I speak today to update the Parliament and the Australian people about Australia’s Defence operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, the broader Middle East region and our maritime approaches.
IRAQ & SYRIA – OVERVIEW
Since my last Defence Force operations update to the Parliament, we’ve seen further atrocities and terrorist attacks either conducted, or inspired by, the terrorist movement known as Daesh.
Beyond Iraq and Syria, Australia’s thoughts and condolences are with the people of France, Kuwait, Tunisia, Turkey and, most recently, Saudi Arabia whose countries have suffered at the hands of Daesh terrorists.
These attacks reaffirm that Daesh is a threat not only to the Middle East, but to all countries, including Australia.
It is for this reason that the Australian Government remains committed to the international effort to disrupt, degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh.
This commitment is underscored by the Government’s decision to extend Australian Defence Force air strikes against Daesh into eastern Syria. This is a logical extension of our existing commitment in the Middle East.
As the Government announced last week, this marks the next phase of Australia’s contribution to our important campaign against Daesh.
Daesh does not respect borders and threatens the security of Iraq and the international community from its safe havens and command centres in Syria.
It controls a large amount of territory in eastern Syria that serves as a source of recruitment and oil revenues. From Syria, Daesh has been able to operate its training bases, conduct planning and preparation for attacks, and move fighters and equipment into, and out of, Iraq.
Royal Australian Air Force efforts in eastern Syria will are being directed solely at Daesh – we will not be engaging in the broader conflict in Syria.
The legal basis for Australia’s air operations in Syria remains the collective self-defence of Iraq. We strongly believe Iraq should not be left to face this horrendous threat alone.
This is why Australia is continuing its Advise and Assist and Building Partner Capacity missions to develop the capacity of the Iraqi Security Forces, and continues to contribute an Air Task Group, at the request of, and to support, the Iraqi Government.
IRAQ – ADF OPERATIONS UPDATE
Australia welcomed the commencement in July of Iraqi Security Forces operations to retake the city of Ramadi from Daesh.
The mission is being led by the Iraqis and is being supported by the US-led international coalition, which includes Australia.
There have been some positive signs in this vital mission.
However, the Iraqi Security Forces require ongoing support to reclaim and hold their territory, so they can assume responsibility for Iraq’s security.
BUILDING PARTNER CAPACITY MISSION
Now into its fifth month, our combined Building Partner Capacity mission with New Zealand is steadily making progress.
At the end of June, around 700 personnel from the Iraqi Army’s 76th Brigade graduated from its training provided by Task Group Taji, representing the first tranche of regular Iraqi Army soldiers trained under the Building Partner Capacity mission.
To date, Task Group Taji has provided training to more than 1600 Iraqi Army personnel and it continues to receive further Iraqi Army units for instruction.
Task Group Taji is currently training the next tranche of around 700 soldiers from a number of Iraqi units.
The Task Group has been training both officers and soldiers in skills including weapon handling, building clearances and obstacle breaching techniques, as well as training in the tactics, techniques and procedures for various operations. The Building Partner Capacity mission includes mentoring and training in professional military conduct, including the Law of Armed Conflict.
SPECIAL OPERATIONS TASK GROUP
Our Special Operations Task Group continues to advise and assist the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service, in areas such as advanced combat tactics, K-9 training, combat casualty care and explosives identification and neutralisation.
As the Government indicated in April, the composition of Australia’s Advise and Assist mission will change in the third quarter of this year.
The Government has decided to re-shape the scope of the Advise and Assist mission, from around 200 ADF Special Forces personnel to around 80.
This re-shaping allows Australia to balance its contribution between specialist advice and support to the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service provided by the Special Operations Task Group, and the training provided to the regular Iraqi Army through the Building Partner Capacity mission.
AIR TASK GROUP
Australia’s Air Task Group remains a leading contributor of platforms, support personnel and missions flown in the coalition air campaign against Daesh.
As at 13 September, the Air Task Group had completed a total of 408 ADF airstrike missions over Iraq.
- Our F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft have completed 209 missions, releasing 278 weapons;
- The F/A-18 Hornet aircraft have completed 199 missions, releasing 237 weapons;
- The KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft has conducted 394 missions, offloading nearly 32 million pounds of fuel to Australian and coalition aircraft; and
- The E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft has conducted 135 command and control missions.
As has been reported, the Air Task Group has completed its first strike against a Daesh target in eastern Syria, destroying an Armoured Personnel Carrier.
Two of our F/A-18 Hornets identified the Personnel Carrier, hidden in a Daesh compound.
The information was reported back to the Combined Air Operations Centre via the RAAF E-7A Wedgetail.
Upon receiving authorisation to proceed, one of the Hornets employed a precision guided weapon to destroy the target.
EMBEDDED ADF PERSONNEL
Australian Defence Force personnel are also embedded within United States headquarters in the US and across the Middle East Region, including in Iraq and other coalition partner countries, to provide command and control functions, and to maintain Australian awareness of regional developments.
Five Royal Australian Air Force personnel attached to the United States Air Force perform operational duties with their US parent unit as MQ-9 Unmanned Aircraft System pilots and sensor operators.
They operate as part of a US unit, but they do so in a manner consistent with Australia’s obligations under international law.
These activities in the fight against Daesh – the Building Partner Capacity, Advise and Assist and air operations – reflect the Australian Government’s steadfast commitment to keeping Australians safe from terrorism and preventing the spread of violent extremism to our shores.
In June this year I attended the NATO Defence Minister’s Meeting in Brussels to discuss the future of Afghanistan.
Australia remains committed to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission which is focused on training, advising and assisting the Afghan Security Institutions and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
As I advised the Parliament earlier this year, our commitment to Afghanistan has become the longest combat, and now mentoring military commitment, in Australian history, involving over 33,000 deployed ADF personnel since 2001.
It has involved significant sacrifice and commitment, including the lives of 41 ADF personnel who have died in Afghanistan. They have made the ultimate sacrifice, and we continue to mourn with and recognise the sorrow faced by their families and friends.
A further 261 Australian Defence Force personnel have been wounded, and many more affected in other ways by their involvement in Australia’s mission to bring a more peaceful future to this war torn country.
Over the last decade and a half, our purpose in Afghanistan has not changed.
Our continuing efforts to build Afghan capacity and institutions aim to ensure that Afghanistan will never again become a safe haven for al Qaeda and other international extremist groups.
Around 400 Australian Defence Force personnel are currently deployed in Afghanistan under Operation HIGHROAD as trainers, mentors, embedded personnel in headquarters and in critical force protection, medical and intelligence roles.
Our commitment at the Afghan National Army Officer Training Academy supports the mentoring of Afghan Officer Cadets outside Kabul.
A class of 283 officer cadets graduated on 16 June, including the first female cadet platoon. This was the first commissioning of female officers to have completed their training at the academy. The Duntroon Sword for best overall cadet was won by a female officer cadet and was presented to her by the Australian Ambassador to Afghanistan.
Australia is also supporting Afghan security sector sustainment through an annual commitment of US$100 million. One important project funded by this commitment is the provision of Australian designed and manufactured counter improvised explosive device equipment. The equipment provides the Afghan
Security Forces with a life saving capability, tangibly increasing their confidence and capacity to conduct independent operations.
At the beginning of 2015, the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces assumed full responsibility for the security of the Afghan people.
It was always acknowledged that their first fighting season in full security lead would be a challenge for Afghan forces.
While there have been tactical setbacks, overall the Afghan National Defense and Security Force is providing security for the Afghan people, fighting its own battles, and holding population centres.
The Afghan security forces continue to demonstrate their increasing ability to plan and conduct independent operations.
We urge all key stakeholders to continue their support for reconciliation. This is because, notwithstanding security gains, the path to lasting peace will be through an Afghan-led and Afghan owned reconciliation process.
FUTURE COMMITMENT TO AFGHANISTAN
Decisions about the ADF commitment in 2016 are yet to be made, but we will continue to take account of Afghan progress, as well as NATO and United States’ plans as these develop.
Beyond 2016, Australia will remain a constructive and committed partner to our Afghan friends.
MARITIME AND PEACEKEEPING OPERATIONS
In addition to our commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ADF continues to support vital work in maritime security and peacekeeping operations in the wider Middle East and around the world.
Since 1991 Australia has conducted near continuous maritime security operations in the Middle East Region in support of international efforts to promote maritime security and stability.
Australia’s current commitment comprises a Royal Australian Navy Major Fleet Unit and personnel to support the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) to defeat terrorism, prevent piracy, encourage regional cooperation, and promote a safe maritime environment.
HMAS Melbourne relieved HMAS Newcastle earlier this month on the 6th of September. HMAS Newcastle successfully seized over 1.3 tonnes of heroin during her four and a half month deployment, valued at over $1 billion, helping make this maritime force one of the world’s most effective current heroin interdiction forces.
Piracy off the Horn of Africa remains at record lows with no successful attacks since 2013, largely due to the ongoing international operations in the region, in which Australia’s plays a critical role.
Australia also continues to be committed to peacekeeping in the Middle East. ADF personnel have participated in Operation PALADIN since 1956, representing our longest commitment to a peacekeeping mission, with 12 ADF personnel currently deployed in the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.
Nearby in the Sinai, Australia was an original participant in the Multinational Force and Observers mission under Operation MAZURKA in 1982, and continues to participate today with a contingent of 25 ADF personnel.
I also acknowledge the efforts of around 400 ADF members on Operation ACCORDION, who are supporting Australian operations, including providing logistics and sustainment support and enabling contingency planning across the Middle East Region.
We have a further 21 ADF personnel deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, under Operation ASLAN. Our commitment to this mission is helping the UN to protect the people of the Republic of South Sudan through the monitoring of human rights and the delivery of humanitarian aid.
These important commitments to stability and security in the Middle East Region, Afghanistan and South Sudan highlight Australia’s ongoing commitment to a rules-based global order, which supports Australia’s security and prosperity.
Our thoughts are with the men and women of the ADF who are undertaking these important missions, and with their families.
OPERATION SOVEREIGN BORDERS
Finally, in our own region, the Australian Defence Force continues to support Operation Sovereign Borders. Currently around 500 ADF personnel are at sea, in the air and on land working to protect Australia's borders and offshore maritime interests.
These ADF personnel have performed an essential role in supporting the Government’s efforts to successfully disrupt and halt the people smuggling trade that cost over 1,200 lives at sea in recent years.
The ongoing professionalism of our Defence Force and the readiness of our ADF personnel to defend Australia’s interests around the world at short notice is truly extraordinary.
On behalf of the Government, and indeed this Parliament, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to these men and women, as well as their families, for all they do to ensure the safety and security of Australia and its interests.