Transcript - Press Conference with Vice Admiral David Johnston and Air Commodore Joe Iervasi - Update on Australian Defence Force Operations - 30 March 2015
30 March 2015
DAVID JOHNSTON: … by Air Commodore Iervasi, who is the Director General Air Operations for the headquarters at Bungendore, and Joe will be in a position as we go through and just talk about some of our current ops to be able to amplify those for you, if you wish. But if you're ready otherwise, we'll start.
Today I will provide an update on the last six weeks of Australian Defence Force operations. You'll be aware that we have been very busy domestically in the aftermath of a number of cyclones through both Queensland and Northern Territory, and of course in tragedy after Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu. And I'll also give you an update on activities that we have performed in Vanuatu.
But I'll start first with the Middle East, and step through both operations in Iraq and some of our other broader operations in Afghanistan and in [indistinct] Middle East.
Australian Defence Force personnel in the Middle East continue their work with great professionalism and skill. Their collective efforts as part of a broader coalition effort supporting ground forces in Iraq have enabled the successful reclamation of townships in northern Iraq. The efforts of the Iraqi forces on the ground are increasing the confidence of [indistinct], and provide tangible evidence that the advance of Daesh has halted, and the momentum is shifting.
The extent of progress varies in the different regions, but overall the signs are promising. In understanding the size of task ahead, current estimates of the total number of Daesh fighters in Iraq and Syria are 31,500, with 18,000 of those believed to be foreign fighters. But they are estimates, and it remains difficult to quantify the exact numbers. The United States assesses that the number of Daesh fighters killed is approximately 9500. While we are not using body count as a measuring stick, it is a warning to those who might be influenced by Islamic extremists that there are deadly consequences if they travel to Iraq or Syria to fight.
Disturbingly, atrocities continue to be committed or discovered by Daesh fighters. In the past months there have been at least four reports of executions of Iraqi civilians and security force personnel, including the discovery of mass graves in Saladin(*) province, and [indistinct], south of Tikrit. According to news reports, more than 23 mass graves have been uncovered in Iraq since June 2014, involving the deaths of more than 1600 people. These barbaric acts are attacks not only on the foundations of the Islamic faith, but also on humanity. Further evidence of destructive behaviour include the vandalising and destruction of treasured antiquities from the Mosul Museum, where an archaeological site in the city of Nimrud, believed to be where the Tower of Babel stood, was looted and then raized by Daesh fighters. These prized artefacts and ancient ruins from the cradle of civilisation can never be replaced.
While Australian and the coalition to continue to provide valuable military support for operations against Daesh, it is the people of Iraq that directly face this threat. They are having success, but Daesh is a determined enemy. As I have briefed over the last few months, Daesh fighters have failed in their continued attempts to seize a Bayji oil refinery due to the stoic determination of the Iraqi special forces, and the Iraqi Army. Coalition airstrike operations, including Australian aircraft, have performed an important role in destructing and destroying the Daesh fire-fighting power on this front.
Sorry, their fighting power on that front. Last week, Kurdish peshmerga fighters east of Mosul repelled a Daesh attack near Bashiqa, while coalition airstrikes continue to pressure Daesh fighters in the Sinjar region, where locals report that there were huge human and material losses to enemy forces. Iraqi security forces are also capitalising on the destruction and degradation of Daesh elements, with coordinated ground force clearance operations in the vicinity of key areas of Ramadi, Fallujah, Samarra, and further west into Al-Baghdadi. Together, the Iraqi security forces and coalition are attempting to turn around a region that is known as a typical operating area.
The Iraqi Army, working with Shia armed groups and Sunni tribal fighters, have focused on clearing Daesh force elements from Highway 12, which exist between Hadditha and Al Assad Air Base(*). Some areas have remained contested since Daesh elements overran police checkpoints and small townships in February, but with airstrike support from Australian and coalition aircraft, and aerial surveillance coordinated through the coalition's advise and assist teams, including our own, the Iraqi security forces have been largely successful in targeting Daesh soldiers, fighting positions, vehicles, and equipment, resulting in the considerable loss of material and fighters. Ground forces have since cleared the township of Al-Baghdadi, and secured vital bridges that cross the Euphrates River. Importantly, these outcomes have enabled UNICEF and World Food Programme to deliver aid and supplies in these areas.
The Tikrit Offensive. At the request of the Iraqi Government, coalition airstrikes have commenced against Daesh forces in Tikrit. As you will know from news reports, pro-Iraqi Government Shia militia groups have been heavily engaged in Tikrit with support from Iraqi security forces, and elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Following a stall in operations, at the request of the Iraqi Government, coalition surveillance and airstrike operations commenced late last week in support of Iraqi security forces. Operating under the banner of “A messenger of God”, which represents the unity of Sunnis and Shia Iraqis in their fight against Daesh, Sunni militia are reported to have joined Iraqi security forces to reclaim the township. Iraqi's Deputy Prime Minister, Baha al-Araji, is quoted as saying: the fight of Sunni sons alongside their Shia brothers against ISIL in Tikrit is the first step to achieve real national reconciliation, expel the sceptre of sectarianism and social strife, and prove that loyalty to Iraq is higher than all other affiliations.
Further north, Kurdish security forces are conducting clearance operations in conjunction with ethnic Turkoman forces in the area in and around Kirkuk with increased success.
The Mosul operations. Iraqi security forces continue with preparatory shaping operations, while refining plans to liberate the Iraq's second-largest city. During March, Royal Australian Air Force strike fighters have continued their involvement in the coalition's air campaign against Daesh fighters, including the destruction of an improvised explosive device and vehicle-borne IED storage facility in the vicinity of Mosul, while also targeting Daesh fighting positions, protective structures, assembly locations, and equipment. The intensity of the air campaign has denied Daesh fighters freedom of movement, and has degraded, damaged, or destroyed a significant degree of their fighting power and ability to sustain operations. Daesh is under increasing pressure.
During the course of March, Australian air task group operations against Daesh targets in Iraq, in support of coalition air operations, have maintained an ongoing high-rated effort. In early March, Australian F-18 Super Hornets attacked and destroyed a Daesh defensive wall near Mosul. These structures have been built in an attempt to impede offensive ground operations from ground forces liberating Mosul. In support of Iraqi Security forces involved in a significant engagement with Daesh forces near Sinjar, two GPS-guided bombs hit a building occupied by Daesh fighters. On the same day in Ramadi, Iraqi security forces were pinned down by Daesh, and an Australian airstrike was employed to disrupt the fighting to allow Iraqi forces to extract without further injury. In support of peshmerga forces conducting a clearance operation near Kirkut, Australian Super Hornets used eight precision-guided munitions against Daesh command and control nodes and checkpoints along a main supply route, giving peshmerga forces the advantage in seizing the high ground. And Air Commodore Iervasi, during our questions, will be able to speak further to some of those activities through March.
Air-to-air refuelling operations using the KC-30 Multi Role Tanker Transport has involved 30 missions for the month, transferring three million pounds of fuel. Our airborne control and early warning aircraft, the E-7 Wedgetail, has been equally well employed, and has achieved a milestone a thousand hours of operation since September last year. Our C-17 and C-130 aircraft continue to provide vital enabling support to our dispersed operations.
The coalition's intent remains to disrupt and degrade, and ultimately destroy, the Daesh fighting power, so that Iraqi and Kurdish security forces can restore the security and stability to Iraq. The last two weeks have been a particularly busy period for the air task group, with the Super Hornets now returning home to be replaced by the classic Hornets. During the transition period, the two aircraft types operated alongside each other for the first time on operations, marking a historic milestone for the Air Force.
Our air operations are impacting on the tactics of Daesh fighters. As we had anticipated, Daesh tactics are increasingly resorted to the use of improvised explosive devices. This threat isn't new, just the industrial scale of approach by Daesh has taken to the use of IEDs. These weapons remain indiscriminate and target civilians as much as they do security forces. Australian Special Forces training provided to Iraq security force engineers are helping to identify and disarm improvised explosives through the conduct of explosive hazard reduction training for counter-IED and explosive ordinance disposal specialist within the Iraqi Army's 7th Division.
Preparations for Australia's potential contribution to the building partner capacity mission are continuing, pending a further government decision in the coming weeks. The New Zealand Government has also announced that it is preparing to deploy approximately 100 soldiers on a training mission that will operate alongside the Australian mission planned for the Taji Air Base north of Baghdad. Both countries training teams will be conducting their training in non-combat roles within the confines of the Air Base. This will involve training in basic weapons, individual and unit level military skills, to prepare Iraqi security forces for combat operations, operational planning, medical and logistic training, and to train their trainers. The Australian and New Zealand training mission will join the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, in training forces under the building partner capacity role. At government direction, our force preparation is underway, and the New Zealand Defence Force personnel will arrive in Australia this week to join with their ADF partners and commence combined mission preparations.
Following Easter, the two Defence Force contingents will undertake a mission rehearsal exercise. Joint training will be subjected to a wide range of possible and likely scenarios prior to their deployment. This is realistic training that has been developed and refined throughout years previously in Iraq and now in Afghanistan and have proven to be highly effective in the preparation of our field. Elsewhere in the Middle East, as a sign of Australia's active relationship with NATO, HMAS Success is, from today, supporting NATO operations near the Gulf of Aden, as part of NATO Operation Ocean Shield. Last year NATO offered Australia enhanced partnership status in recognition of Australia's contribution and performance as a NATO partner.
During its support the Operation Ocean Shield Success in its crew of 235 people will contribute to NATO-led and a piracy operation by also providing replenishment and sea support and conducting [indistinct] training. In addition to its refuelling and logistic restoring capabilities, the ship features an embarked helicopter and boarding teams that will contribute to these operations. In Afghanistan, I note the US has announced that some adjustments to its military presence through 2015 and 2016. As part of our ongoing operational commitment in Afghanistan, we will continue to work with the Government of Afghanistan and our NATO partners to refine our ongoing contribution. Any decision about size and duration of the Australian Defence Force contribution to this coalition operation will remain a matter for the Australian Government.
Finally, closer to home, Operation Pacific Assist - which is our contribution to Vanuatu, after what was a fairly busy domestic cyclone season, the ADF was required to respond at short notice to the widespread destruction caused to the people of Vanuatu by Tropical Cyclone Pam. The category five cyclone hit the islands of Vanuatu at 11PM on Friday 13 March. By Sunday, the Royal Australian Air Force had deployed C17 aircraft, to ferry vital humanitarian aid stores and people to Port Vila. In our AP-3 Orion surveillance aircraft, who currently were conducting surveillance over the island group and right throughout the Vanuatu area, to assist in determining the amount of damage the cyclone had caused. Today there are currently 527 ADF personnel deployed to Vanuatu, our C-17 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules continue to deliver aid through movement, humanitarian aid equipment and personnel as required. We have two in air aircraft who are operating from Port Vila. Their role is supporting the assessment of damage and moving officials out to remote areas.
We've moved approximately 161 sorties(*) - we have conducted 161 sorties of fixed wing aircraft in and around the region and late - a lot of - last week Tobruk arrived to deliver aid, water purification equipment and heavy engineering capability and that currently Tobruk is operating in the Southern province area around Tanna which is one of the most heavily impacted areas of the cyclone. The elements of our recovery force are clearing debris throughout the different parts of the island group and conducting damage assessments with local authorities. We now have three S-70 Blackhawks operating in the area, their rotary wing capability and ability to access particularly remote sites has proved vital to the movement of the significant amount of humanitarian aid stores. But that completes my round up for you and I'm happy now to take any questions you might want.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] Tikrit, I think [indistinct] Morgay found the Iraqi assessment of how that's been going, what's your assessment of how the mission to reclaim the town has gone and has Australia been involved with any of the coalition air strikes?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I'll answer your last part first. So, we are available to be used for coalition air strikes near Tikrit. We have not conducted any at the moment but that's just a function of where the various priorities are, where our aircraft have been tasked, but we're not precluded from providing that support if those missions were needed to be performed by our aircraft. Think what we've seen generally in [indistinct] though is that the operation - the ground operation's having progressed to a point, did stall for a period and there are a number of views of why that may have occurred but it did result [indistinct] the Government of Iraq turning to the coalition and seeking the assistance of coalition air strike to enable them to continue ground operations and that started to occur from late last week and has occurred through the weekend.
QUESTION: How would you - how do you assess the chances of attacking Mosul and when is all that going to ramp up do you think, as far as Mosul?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It's still uncertain but partly - and I predict what we will learn from Tikrit is operating in an urban environment is as difficult as we thought it would be. ISIL have had time to be able to conduct a defensive preparations in this area, heavy use of IED, strong use of snipers and protecting positions to slow the advance through so there will be important lessons that the Government of Iraq can draw and their military forces of operations in Tikrit that are directly relevant to the campaign for Mosul. The timing of the campaign to commencing Mosul remains dependent on a number of factors, the preparation of the Iraqi security forces and making sure there are enough military forces to be able to conduct the activity and supporting arrangements and there's a fair understanding that when you move into any urban environment that you need them to be prepared to govern it and provide support to the people so that elements outside of the Ministry of Defence between Iraq need to be ready to provide that government - governance and support to the population and there is still work around the timing in terms of how quickly they move north, their work can be done in Anbar provinces out to the west and I think we are seeing still developing thinking around the relative priorities all of which will influence where the operation is against Mosul.
QUESTION: And will the Australian training - will that really help in that [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It will on both parts. So, we have consistently seen that the counter-terrorism forces have been at the leading edge of most of the difficult ground operations performed by the Iraqi security forces and we remain actively partnered with the work that we are doing with them through our advise and assist mission and similarly there's [indistinct] - if the Government makes a decision for us to contribute that building part of capacity force, that mission is about both preparing the forces for the counter-offensive but equally important for the forces that will then fight to hold the ground for them to continue the operation onwards from Mosul. So, the building part of the capacity role is very much all about preparing the Iraqi security forces for a range of future operations.
QUESTION: On the overall fight against IS, you say signs are promising. Really, what are those signs?
DAVID JOHNSTON: The territory that continues to be captured and held, well in my view, was changed in the past. We have seen territory captured and then lost. That means that it had to re-captured. That's occurring less now and increasingly, both in the north, the operations up and towards Tikrit and both the west, I think is still more contestable than other parts of Iraq but when territory is captured it now tends to be held in a better manner than it was in the past. So, there is both the line of troops is moving to having increasing territory under Government of Iraq control and they are holding it once they're obtained.
QUESTION: Is there any way to quantify the sort of area that's been recaptured?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Not in square kilometres terms yet, that's what we've done in the past and that - well, it has increased from what - certainly from the last briefing I gave you at - about six weeks ago. The quantity of it I can't give you in a square kilometre terms and it - in part, I need to offer that to you in a meaningful manner because it's a very broad front now that it's not like a single piece of territory that's been taken, it's a moving one.
QUESTION: And you actually mentioned the destruction of parts or all of the defensive wall. Can you tell us more about that, what it was made of or how effective it wasn't as a defensive position? And also you said the word industrial bombings in Tikrit. Can you expand on?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I'll clarify that, it was industrial-scale use of improvised [indistinct] devising devices. So, that - using them very much as a widespread defensive [indistinct]. But I'll ask Air Commodore Iervasi who can particularly talk about the air strikes against defensive structures.
JOE IERVASI: [Indistinct] so the wall [indistinct] that you would have [indistinct] that have been constructed over a considerable piece of territory, so that provides both a defensive mechanism for the Daesh to protect themselves against them also provides a funnelling mechanism for the advancing forces. If they can't get through the wall, they'll have to go around them so it provides an easier defensive posture for the Daesh. So the aim there was to actually breach [indistinct] pass the wall to firstly complicate the defensive structures of Daesh and then secondly give the Iraqi security forces more options from a defence perspective there as well.
JOE IERVASI: They're in the order of about 50 to 70 feet high so this is as quickly as they can build them with bulldozers so not only we actually attacking the [indistinct] themselves but we're also attaching the equivalent that the Daesh are using to build the [indistinct] so all earth moving equipment as well. The other thing that's been actively engaged in is we know generally speaking how Daesh command control and how they coordinate so our ability to strike at their mustering points or their command control nodes disrupts their ability to coordinate their own defensive and offensive strikes there as well. So whilst we might hear there's a command control node what is happening it really gives the local Daesh command of the ability to co-ordinate their forces and by taking that particular communication node away from them, now they're reduced back to stone age methods of communicating, depending upon their commanders in the field to make sound judgements. What we are actively doing is disrupting and creating a little more chaos there on the ground, which is confusing their ability to co-ordinate amongst themselves in a times the rapid advancement of the Iraqi Security Forces has overwhelmed the Daesh forces as well.
QUESTION: How would you describe the co-ordination of Daesh is it really like serially messy as far as battalions and sort of the organisation on the ground and how is it affected? Are there leaders of small groups of troops or..?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It isn't constructed like a conventional army which gives it some flexibility and adaptability as a consequence so that there is a command structure there, it is adaptive and it recovers from losses. I think I have mentioned last time there have been a significant number of senior leaders and the more experienced fighters from the [indistinct] 9500 people that includes a fair element of their experienced fighter within that. That causes a loss of experience which means that they then are less tactically proficient and they present themselves in a manner that is more open to targeting because of the loss of that expertise that they've had when the comments that Air Commodore Iervasi made when we tried the communications and co-ordinating mechanisms all of it acts collectively to increase the risk to their operations and prevents opportunities too. So we continue to see them evolve in their fighting for chains, the way they're operating themselves, the coalition and Iraqi effectiveness but the gradual attrition of their capability continues to increase their risk levels.
QUESTION: How's your relationship with the Iranians and is there any direct contact between Australians and the Iranian? And do you have any concerns about the behaviour of the Shia militia groups in certain terrorist grouping? How's that [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: We don't have any direct relationship with the Iranians but you would have seen the Foreign Minister I think has a planned visit there soon so at the national level we certainly have that and that provides an important means of dialogue for us. Issues around the Shia militia group and their conduct are important. It's important for the Government of Iraq because they need to maintain that inclusive government that addresses what had occurred in the past between the Sunni and the Shia parts of their community but because this is a government of Iraq led activity it is their responsibility to make sure that they are exerting the influence that they can over the Shia militia groups to make sure that they're acting in a manner that the Government of Iraq can continue to function. And the way that the Shia group operates in Sunni areas will be an important test for example, that it is vital that the Government of Iraq brings that together.
QUESTION: Getting it right so far?
DAVID JOHNSTON: To our knowledge it is we've seen that there is reports of some incidents occurring and they will need to continue to be addressed by the Government of Iraq but collectively on the whole, it appears relatively positive so far.
QUESTION: The seemingly unintentional brief from Pentagon and some of the details of the Mosul operation does that have much of an impact on any Australian goal in planning for that [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Not to my knowledge I mean there's still a fair way to go with the Mosul planning so any issues in terms of what information was made public will just be incorporated into how they refine it. They just planning now but there's a lot of work yet to be done.
QUESTION: Has it delayed things?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No not to my knowledge.
QUESTION: As I understand it we've taken on the important bit with the task of basically recruit and [indistinct] division?
DAVID JOHNSTON: Not so much recruit training so they'll - the experience levels of brigades that will come to us will vary but it is all foundation training all the way up through to the [indistinct].
QUESTION: The critical importance of IEDs since being mentioned I think my - would it be more efficient for us to provide - we have very good engineering skills, would it - has any consideration been given towards perhaps increasing training offer how to run IED and the engineer?
DAVID JOHNSTON: It is already a key part of our advise and assist mission through the special operations cast group and it will - we are factoring that in to if we do provide that building partly capacity [indistinct] Taji it will include counter-IED training. So we recognise it is a fundamental skill set as is medical training, professional web constraining now all of it needs to be part of the package and that's what we're preparing for.
QUESTION: Just to clarify [indistinct] timeline in terms of this policy you said that they're going to do their practices and [indistinct]…
DAVID JOHNSTON: Training.
QUESTION: Training after Easter, when do they actually [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON:That subject to when government makes its decision but we could see - be ready if that's the outcome of could be starting to do forces probably by late April, May.
QUESTION: And how long [indistinct]
DAVID JOHNSTON: Typically these deployments are between six to nine months and it depends on the specialists involved it but that's the typical bracket that we have.
QUESTION: And in terms of the special forces when they come back [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: They will yes it will be a reduction in capability from about 170 we have now down to a much smaller contribution.
QUESTION: And there won't be any more Special Forces [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: No this is the last large rotations because the decision was we'll have a small enduring contribution but we will continue to rotate those forces.
QUESTION: The fighting you're talking about in Tikrit sounds very dangerous and costly and [indistinct] Iraqis and the militia suffering from [indistinct]
DAVID JOHNSTON: I haven't seen too many reports of that now that we've got coalition assets providing that [indistinct] watch I'd expect both we will start to get a better opportunities of the circumstances on the ground but the fact that it has stalled in an indication of it being a difficult operation to conduct and the likelihood of casualties is high.
QUESTION: How's your big [indistinct] actually if they haven't actually stopped kids with things like mobile phones [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: In different areas yes, now we've had reports of mobile phone towers being destroyed in order to deny that form of communication. Either for exploitation or they have an increasing view that elements of the communities whether it's in Tikrit or Mosul is going [indistinct] against them and could use that communication to coordinate against them so all of that is reducing their capacity to be able manage and coordinate their own actions.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] Do they just sending notes around the place or what are they doing [sic]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I think there are varied in [indistinct] push to talk radios, VHS, radios, there are other means of communicating in the absence of general mobile phone network and that's what they'll transition to. Satellite phones, there are other options there but all of us I think - we know how convenient the use of mobile phones are at home here. If that was denied us, that alternatives are much more difficult to use.
QUESTION: There have been reports that the militia have - because of the coalition air strikes in protest about the assistance coming from the US and others the militia have in fact retreated - ceased engaging in Tikrit, do you know anything about that?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I've seen the same reports we're uncertain to the extent that's true, I think that [indistinct] it's important we know that the Shia militia groups are not homogenous in nature all of them are very different and partly their affiliations and degree of influence people exert on them. We have seen potentially some withdraw back from the very forward line but now out of the area.
So they may have pulled back to their main assembling areas or operating areas while others remain engaged. So the environment isn't that they have all withdrawn. Elements of them have, but not extensively so, and I think we'll get a better understanding of that.
QUESTION: On the Super Hornets; have they all returned yet, or are they on their way?
DAVID JOHNSTON: They'll be back this week.
QUESTION: So the Daesh forces to the southwest of [indistinct] a fortnight ago - it is an advance, an offensive from the Daesh forces to the southwest of Tikrit, aiming presumably to cut of the forces that - the Iraqi forces that have moved to the north? Are you aware - has that been halted, at the [indistinct]?
DAVID JOHNSTON: I'm not aware explicitly of that, but equally, I'm not aware of any significant constraints on the Government of Iraq forces in and around Tikrit. So they've got pretty good freedom of movement at the moment. For the Government forces to operate in that area.
QUESTION: Would you mind just explaining to us - the rationale behind the swapping from the Super Hornets to the [indistinct] are there any advantages or disadvantages?
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: For the next twelve years(*) [indistinct].
JOE IERVASI: Essentially because we're going on operations for an extended period of time, we need to factor into account how to [indistinct] strike aircraft over the period. As you're aware, our air force is only so big, and at some stage we're going to have to worry about our entire economy of forces. So primary reason for that - the Super Hornets have done [indistinct] now, it's all just part of the sustained air campaign that we're running. The capabilities of the aircraft are similar but different. The Super Hornet's being a two-seat aircraft, it's a more recent build than the Hornet as well, which was leveraged off the lessons [indistinct]. Super Hornets are very capable [indistinct] the classic Hornet, single seat, has essentially the same capabilities of the Super Hornet, but not necessarily integrated to the same degree. What that means is the cockpit workload is a little bit [indistinct] in a single-seat p