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Senator the Hon David Johnston
Minister for Defence
6 October 2014
Topic:Australia’s Involvement in Iraq
Confirmation this morning that two Australian F/A-18 Super Hornets have flown their first combat mission in Iraq, they did not launch air strikes.
Let’s go straight to the Defence Minister David Johnston, Senator Johnston good morning to you.
Good morning Geoff.
It’s called an air interdiction, can you explain that to us?
Well what happens is that people on the ground and/or planned targets are attacked from the air with munitions and we are doing everything we possibly can to support the Iraqi Security Forces in giving them some extra strike capacity and attacking ISIL, or Da’ish as they are called in the Middle East, as best we can to try and bring some stability that country.
And this represents – it’s a simple question but a hard one to answer – the start of what?
I think it’s the continuation of assistance. We started off dropping humanitarian relief to Mount Sinjar and then Amerli and then we’ve boosted up the munitions supplies of the Iraqi Security Forces, now we are assisting the Iraqi Security Forces from the air to retake their country.
That operation will take some months but with the very powerful coalition that we have, with more than 60 countries that have said that they want to make some contribution in some form or another and the good news I think for all of us is that the Gulf states have stepped up and have been doing a lot of work and I think that’s a very positive thing, but it’s going to take some time Geoff.
I noticed overnight that Dutch and Belgian warplanes had joined the action as well, so with whom will the Australian pilots be sharing those skies over Iraq?
Well what happens Geoff is we’ve got our tankers up and other countries have got their tankers up and the fighter aircraft will be up there patrolling.
We’re flying missions between six to ten hours, somewhere about that mark, and so the command post for airspace operations will designate taskings to the aircraft who will then go and deal with the enemy as and when they are assigned.
Is there room, given that the US have been conducting airstrikes in Syris, is there room and consideration that at some point in the future our Australian Hornets might be flying over Syria and doing a similar job there?
Not at this stage, we’re entirely focussed on Iraq. We’ve had strong relationships with Prime Minister of Iraq al-Abadi, I met him personally just over a week ago and said that our focus is on assisting him.
We’ll probably be closer in to Baghdad but I’ll wait and see what CDF says about where our people are going to go, but we’re part of a big coalition in the air. We get the targets assigned to us, we then go and deal with them and then later on we’ll be on the ground advising and assisting, supporting the Iraqi Security Forces as we endeavour to give them the confidence to go forward and fight this fight for themselves.
I’d like to ask you some questions on that front in just a moment. 23 minutes to 09:00am, David Johnston the federal Defence Minister is my guest this morning.
Our Special Forces are in an ‘advise and assist’ role and there is speculation today that a couple of hundred of them will move into Iraq tomorrow, can you confirm any of that for us?
Well of course Geoff I can’t confirm any operational movements whatsoever. We’ll publicly advise the Australian people as and when these matters have been completed, we will never publicly talk about operational matters going forward, we will talk about them post facto.
I have to ask and I think the audience understands your response very well.
You did tell Insiders yesterday that you share some optimism after speaking with generals on the ground in the Middle East, so can you tell us what gives you real cause for that optimism?
I know our generals and I know the US generals and I met with several of them while I was over there and they have a very good understanding of what is required.
We’ve had a long battle in Afghanistan but this is a counterinsurgency in completely different terrain. The villages are very isolated in the desert, we’ve got Ramadi, Kirkuk, Tikrit, Fallujah, Mosul, these are the towns that ISIL or Da’ish have taken possession of. We need to enable the Iraqi Security Forces to step up and start to drive these people back town by town.
With the firepower, the intelligence, the wisdom and ability, the professionalism and skill of all of these coalition forces I think we are going to do very well, but that does not mean it’s going to be easy.
If you think back to 2004 coalition forces had to go through Fallujah, the Second Battle of Fallujah was huge, it was house-to-house fighting over several months, but ultimately the coalition there prevailed.
I think we have a very strong opportunity, particularly when I see Sunni tribesmen siding with the Iraqi Security Forces in the last week, I think that’s a very good sign.
The impression I got from your interview yesterday was that you hoped that once IS were targeted, once it became clear to the ISF or the Peshmerga in the north for instance that there is strong international assistance backing them, that IS will somehow become less legitimate and those that have been recruited to fight may indeed disappear when the going gets tough.
Is that an assessment of how you see it?
The message I want to put out there is that if you think you have a future fighting for ISIL or Da’ish, that future will be very, very limited and in fact will not be a future at all, there is no future in fighting for these people.
And yet you say and people say that this is a conflict that could last months and months and other independent analysts have said for years.
Well we certainly don’t want to fall into the trap of overconfidence about this, these are obviously fighters who have had a lot of success in a very short space of time, so we are very carefully and prudently planning our way forward making sure that the Iraqi Security Forces have plenty of ammunition, plenty of fuel, plenty of supplies, plenty of intelligence and assistance to enable them to go forward and get the job done.
You mention Baghdad, you were in Baghdad last week looking at the legalities of Australian involvement, is the real unknown here going to be the ability of Iraq to manage a crisis within its borders and for its own armed forces to do most of the work?
There are certainly plenty of people who continue to doubt and we’ve spoken to David Kilcullen on this programme last week about the belief that the Iraqi Army is constantly in disarray, how can you be confident of them?
Well that’s one of the tasks that we have to fulfil, we have to work out which sections of the Iraqi Army and more broadly the Iraqi Security Forces need assistance. They have some very good capabilities, the Iraqi Counter-Terrorist Bureau for example is very capable, but we need to make sure that we are training, assisting and providing the supplies needed to give them all confidence.
The Peshmerga are very capable as well, but again, providing planning and the enablers that allow them to go forward and retake some of these towns and defend the towns that are under siege is what our first and primary task is.
We’ve got plenty of aircraft, we’ve got plenty of capacity to ensure they are well supplied, we’ve got good intelligence and I think that ultimately once confidence rises within the Iraqi Security Forces things will start to turn around.
Yesterday your Western Australian Senate colleague Finance Minister Mathias Cormann hinted that Australians may have to pay more tax to pay for this effort.
Do you think that this is the likelihood, that the longer this goes the more expensive it will be and that there will be that requirement for Australians to pay for it?
We’ll have to look at that Geoff. Going forward we’ve got MYEFO coming up in December and then we’ve got the Budget in May.
We’ll work out where we’re at but these sorts of contingencies are planned for and we’ve had a lot of operations recently that have been absorbed.
We went into the Ukraine, we’ve searched for MH370 in the Indian Ocean, we’ve done a lot of things in recent times that contingency planning has allowed us to cover, but this is a big operation, you’re quite right.
We’ll see how this develops over time in MYEFO and the Budget going forward, but I wouldn’t speculate on what this is going to mean as a bottom line in the Budget.
Last question Senator Johnston, there’s been much conjecture that Scott Morrison is to be elevated to a senior Government role, talk of Homeland Security Departments, talk also that he might be a candidate to replace you in Defence.
Do you want to and are you confident that you will be Australia’s Defence Minister throughout all this?
I am confident Geoff. I’m doing my job, I work very hard and I’ve got a lot of things happening.
Everyone wants my job because of the nature and quality of the people I deal with, we have outstanding people in Defence – this operation itself is very indicative of the high quality, professionalism and skill of the ADF – I relish working with them.
When these sorts of matters confront Australia I am very pleased, proud and honoured to be the Minister for Defence, doing the sorts of things that you are seeing unfolding on television and hearing about on radio on a day-by-day basis.
Has there been any push for Mr Morrison to replace you in that position?
Not that I’m aware of.
I appreciate you talking to me, thank you very much.
Senator David Johnston is Australia’s Defence Minister.
Media Contacts (Defence Minister’s office):
Brad Rowswell 0417 917 796
Rebecca Horton 0477 389 554
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