Saturday, November 8, 2014


We don't hear much about it. It would be easy to think Australia isn't at war.

Preparing the Super Hornets at AMAB

Bit the RAAF contingent in the Middle East are engaged in a war every day and night.

This is an attempt to tell part of their story.


As soon as the RAAF KC-30 tanker flew north of Baiji, about 150 kilometres north of Baghdad, the chatter over the tactical radio becomes incessant. A slow American drawl requests the refuelling aircraft to enter Syrian airspace (Australian answer: “No”); clipped English tones reveal the presence of a pair of RAF Tornados; and occasionally a Saudi or Iraqi voice can be heard cutting through the airwaves. Two US Hornets wheel below before soaring up and hooking onto the refuelling pods trailing out behind the tanker. After sucking-up the aviation turbine gas they peel away, floating back to the battle where they’ll re-engage in the fight.

Describing the intervention in Iraq as an “air war” makes it sound remote and slightly ineffectual. But in the air 20,000 feet above Mosul, those words don’t seem right. The strike aircraft are having an impact. Just because the planes slice quickly through the air doesn’t mean their effect on the ground isn't precise and significant. Advances in targeting mean intelligence is now capable of identifying pivotal objectives and assigning missions that are having a strategic effect. The airmen insist they can already see they’re making a difference on the ground.

A couple of weeks ago, before the Air Task Group had deployed, the ISIL technicals (four-wheel drive vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns) roamed northern Iraq at will. They delivered mobility to the insurgents, suddenly turning up beside, or even behind, Iraqi positions and outflanking the slow moving, government forces. They fled in panic, further boosting the reputation of the Islamic terrorists.  

Initially, ISIL treated the allied air effort with distain. After the allies sorted out information flows and targeting procedures, things changed. An Australian Super Hornet pilot, who’s name can’t be used, describes the change. He insists the battlefield altered as the effectiveness of the strikes became apparent.

“At first the technicals realised that if they moved we’d spot them. They’d be destroyed”, he says. “So they hid, but we found them anyway. Then ISIL began repositioning vehicles under the cover of night. They didn’t realise coalition infra-red cameras still lit them up. Their signature made them stand out and we could actually see what was going on much better than they could.” He pauses. “Now they don’t move at night, either.”

Without vehicles the insurgents, who used to move at 100 kilometres an hour, have been reduced to the speed of two legs. Without mobility their tactical advantage has been stripped away, but that’s not all. Recent years have seen dramatic improvements in monitoring the electronic spectrum and the resulting intelligence makes the air campaign even more effective. ISIL’s leaders have been forced to stop using telephones: they know if they do, they’ll be targeted. Nevertheless there have been a number of occasions on which the pilots haven’t used their weapons.

Australia has two “red card” holders, as well as the flyers themselves. If there’s any uncertainty about the nature of the target or the possibility of collateral damage, anyone can abort the mission. The card has already been played a couple of times when it appeared the Super Hornets were operating outside our own Rules of Engagement. One pilot repeats what’s becoming a new mantra amongst those flying the aircraft.

“Your best bomb could be the bomb you don’t drop,” he says. “No one wants to kill civilians. We’re very aware we could loose the war in a day if we did. It would vindicate those opposing the war.” The fighter pilot is emphatic.  We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

As experience accumulates, the flyers are learning to distinguish between when a weapon should be used and when it should stay on the rack. They’re well aware that killing civilians, even accidently, would be a disaster. It would present ISIL with a propaganda coup. “No one would ever be criticised for failure to release a weapon,” he adds.  

When the planes return, extensive debriefs go through the real-time footage that’s been assembled by the planes sensors. This is examined, frame-by-frame, replaying decisions made by the crew during the mission. Aircrew run through their actions. This is another advantage of the Super Hornet, which has two people in each aircraft. One concentrates on flying the plane; behind him the weapons systems officer “adds value”, by focusing on the mission.

Flights regularly take up to ten hours, with each plane circling and waiting for tasks or targets to become available. “Every one of us has to find a way of coping with the physical tension of simply sitting in one place for ten hours at a time”, another pilot says later over dinner. His friend nods. “When I finished my last mission, my left leg had gone to sleep. The other night I couldn’t sleep on one side because of a sore ear. No matter how much I’d fiddled with it, I just couldn’t get the headphones to sit right.” The simple physical toll of performing these long missions shouldn’t be ignored. “Of course,” he continues, “that’s not the sort of thing you focus on at the time. You’re far too busy worrying about what you’re doing and what’s going on in the battle-space.”

*          *          *

“There’s no moral ambiguity about this mission.” The engineer officer is unequivocal. “Nobody has a problem with why we’re here; what we’re doing.”

For a journalist, spending time embedded with a military unit is a mixed experience. You’ve got to be careful not to ‘drink the cool-aid’ and simply accept what you’re told. The reporter needs to distinguish the objective fact and separate it out from what a particular officer might want the truth to be. In this instance, however, there’s a remarkable synergy between what the aircrew and their supporting staff are saying and the way they’re acting.

“You know it’s real when you see an aircraft coming back and a bomb’s gone”, says the engineer. “We’ve got no problem here motivating people and getting them to work.”

There’s camaraderie and pride amongst those chosen for the mission. Most people were only notified they might be wanted for the Middle East on a Tuesday: they were on their way less than a week later. Simple things, like pay and conditions, still haven’t been sorted out, however none of this is affecting the attitude of the airmen (or airwomen – there’s a large female presence).

As an example, there’s nothing salubrious about accommodation for the bulk of the Task Group. There’s none of the purpose-designed accommodation you’d expect to find, so airmen were allocated to the old disused barracks at Camp Holland. These tin roofed huts in the hot, dry desert atmosphere sleep 30 per room. But when some senior NCO’s were offered a couple of single and double rooms elsewhere, they decided to stay with the airmen.

By this stage any Vietnam veteran reading is probably muttering scathing comments. It’s true, today’s aircrew do have the luxury of sleeping in proper, rather than camp beds and eating fresh meals instead subsisting on tinned rations. The point is, though, that the type of war we’re fighting has changed. Very different skills are now expected from these technical operators. The effect depends less on any one individual. Each time a Super Hornet drops a bomb it represents the cumulative effect of every part of an intricate machine that’s finally spat out the precise target.

It’s the same with the composition of the aircraft themselves. The three types that are deployed – the KC-30 tanker; E-7A airborne early warning and control aircraft; and the Super Hornet multirole fighters – all seem to have very different personalities and appeal to different types of people. The days of fighter pilots scrambling; running to their planes before a dogfight in the air are long gone. It’s as out-of-date as the image of pilots as hard-drinking, smoking womanisers. Today fighter pilots are more likely to be introverted geeks (their description, not mine); the tanker crew a collection of brilliant nerds (again, their words); and the Wedgetail operators are problem solvers.

One of these compares his crew’s task, maintaining command and control of the battle-space, as similar to playing ever more complex games of Tetris. As soon as one solution’s been found, another’s required. He points to the forward section of the aircraft, where ten Air Operations Officers sit behind their consoles. “This is the brains of the outfit”, he says. “It’s just agricultural down the back.”

It’s one of those cases where everyone’s part of a team and every part is equally critical. Unless every individual functions smoothly together as a tiny part of the overall mechanism, the desired result won’t be achieved.

*          *          *

Air Commodore Steven Roberton commands the Task Group from the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre. This isn’t based with the ‘air assets’, again demonstrating the different nature of modern battle. Instead he’s connected by secure video link to Joint Operations in Bungendore, politicians in Canberra and, in real time, the aircraft over Iraq. A former fighter pilot himself, he’s waved a red flag more than once to ensure Australian rules of engagement are respected. But the relationship with partner nations is strong.

“The US air component commander’s told me that the one thing I’ll never hear out of his mouth is that he’s got too many Australians”, says Roberton. “Eight aircraft might sound like a ‘modest contribution’,” he adds, “but as far as the coalition’s concerned we’re making a tangible difference.” He’s previously spent time in Iraq, as well as on exchange with the US Marines. “The US has been ‘forward leaning’, seeking us out for the higher risk missions. They’re throwing us into the very centre of the fight, tough missions where if something went wrong the resulting problems would be very serious.”

This comment refers to the ever-present danger of hitting civilians, something Roberton is determined to avoid. “This is a multi-faceted, complex, conflict that requires engaging with the tribes and locals in a way we haven’t previously.” This helps to explain why the roll-out of the air offensive has been slow. The intention is to build-up in a sustainable way; supporting the Iraqi army and ensuring every bomb hits a valid target.

Roberton refers regularly to the words in his mission statement – degrade and disrupt. He knows airpower alone won’t be enough to destroy ISIL. Two serious problems are already evident.

Firstly, there just aren’t enough planes to cover all the areas ISIL fighters are operating in at once. And even if there were, to be really effective the aircraft require targets to be designated from observer teams. Without these specialists, capable of directing the enormous power of air weapons to change the combat dynamic on the ground, the beleaguered defenders will find it difficult – if not impossible – to decisively defeat the ISIL technicals.

The second problem follows from the first. Airpower can’t hold ground. At some point the land battle will need to be joined, but so far the Iraqi army has demonstrated no capacity to defeat ISIL; some fear the Kurdish Peshmerga isn’t strong enough to hold; while the Syrian opposition still squabbles amongst itself. There’s absolutely no chance a ‘moderate’ faction will overthrow the Assad government, yet Washington still refuses to countenance any status-quo outcome.

Nobody claims the air campaign will have a decisive result by itself. It is, however, making a difference. The Iraqi soldiers choosing to stay and fight now have the decisive support they so desperately need. This makes a real and genuine contribution on the ground.

What’s occurring in the sky’s over Iraq encompasses all the intimacy, complexity and violence normally associated with war. There’s nothing antiseptic about the effect of the Australian Air Task Group’s having. It’s precise and considered. Alone it will never be enough to destroy ISIL. It is enough to make a big difference on the ground.

Nicholas Stuart is a freelance journalist embedded with the Australian Forces in the Middle East. He has written a number of books on Australian politics.

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