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Australian contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

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The Australian government was a strong and uncritical supporter of United States policy during the Iraq disarmament crisis and one of only two nations to commit combat forces to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in any substantial numbers, under the operational codename Operation Falconer. Australian public opinion is a very different matter, but is not dealt with here in any detail. See Popular opposition to war on Iraq.

Australian forces committed to the conflict include include three RAN ships, 150 special forces troops, Orion patrol and Hercules transport aircraft, and RAAF 75 Sqn. equipped with 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighters.

On April 17 prime minister John Howard announced that the Australian forces would pull out completely by June.

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The scale and purpose of Australian force commitment

The Australian commitment is small; around 2000 personnel in total. What may be less obvious to the casual observer is that it is small in proportional terms also. Calculated on a military personnel per head of population basis, the Australian Gulf forces could be seven times larger and still not be equal to the commitments of either the United States or Britain.

2003 Gulf War commitments relative to population

Population Size of force per 1000 pop
Australia19.6 million20000.1
UK60 million45,0000.75
USA282 million214,0000.76
(Iraq)22.7 million400,00018.2
All figures approximate. Iraq is included for purposes of comparison. At around 0.0005% of its population, the Polish troop commitment is roughly 1/20th of the Australian one, or 1/150th of the United States one, allowing for population in both cases.

The overall purpose of the Australian commitment to the US invasion of Iraq is difficult to divine with certainty. According to Prime Minister John Howard's public statements, it is to "deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction" which are a "direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia", and to remove "a dictatorship of a particularly horrific kind".

The undoubted courage, commitment, and high standard of professionalism displayed by Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen notwithstanding, the very small size of the Australian force is such that it cannot be seriously regarded as a genuine attempt to substantially influence the result of the campaign.

Many domestic political commentators have described it as a 'token force' to show solidarity with the United States, and yet if a mere token commitment were required, a still smaller force would cost less, reduce the risk of casualties, and serve the political purpose equally well—note that Poland is generally described as one of the belligerents and yet to equal the Polish troop commitment in population-adjusted terms, a mere 100 Australian personnel would suffice.

Critics of the government charge that Australian support for the US is designed to influence the US-Australian trade negotiations currently taking place in Melbourne and provide less restricted access to US markets for Australian agricultural products—a charge the Howard Government denies. Many political commentators suggest that Howard is obsessed with the idea of being (to use Howard's own words) the "deputy sheriff of the United States"—cartoonists in particular have been merciless with this line, to the point where it has become cliched.

The most plausible suggestion put forward so far is that Australian participation is intended to buy what amounts to an insurance policy against any future aggression by a larger country to the immediate north. Howard's public statememts on this, perhaps moderated by the howls of international and domestic outrage produced by the deputy sheriff remark in 1999, have been restrained. In the words of his speech to the nation announcing and justifying the war: "There’s also another reason [for sending forces to Iraq] and that is our close security alliance with the United States. The Americans have helped us in the past and the United States is very important to Australia’s long-term security." According to Howard, "It is critical that we maintain the involvement of the United States in our own region".

It has not escaped the attention of Australian opposition groups that, whatever influence Australian backing for US policy in Iraq may or may not have on any future request for US military aid, the decision of Australia to make war on an Islamic nation is highly unpopular with the predominantly Islamic nations to Australia's immediate north. In this context, the size of the Australian commitment to the US campaign—more than token and yet less than substantial—can be considered as a calculated risk: an attempt to navigate a safe path between the alternate risks of losing the friendship and protection of Uncle Sam on the one hand, and incurring the hatred and enmity of nearby Islamic South East Asian nations on the other.

According to Opposition Leader Simon Crean, Australia's support for US Iraq policy has substantially increased the risk of further terrorist attacks on Australians like the 2002 Bali terrorist bombing which killed 88 Australian tourists and about 120 people from other nations as well. The Howard Government strenuously refutes this claim. Public opinion appears to be evenly divided.

The mix of forces committed

  • A headquarters staff of about 60 personnel under the command of Brigadier Maurie McNarn.

  • The frigates HMAS Anzac[?] and HMAS Darwin[?], which were already on-station as part of the Multinational Interception Force enforcing economic sanctions against Iraq before the invasion plan was entered into.

  • Two Orions described as maritime patrol aircraft but widely thought to be specially modified for electronic intelligence gathering.

  • A Navy clearance diver team which has been working alongside divers from several nations to clear Iraqi ports.

  • A 500-strong special forces task group, including two Chinook helicopters, support personnel, special forces troops, and a commando unit.

  • The 14 F/A-18 Hornets of RAAF 75 Sqn., together with command, coordination and support personnel.

With one obvious exception, the particular forces committed by the Australian Government are modest and follow past practice closely. Australia committed special forces to the Afghanistan campaign in roughly similar numbers to those above. The two RAN frigates were already on-station for the Afghanistan campaign; HMAS Kanimbla was a relatively small addition to the naval force. RAN clearance divers also took part in the first Gulf War.

Australia sent Hercules and Orion aircraft to assist in the Afghanistan campaign—but also Boeing 707 tankers, which have not been committed to the Gulf conflict, despite a marked Coalition shortage of probe/drogue capable tanker aircraft. The absence of the 707s is likely to be for technical rather than policy reasons: the RAAF has only four second-hand 707 tankers; all are at the end of their service lives and are very difficult to maintain; their replacement with modern types was scheduled some years ago but delayed for cost reasons.

The commitment of 75 Sqn. and its supporting personnel, however, is a major change from past practice. Australia did not commit combat aircraft to the 1991 Gulf War, and although a small detachment of Hornets was deployed to Diego Garcia during the Afghanistan campaign to provide airfield defence for the United States base there, this was not a true combat role but simply a precaution against suicide attacks by hijacked civil aircraft. The commitment of 75 Sqn. was the first combat deployment of Australian aircraft since the Vietnam War.

No official statement has been made on the reasons behind the choice of F/A-18 fighters as Australia's primary combat commitment, but it is commonly assumed that the obvious alternative of sending a substantial land force instead was considered to involve an unacceptably high risk of casualties, particularly given the possibility of house-to-house fighting in Iraqi cities. With Iraq being largely landlocked, and Australia no longer having a fixed-wing naval aviation component, a larger naval commitment could not be considered particularly helpful.

Given the above, a substantial Air Force commitment was the only realistic alternative open to the government short of a purely token force. The eventual choice of the F/A-18 fighters, however, could not be so simply pre-determined. In purely military terms, Australia's F-111 bombers had much to recommend them.

  • Air-to-air refueling issues. Although the overall Allied force mix, as compared with the first Gulf War, has a smaller number of relatively short range and thus tanker-dependant F-16s and F/A-18s than was used during the first Gulf War, tanker capacity remains at a premium. This is particularly so for the types which use probe/drogue refueling (the British, US Navy, and US Marine types) less so for those that use the USAF-style flying boom method. To address this, it is possible to attach a single hose/drogue assembly to the flying boom of the standard USAF tanker, the Boeing KC-135. However, this provides only a single refueling point per tanker aircraft, meaning that a back-up tanker must be available at all times lest a single malfunction result in fighters being unable to return to base. (Although the United States forces have excellent search and rescue arms and the risk to combat aircrew from a fuel emergency is relatively small, parking a flight of multi-million dollar fighter jets in the waters of the Persian Gulf is not considered a cost-effective way to run a war.) The United Kingdom's VC-10[?] and Tristar tankers are designed for multiple-point probe/drouge refueling but relatively few in number. The USAF KC-10[?] tanker/transports can also provide a multi-point probe/drogue option, but with a fleet of just 60 and heavy demand for them in their transport role as well, refueling capacity for probe/drogue aircraft is nevertheless constrained. The RAAF F/A-18, being a US Navy derived aircraft, uses the probe/drogue system: the F-111, however, is a flying boom type.

  • Range and payload. The F-111 has substantially greater combat radius than the F/A-18, carries a much heavier payload, and as the USAF F-111 fleet demonstrated in 1991, is more than capable in its design role: that of penetrating deeply into defended airspace and delivering heavy munitions with precision.

  • Survivability. The primary threat to coalition aircraft is relatively low-tech surface to air missiles and conventional anti-aircraft guns. The F-111's much higher speed gives it a significantly lower exposure to hostile fire. Where Australian F/A-18s have an obsolescent electronic warfare self protection system which is due for upgrade soon, the F-111s carry a current technology Elta EL/L-8222 jamming pod.

  • Weight of contribution. Even without United Kingdom help, the USAF, USN and USMC have an ample supply of short-range fighter and fighter-bomber aircraft that are broadly similar to the Australian F/A-18: including Air Force F-15s and F-16s that use flying boom refueling and (like the F/A-18) make very capable air defense and tactical strike platforms. Because of the post Cold War US defence cutbacks, however, neither the USA nor the UK has a direct equivalent to the F-111.

Although clearly the most militarily effective contribution Australia could offer (short, perhaps, of a large number of infantry troops), from a political perspective, deployment of the F-111 was unrealistic, for several reasons.

  • Restricted role. The F-111 is a bomber: by design, it can only play an offensive role. Unlike the F/A-18, it cannot be used for more politically uncontroversial tasks like escorting tanker and AWACS aircraft.

  • Practical tasking. Given the capabilities of the aircraft, a realistic set of assignments for the F-111 must involve a heavier emphasis on attacking rear area installations in built-up areas than on the tactical battlefield support that an F/A-18 is best suited to (if used in a ground attack role at all). It would be unreasonable to expect to attack targets of this nature and not, sooner or later, cause civilian casualties. The political cost to an Australian government of this could be severe.

  • Running costs. The F-111 has twice the aircrew and burns twice as much jet fuel as an F/A-18, and requires a larger maintenance crew.

  • Operational costs. The F-111 carries a much heavier bomb load than the F/A-18. Given the per-round cost of precision guided munitions (a necessity for high-value urban targets) and the ability of even a single F-111 to carry a substantial load of them each day, a government would then be faced with a pair of equally unattractive political alternatives: ask the United States to pay for Australian-delivered ordinance (a politically risky decision), or accept yet another increase in an already badly strained post-Timor defence budget (an equally risky proposition).

The military significance of the Australian forces

Although most ordinary Australians could list the Australian force commitment with reasonable accuracy, and were aware that there were vastly more US and UK troops in theatre than Australians, there was very little public debate about the scale or military worth of the Australian commitment. Neither side in the bitter political dispute had anything to gain by laying stress on the actual level of Australian force commitment. Instead, public debate centred on the more fundamental question of whether forces should be sent at all, and if so, whether they should take part without explicit United Nations backing. The question, in other words, was if, not how many.

Despite the tiny size of the Australian force in Iraq, the Australian media has been eager to seize on even the smallest incident involving Australian troops, ships or airmen. The force is, in population relative terms, one seventh the size of the British or American commitment, yet a casual domestic television viewer could be forgiven for thinking that an Australian fighting man is worth seven of his brothers from any other nation.

In reality, that thought is not as silly as it seems on first sight: Australia has a proud tradition of military achievement and the very size of the force sent to Iraq is in itself a factor: with only a small number of personnel and a small amount of equipment to find, defence planners were able to select from the very best available. Australians generally regard their soldiers, sailors and airmen as a highly trained elite group, worthy of comparison with any in the world. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that the small number of special forces troops, F/A-18 crew, bomb disposal experts, clearance divers and others sent to Iraq are an elite force. Their ability to affect the course of the war in a significant way is limited by the different and relatively restrictive rules of engagement that the Australian Government has mandated (said to be for humanitarian reasons, but widely believed to be also to minimise the risk of political fallout), and severely limited by their numbers. Given those numbers, however, they are regarded by military experts as highly effective.

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