Middle East operations: building capacity in Iraq
1 May 2015|

A RAAF F/A-18A Hornet (foreground) and a RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornet (rear) bank away from a RAAF KC-30A tanker aircraft during a mission in the Middle East Region for Operation OKRA. During the mission the recently arrived F/A-18 Hornets flew alongside of F/A-18F Super Hornets that would soon return to Australia.Security across the Middle East region is of increasing concern, with the Houthi insurgency destabilising Yemen and drawing airstrikes from Saudi Arabia and nine Arab allies, and the Da’esh franchise spreading its propaganda and its brutal philosophy to North Africa and Afghanistan. The beheading of 30 Ethiopian Christians in Libya, the death of 33 civilians in Jalalabad, Afghanistan in a bombing claimed to be by Da’esh, and the arrests in Melbourne and London of young men attracted to their savage cause highlights why our support to the coalition’s mission in the Middle East is so pressing.

In Iraq, the assessment for April is that Iraqi and Kurdish Security Forces have made territorial gains while Da’esh continues to rely on asymmetric tactics. CENTCOM has produced a map that provides analysis of the territory held by Da’esh and since reclaimed by Iraqi Security Forces. There have also been set-backs but the synopsis is that Iraqi ground forces have reclaimed more territory and inflicted more losses on Da’esh than have been suffered. The momentum, while limited in some areas, favours the Iraqi Security Forces.

The Australian government has recently approved the deployment of the Building Partner Capacity (BPC) mission comprised of approximately 300 Australian Army personnel which will operate in partnership with 110 New Zealand Defence Force personnel. The deployment of the advance party has commenced and the collective force will be called ‘Task Group Taji’. The mission is a non-combat, ‘behind-the-wire’, training task within the Taji Military Complex, northwest of Baghdad.

Our training of Iraqi Security Forces will allow us to provide skills and competencies to their forces that will complement other coalition enablers such as air-strike, airborne intelligence-surveillance and reconnaissance, and partnership at the headquarters level. This will help the Iraqi ground forces to counter Da’esh attacks and roll back their hold on Iraqi sovereign-territory.

There are five Building Partner Capacity sites: al-Asad in Anbar province, Erbil in Erbil province, Baghdad, Taji north of Baghdad and Besmayah west of Baghdad where Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Security Forces are being trained for four-to six-week periods of instruction to prepare them for operations against Da’esh. The BPC mission will continue to build Iraq’s military capabilities encompassing the development of individual junior non-commissioned officer and officer through to collective training at the brigade headquarters level in order to:

  • Manoeuvre,command and control their forces;
  • Provide support to counter-attack operations;
  • Build survivability and intelligence-gathering skills such as countering IEDs, and obstacle clearing and breaching; and
  • Improve professional military conduct, for instance in the Law of Armed Conflict and Rules of Engagement.

Already, these training sites have graduated more than 6,500 security forces with another 5,000 under training. BPC site military trainers come from a host of countries including Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United States

One specific strategy of Da’esh has been the attack and control of Syrian and Iraqi oil refineries as part of its financing to fund its military campaign. Of particular strategic interest to Da’esh has been the Bayji Oil Refinery which has the capacity to process 300,000 barrels of oil a day—equating to one third of Iraq’s oil. However, since fighting began there more than 10 months ago, the refinery has stood still. Da’esh launched their latest attack in mid-April and breached the outer perimeter using vehicles packed with explosives. In and around both the refinery and the city, several hundred Da’esh members have been fighting against Iraqi Security Forces. Since then, Da’esh fighters have remained determined to seize the refinery. The area remains heavily contested. According to coalition reporting, more than half of the Da’esh fighters have been killed and 50 vehicles and weapon systems have been destroyed with close air support provided by almost 90 air-strikes on enemy targets by coalition forces, including the Air Task Group

The Royal Australian Air Force personnel assigned to the Air Task Group continue to make an important contribution through the provision and support of coalition air-strikes. Da’esh have not been able to move in large military convoys on preferred highways, cannot mass forces or operate high value military equipment without facing the threat of aerial attack. However, Da’esh has maintained some freedom of movement along the Euphrates river valley and in the border regions near Sinjar Mountain and Jordan.

F/A-18 Hornets from the Air Task Group have been involved in deliberate attacks against Da’esh fighting positions, sniper hides, and enemy fighters attempting to lay Improvised Explosive Devices.  In the past month, 60 strike sorties involving the F/A-18 Hornet have delivered 24 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, 500 pound bombs against a variety of targets in Iraq including seven weapons released against targets in one mission. The E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft has also continued with its role of air-space coordination and control and has flown almost 90 hours for the month. The KC-30 air-to-air tanker has also maintained its high tempo with 30 sorties for the month of April delivering 2.6 million pounds or 12-hundred tonnes of fuel.

The challenge for Iraqi and coalition forces is not just the disruption and degradation of Da’esh in Iraq but the freedom it has in presenting a false image that the conflict in Iraq and Syria is going its way. As a contributor to the coalition campaign, we may need to put as much effort in the battle for the narrative as we are in finding and targeting Da’esh in Iraq.