarian assistance operations that we've conducted, particularly in Vanuatu, and our efforts with working with DFAT around Nepal and what we may provide there.
Of course, since we've last spoken we've had Anzac Day commemorations as well. If you haven't had the chance to see it, I would encourage you to look at the ADF on Operations and Exercises Facebook website. It has some great imagery of both our operational conduct right across our theatre of operations, but also the manner in which Anzac Day was commemorated in operational areas. It was a remarkable event.
And perhaps starting on that theme then. In support of those operations I had previously mentioned that HMAS Success had been operating in the Middle East region. That ship moved out of our operational area in order to support both HMAS Anzac and the sail training ship Young Endeavour, who attended and were our representatives in a number of ceremonies across Greece and Turkey over that Anzac Weekend. We now have HMAS Newcastle is en route to commence maritime security operations within the Middle East region, and she will take up that task from Success. The majority of our Army trainers have departed Brisbane for our main logistics base in the Middle East to conduct their final preparations for the Building Partner Capacity mission in Iraq. I won't be forecasting the date of their arrival in Iraq, based purely on operational security reasons.
If I look across the region for you perhaps and give a regional outlook. The security across the Middle East region is becoming increasingly concerning, with the Houthi insurgency destabilising Yemen and drawing airstrikes from Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies, with Daesh also spreading its propaganda and brutal philosophy to North Africa and Afghanistan. The beheading of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya, the death of 33 civilians in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in a bombing claimed by Daesh, and the arrests in Melbourne and London of young men attracted to their savage cause is a reminder that Daesh is a threat that continues to require a global response. Disrupting and degrading Daesh in Iraq will act to defeat the terrorist organisation's claims of an Islamic caliphate, and weaken the global jihad network. This is why the military campaign to defeat Daesh in Iraq is important.
Inside Iraq, in the month since I last conducted an ops update, the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have made territorial gains, while Daesh continues to rely on asymmetric tactics to progress their objectives. The US Central Command has produced a map that is available on their website - I think you have a copy in front of you - that provides analysis of the territory held by Daesh, and since reclaimed by Iraqi security forces. According to Centcom reporting, in the quarter to April this year the Iraqi security forces have made net gains in the provinces of Ninawa, Erbil, Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, Diyala, Baghdad, and Anbar. They're mainly to the north and east of Iraq. There have also been setbacks, but the synopsis is that the Iraqi ground forces have reclaimed more territory and inflicted more losses on Daesh than they have suffered. The momentum, while limited in some areas, overall favours the Iraqi security forces.
Royal Australian Air Force personnel assigned to the Air Task Group continue to make an important contribution through the provision and support of coalition airstrikes. Daesh has not been able to move in large military convoys on preferred highways, cannot mass forces, or operate high-value military equipment, without facing the threat of aerial attack. Daesh has maintained some freedom of movement along the Euphrates River valley, and in the border regions near Sinjar Mountain and Jordan. Daesh is increasingly operating in a defensive posture in Iraq, and its defeat in Tikrit has highlighted its vulnerability. It has not been able to seize and hold new territory; instead, it is now choosing to focus its fighting on areas in Ninawa and Anbar provinces, where there is some support from Sunni locals, and it has selectively chosen to attack specific targets in those areas. And I'll refer to a couple of the key operational areas where some of those pressures are being experienced in a minute.
If I turn to the Building Partner Capacity mission. The coalition's strategy to counter Daesh forces continues to be focused on efforts that build the capacity of Iraq and Kurdish forces, stop the flow of foreign fighters, deny Daesh funding, address the humanitarian crisis, and expose the true nature of Daesh. A key part of the coalition's plan is to build the military capacity of Iraqi forces in order to help the Iraqi Government conduct effective counter-offensive operations against Daesh in order to enable it to re-establish control over the border and their territory. As you're aware, the Australian Government recently approved the deployment of the Building Partner Capacity Mission, comprised of approximately 300 Australian Army personnel who will operate in partnership with approximately 110 New Zealand defence personnel. The Australian headquarters task group include elements for headquarters functions, a very significant force protection capability, training teams, and support staff.
The deployment of the advanced party has commenced, and the collective force, which will be called Task Group Taji, with the Australian contingent operating under our Operation OKRA. The mission is a non-combat behind-the-wire training task within the Taji military complex, which is located north-west of Baghdad. Our training of the Iraqi Army will help the ground forces to counter Daesh attacks, slow their momentum, and roll back the claims to Iraqi sovereign territory.
According to US Central Command there are around 1500 coalition troops now contributing to the advise, assist, and Building Partner Capacity missions in Iraq. There are five Building Partner Capacity sites: Al Asad in Anbar province, Erbil, Baghdad, Taji where we will operate north of Baghdad, and Bismayah south-east of Baghdad, where Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces are being trained through a period of instruction that varies depending on the training force, but is upwards of six weeks and at times longer than that.
Building Partner Capacity mission will continue to build Iraq's military capabilities, encompassing the development of individual skill sets through to brigade-levels training. The objective for us is to be able to enable the Iraqi security forces to manoeuvre and command their forces in operations, provide support to counter-offensive activities, build their survivability and intelligence-gathering skills, particularly in countering improvised explosive devices, obstacle clearing and breaching, and improve their professional military conduct, for instance through the use of laws of armed conflict and rules of engagement. Our training of Iraqi security forces will allow us to provide skills and competencies to their forces that compliments other coalition enablers, such as airstrike, airborne intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, and partnership at the headquarters level where we work on their operational planning. This will help the Iraqi ground forces to counter Daesh, and roll back the hold Daesh has on parts of Iraq territory.
Building Partner Capacity trainers come from a number of countries, including Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, and the United States. Already these training sites have graduated more than 6500 security forces, with another 5000 under training.
For our advise and assist mission, where the Australian Special Operations Task Group continues to work with Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, is achieving very good results, successfully coordinating clearance operations and assisting the Iraqi forces in their fights against Daesh. The CTS is a key Iraqi fighting force that we continue to enable through our training. With the commencement of our Building Partner Capacity mission, the Australian primary training contribution will shift over time from the Special Operations Task Group towards the BPC mission. The drawdown of our Special Operations Task Group later this year will be consistent with the increasing coalition focus on training and building the capacity of Iraqi regular forces.
I will now provide an update on two of the key of the key operational regions, starting with Baiji oil refinery. Daesh has attacked and taken control of Syrian and Iraqi oil facilities as part of its efforts to fund its military campaign. One of those key installations of strategic importance is the Baiji oil refinery, located north of Baghdad. This facility has the capacity to process 300,000 barrels of oil a day, equating to about one-third of Iraq's oil output. However, since fighting began now more than 10 months ago, the refinery has been inactive. Daesh launched their most recent attack on the refinery in mid-April, and breached the outer perimeter using vehicles packed with explosives.
In and around both the refinery and the city, several hundred Daesh fighters have been fighting against the ISF. Iraqi forces are continuing to hold the refinery with support from the coalition and through the advise and assist elements. This coalition effort has helped re-open the line of communication to allow the Iraqi forces to be resupplied and reinforced. According to coalition reporting, more than half of the Daesh fighting forces have been killed, and more than 50 vehicles and weapons systems destroyed through close air support using over 90 airstrikes against enemy targets by coalition forces, and our Air Task Group has contributed to some of these. It assessed that many of the Daesh fighters now attacking the Baiji refinery had fled Tikrit, just 40 kilometres from Baiji, after the decisive defeat of ISIL in Tikrit last month.
In Anbar province, Daesh has refocused and reinforced its efforts around a provincial centre of Ramadi, which has experienced a degradation in security. Daesh seized villages around the city, forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes. The resulting action by Daesh has created a significant humanitarian crisis in the Anbar province, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have become internally displaced. In recent days, Iraqi security forces have been able to push through and re-secure the centre of Ramadi, while driving a number of Daesh forces from elements of that city. A large force of Daesh fighters of more than 1000 are estimated to be operating in that area. Tunnel structures, dozens of fighting positions, and a numbers of vehicles and weapons have been badly damaged and destroyed; however, the area does remain heavily contested.
Iraqi security forces have recently captured a key bridge on the Euphrates River after fierce clashes with Daesh militants in the western section of Ramadi. The bridge was controlled by Daesh for several months and served as a main supply route for their insurgents. The capture of the bridge denies Daesh vital resupply routes to the west and north, requiring their fighters to take higher risks on routes that are less secure and harder to navigate. Our Hornets from the Air Task Group have been involved in deliberate strikes in this area against Daesh fighting positions, sniper hides, and enemy fighters attempting to lay improvised explosive devices.
For our air operations more generally. Our task group has continued to provide support through northern, eastern, and western Iraq. In the past month, 60 strike sorties involving the hornets have delivered 24 500-pound bombs against a variety of targets, including more recently over the last weekend seven weapons released against targets in a single mission in northern Iraq. The E-7 Wedgetail has continued its role in airspace coordination and control, flying over 90 hours for the month. And the KC-30 air-to-air tanker has maintained a very high tempo, with 30 sorties through the month of April, delivering 1200 tonnes of fuel.
That completes the Iraq update. I'll now just turn to the humanitarian operations that the ADF has been involved in, starting with our contribution toward(*) Vanuatu. As you would recall, Vanuatu experienced Tropical Cyclone Pam, which was a Category 5 cyclone that caused significant damage across the country. The ADF performed a major part of the immediate relief effort by a number of countries, with our objective of repairing key infrastructure, restoring basic services, and delivering humanitarian assistance and stores. We delivered 200 pallets of cargo by air, and a further 50 pallets in HMAS Tobruk. In one of the worst-hit southern provinces army engineers, army Black Hawk helicopters, RAAF C-130 Hercules transporter aircraft, operating in cooperation with the Tobruk, transported 100 tonnes of food into and around the province.
On the island of Tanna, which is down in the south-east of the Vanuatu group, army engineers repaired water pumps, a church in time for important Easter services, several schools throughout the area - [coughs] excuse me- and a badly damaged hospital. At Dillon’s Bay in Erromango Australian Army soldiers conducted repairs to a primary school, secondary school, and delivered additional humanitarian aid. We ran an air bridge from RAAF Base Amberley near Brisbane into Vanuatu that commenced two days after the cyclone went through - cyclone impacted on Friday night, and by the Sunday the air bridge was open and we were moving humanitarian stores and people.
Our air force completed 260 sorties in support of the relief operations using the C-17 Globemaster, C-130 Hercules, our AP-3 Orion - which provided surveillance, particularly of the outer island group - and our King Air aircraft, which we use for internal support within Vanuatu. And through that contribution we moved significant cargo, including hygiene kits, blankets, sleeping mats, shelter kits, insect nets, water storage and purification capabilities, on behalf of a number of government agencies. The Tobruk, which came and stayed [indistinct] Townsville, where it embarked elements of the 3rd Combat Engineering Regiment, which provided a heavy engineering capability which was well used throughout a number of the islands. Tobruk sailed- well arrived in Port Vila on 23 March, and remained there until its return to Townsville on 16 April.
Finally to Nepal. Following the earthquake in Nepal and the devastating circumstances on Saturday, we have been working with the Department of Foreign Affairs to determine the best contribution that the ADF can provide in support, and we're currently planning around using some of the C-17 Globemasters in order to move humanitarian aid and a number of support groups into Nepal. The timing of this mission is in part driven by our access into the airport in Kathmandu; it has been heavily congested since the earthquake struck. As an example, there are only nine parking bays at the airport for aircraft, so with the many nations that are now seeking to contribute, we've got work to do to desynchronise(*) our own arrivals, and I'm expecting that should be able to occur later this week.
I will stop there, and I'm happy to take questions across those areas that I have briefed.
QUESTION: Just on Nepal, have we been able to get any aircraft in so far or any - are there any military people on the ground there now?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We have not been able to get any ADF aircraft in there yet. The - DFAT has deployed a consulate response team which is on the ground in Kathmandu now but they move via civilian means not by military means.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, can I - just on Nepal as well, there was the suggestion of air flights out for Australians. When do you think that could begin?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That will commence as soon as we can get our aircraft in. So, the aircraft will be available to move people out from Kathmandu. The intention at this point is to stage back into Bangkok where we will hand them across to DFAT for managing them from there but right from the first entry and I'm hopeful that may be as early as Thursday but it is all around airport access for us. Those aircraft, on their initial entry, will be available to take people back out with them.
QUESTION: So you'll be - aid will be taken in there by military aircraft and those empty aircraft will take people back…
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's right…
QUESTION: …is that the idea?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes, that is.
QUESTION: On Globemasters and…
DAVID JOHNSTON: Just on the C-17 Globemaster.
QUESTION: Just C-17.
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Has any aircraft let Australia yet?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I'm expecting - an announcement will be made by the Minister very shortly about the timing of our aircraft departure. That should be today.
QUESTION: And how many Defence members are going over on those planes?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We will provide - in these circumstances some support to the head of mission, that'll be a small team but when we use our aircraft in this manner, particularly in an environment where we know the airport is very congested, we will have a small team that enables us to unload the aircraft ourselves and not rely on any of the capabilities that the airport itself may have. We'll - and part of that then particularly for evacuating Australians or others, we have to do a normal screening process, make sure they're medically fit to fly, that they aren't carrying any dangerous cargo that would be brought on to the aircraft. So, part of the aircraft will have what we call an evacuation handling capability to assist people in their embarkation on the aircraft and a small security team to provide security to the aircraft while it's on the ground. So…
DAVID JOHNSTON: …so I'm expecting less than 10 will stay, will work with head of mission directly. In the order of 25 people that will remain in Nepal to provide support to the aircraft coming and going and then a smaller team that will remain with each aircraft that provides that medical support and security while the aircraft's in the air.
QUESTION: Is the airport damaged in any way?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No, to our knowledge it's operating fully. I think the - congestion is the issue and in some parts - some of the normal operators at the airport, the Nepalese, have had to go home to look after their families. So, there is an impact on capacity but the facilities are working.
QUESTION: Just on Iraq, Julie Bishop obviously visited Iran just recently. What is the - is there any strategic or intelligence or other benefit from greater cooperation with Iran? Has anything come out of that visit that you're aware of that is actually helping us in Iraq?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think one of the objectives of the Foreign Minister's visit was to explain to the Iranians who clearly have a shared interest in what occurs both inside Iraq and against Daesh was to explain the nature of the Australia contribution. It's - it was very important in terms of making it clear what we are doing and what we're not doing, reinforcing that we are there at the invitation of the Government of Iraq, we are operating at a non-combat role through all our on the ground contribution and that we are remaining inside the wire so it was very much about explaining what we are doing and providing clarity to the Government of Iran and the nature of our contribution.
QUESTION: Was there a lack of clarity there?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It was - we have been - those are the same messages that we have said but the personal contact is always important in those circumstances and having someone of the Foreign Minister's stature deliver that message is very valuable.
QUESTION: How do you envisage the intelligence sharing agreement working in Iraq in the short term, for example, if some Australian soldiers were under threat for some way if the Taji Airbase came under threat for example, do you imagine that we might get some real time intelligence from the Iranians that said okay, we might need to move our people out of here or take such and such security measures? Could it work that way?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I haven't seen the detail yet of exactly how that will manifest itself. I know some of it was based around sharing information with the Government of Iran - may have it about Australians or other nationals that may be operating inside Iraq or Syria based on their own access to information but the manner in which it translates to that which we could use militarily, is not yet clear to me.
QUESTION: Is there any more detail in the mission that seven Australian strikes happened in one go? Is there - like you said Northern Iraq, anywhere - any more information?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The nature of that strike that occurred over the weekend, was it was against an ISIL staging facility in Northern part of Iraq. It was north of Mosul. It was quite a significant facility where we were aware that they were massing forces in and were using it as a build up area to bring equipment and people. So, it was significant in terms of the number of weapons we delivered through our aircraft to it and the strikes were successful.
QUESTION: Any more detail of how successful? Was - obliterated or?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It - as seven 500 pound bombs do, it caused significant damage and certainly created the effect that we were seeking which was destroying equipment, largely that had been built there but there were also people operating in that area that would have died as a consequence of that strike.
QUESTION: How strategic was the overall mission then?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It - part of - a very - well, a significant ongoing air campaign so it's just one element of a much broader air campaign. The work that the coalition is doing around Mosul is about setting the stage for future operations towards Mosul and an element of that is denying the ability for Daesh to resupply and reinforce Mosul and as it builds its defences around Mosul, the coalition air effort is breaking that down. So, it's setting the environment for success in the future for the ground operations and making sure that we've done all that we can to make the ground operation successful.
QUESTION: What [indistinct]? Fortification of some sort or?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It was a compound facility so it was a fairly large compound that - as many of them are in that area, that had a defensive parameter around it, a number of facilities in which they were able to store and locate equipment in. So, isolated in terms of it wasn't in Mosul, it was outside. There wasn't a lot of infrastructure around it but that made it present as a fairly uncomplicated target but one which had military value.
QUESTION: Vice Admiral, Air Commodore Steve Roberton and he said there had been an incident where - I'm not sure if it was one of the Hornets or the Super Hornets had used its machine guns and he said we might be able to ask you about the detail of that. Can you tell us anymore about that?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That's been one of a very limited occasions, particularly at that - the use of the weaponry would tend to be in those circumstances where - and I can't recall the exact specifics. I do remember that incident occurring, in those circumstances where troops may be in contact and there is an immediate threat to the Iraqi security forces on the ground and an environment where aircraft either can't - because they may not have weapons, the bombs, in particular, are left but they're seeking to provide support either to enable a security force to extract from a situation where there could be a risk of being overrun, a weapon that is available in the Hornets is their gun capability. So, unusual for them to come down that low because of the risks it presents to the aircraft from doing so but in a circumstance where they think the risks are warranted and can be managed, that is a weapon set that is available to them to use but a judgment call that is made very much by the air crew based on the information that they've got about the urgency and their own assessment of risks at the time.
QUESTION: How low do they have to go in those circumstance?
DAVID JOHNSTON: That is beyond me so it - they would normally operate at a reasonable altitude in measured in the thousands of feet typically if you are conducting strafing operations like that it is much lower.
QUESTION: Is that low enough to shoot - to use their machine guns, presumable people on the ground are…
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes, correct, that's right.
QUESTION: …close enough to use [indistinct].
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes.
QUESTION: Is it a machine gun or some sort of cannon?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It's a cannon that the Hornet carries inside it.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] did this happen?
DAVID JOHNSTON: This event was months ago. So, it isn't a recent - it was quite actually - quite early in our air task group campaign.
QUESTION: The Prime Minister was recently in France. What are we doing in terms of cooperation with France? What was the benefits of that visit there do you think in terms of our operations?
DAVID JOHNSTON: And I can only answer in the context of our operations with France. If I give that to you in a number of elements during the recent support in Vanuatu, we worked very closely with the French forces that came out of New Caledonia where we have an ongoing relationship, particularly in the Pacific with them. We supported them in - well, we had elements working with our task group headquarters on the ground in Port Vila where we coordinated which areas we were working, supporting aircraft movements between each other so the French engagement operationally is important and equally in the Middle East where we cooperate, French is part of the coalition fighting Daesh across Iraq. They've provided a number of different contributions. So, we as part of that broader coalition community have an important relationship with them.
QUESTION: So, the majority of trainers have left and you can't say when they will arrive, when will they all go then? Who - how many are still to go?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We have - the last element of the main body will shortly be the final group to move so that will have all the forces having left Australia. They typically spend about a week or slightly less in our staging base in the Middle East. The process we go through there they acclimatise, they reset your body clock around a new time zone but we step them through what's called a reception integration program. We update them on the threat environment that they're going to, bit of a top up in their cultural education and we have an improvised explosive device training facility and a medical training facility there so it's a final top up for them on the key skills that they need and then they move onwards into Iraq from there.
QUESTION: Final group will move soon - just soonish?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Yes, yes.
QUESTION: And from my understanding is it's still that they will start operating by mid next month, is that correct?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We will start - so we are already present in part in Taji now to set ourselves up and there will be a graduated handover so the - at Taji Military Complex at the moment the US are providing training to parts of Iraqi brigades. We will iteratively take on that training role so the US will step back as our forces are consolidated and available to commence that training so we're already in discussions with the Iraqi commanders on the ground with the US commanders there so progressively over this next month our role will increase as we take on the lead for that function.
QUESTION: How important has the Australian role been at the Baiji Oil Refinery, and do you believe that that facility can be held by the Iraqis?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It is important our task group contribution to it has been important. The other contribution we've been making is that some of the counter-terrorism service forces that have been essential to holding Baiji have been advised and assisted by our own people. So we have an influence in part through the training that the Special Operations Task Group is delivering in up-skilling that force that has gone into Baiji to assist it to be held.
Baiji has been a target of Daesh right from the start. It's important because of what it is as an oil infrastructure. It's also important because of where it is. So it is on the major route between Baghdad and Mosul, so it's a key node that as the future battle for Mosul is executed, Baiji and holding that terrain in order to allow the offensive force first to move through it but then the resupply forces to be able to continue to flow, Baiji is important to it.
So we've seen Daesh and the recent - the mid-April offensive was a very determined effort. They did breach the outer perimeter, got through it. They held some of the buildings in and around the perimeter. That's what the Iraqi Security Forces, now having secured it, are still to go through and clear all of the Daesh forces from there so it - that - it does remain a contested environment. My expectation is Daesh will where it has the capacity to continue to hold it under threat while they can do so.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] carry out air strikes there?
DAVID JOHNSTON: In and around the facility, yes. Not so much recently, but over the last few months, we have been involved in striking some of the Daesh forces in the Baiji area and including up to the perimeter of the air field - of the oil refinery itself.
QUESTION: I'm sorry, that's the first time that Daesh have breached the perimeter since the Iraqis retook…?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Of this nature. So they'd been contesting it but they had a fairly sizeable force that managed to breach that perimeter. So it was more tenuous than it has been over the last 10 months.
DAVID JOHNSTON: No, mid-April.
QUESTION: In terms of international support, intelligence, information about foreign fighters and so on, are we getting any benefit from the Indonesian military, Indonesian intelligence, Indonesian Government in terms of the mission in Iraq and Syria?
DAVID JOHNSTON: A better question part(*) placed particularly for our agencies that are operating with some of the Indonesian intelligence agencies. I don't get to see that. If there is information being provided, it's more likely to be passed through conduits straight into the Coalition, where it would get merged with all the…
QUESTION: They're not part of the Coalition there, are they?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No. No.
QUESTION: Christine Milne said this week that Australian troops could be implicated in war crimes for working alongside Shia militias. What do you say in response to that, and what is the ADF doing to ensure that they are working with the right people?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We are not working with Shia militias, would be the most important point I would make. All of our training is targeted around the Iraqi security forces, so none of the training that we are delivering nor the air strikes - and the Coalition had a very clear position that its work is to support the Iraqi security f