20/20 foresight: planning the ADF’s future role in the Middle East
10 Mar 2017|

Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.

As the battle for Mosul reaches its final stages and the White House reviews US military options for an assault on Raqqa, Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria, a decision point is fast approaching for the future employment of the Australian Defence Force in the Middle East.

This year was always destined to be a critical juncture for government decisions about ADF engagement. A new US President in the White House, the return of Mosul to Iraqi government control and the anniversary of the initial two-year ADF contribution in May, necessitate a recast of Australia’s commitment to the coalition effort. The US review provides the opportunity for Australia to reset its own objectives in the region.

The recent pronouncements by Malcolm Turnbull and Defence Minister Marise Payne that Australia would consider any US request for a revised ADF contribution ‘on its merits’, is a signal that the government will likely use this opening as an opportunity to adjust its commitment.

The military-strategic outlook in the Middle East is complex by any measure and throws up considerable challenges for the government. Redefining and crafting a revised military purpose for the commitment should be a high priority.

Until now, the defeat of IS as a proto-conventional military force in Iraq and Syria has been the clear and unambiguous priority for Australia. The defeat of IS in Mosul and Raqqa will shift the focus of the conflict in Iraq from a conventional fight back to a more complex counter insurgency effort. How prepared Iraq’s security forces are to meet the military and political demands of a protracted insurgency is the subject of considerable speculation.

Despite this, there is a strong impetus for Australia to remain committed to Iraq, at least in the short term. Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), currently assisted by US and Australian Special Forces, has borne the brunt of the fighting with IS. It has sustained heavy casualties and requires a major reconstitution and retraining effort in the months ahead.

Australia’s other significant commitment, the Taji based training mission undertaken by a combined Australian and New Zealand Task Force, has also played an important role in generating Iraqi Army and Police capability. A protracted counter insurgency campaign will rely heavily on coalition efforts to build and sustain the capacity of these forces.

A continued ADF role in Iraq is not risk free. Keeping a political consensus together once Mosul is captured will be a challenge for Iraq’s government as broader sectarian and geopolitical tensions play out. Consequently, an ongoing Australian presence would benefit from having clear conditional objectives attached to it to avoid mission creep. Crafting the right parameters for continued military investment carries challenges but getting it right will provide Australia with greater strategic flexibility should Iraq’s political unity deteriorate in the coming months.

Beyond Iraq, Australia’s Middle East policy would benefit from a clear sighted appreciation of US strategic objectives across the region and their likelihood of success. This is the overarching lesson from Australia’s experience of coalition commitments over the last fifteen years. Growing strategic uncertainty in North and East Asia and speculation that returning foreign fighters may bring greater security challenges to Southeast Asia mean that Australia’s more immediate strategic circumstances are now less forgiving than they were fifteen years ago.

The recent visit to Washington by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop for talks with US officials and the Senator Payne’s meeting with the US Defence Secretary at NATO headquarters in Brussels last month will have furnished the government with US expectations of success. Diplomatic and embedded ADF personnel in the US and the Middle East have no doubt also provided important detail to the government about this very issue. Utilising the collated information to develop  a dispassionate and honest alliance discourse with Australia’s coalition partners in the Middle East will provide the government with greater strategic flexibility.

Other options for adjusting the ADF commitment may include increasing the number of ADF personnel embedded in coalition headquarters, or an expanded role for Australia’s Special Operations Task Group into Syria. A decision to put ADF personnel on the ground in Syria is unlikely, noting the broader uncertainties associated with the future of the civil war there.

Australia’s Air Task Group, comprising seven F/A-18s, an E-7A AWACs aircraft and a KC30 air-refuelling tanker and currently supporting coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, would be useful in an expanded Syrian campaign. Options to increase this contribution do exist, particularly as an offset to any draw-down in Australia’s Iraq commitment. The same parameters apply to the Navy’s maritime security contribution of a frigate in the Arabian Peninsula. But increasing either contribution needs to be carefully weighed against potential domestic and regional contingency requirements.

The strategic calculus confronting the government as it considers a revised ADF commitment is growing ever more complex. Setting a framework that provides the ADF with a revised military purpose beyond Mosul and Raqqa as well as parameters that provide Australia with flexibility to adjust the commitment to the prevailing strategic circumstances will be a key component of its ultimate success.