It should come as no great surprise to anyone that the Government has decided to bring home RAAF combat aircraft from the Middle East, having run out of Islamic State (IS) targets worth bombing.
That was surely on the cards from the moment Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared final victory, three years after the IS onslaught from Syria seized around a third of Iraq, launching their bloody and short-lived caliphate. Iraq clearly sees dealing with an insurgency by IS remnants as within its military capabilities, now very much improved.
Just under two weeks after the al-Abadi announcement, Defence Minister Marise Payne said the six RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets would come home in January. But the E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and KC-30A refuelling aircraft will stay on, as will the Australian-NZ training team at Taji, a short distance north of Baghdad.
So too will around 80 members of the Special Operations Task Group, whose mission mentoring and provision of remote joint terminal attack controller services for Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service took them closer to the front lines than any other Australian personnel.
Your correspondent vividly recalls watching a pair of Super Hornets take off on their first combat mission over Iraq back in September 2014, roaring skywards from their Middle East base.
That first mission was something of a non-event. Both aircraft returned safely and no weapons were released. That came the following month and thereafter the rate of effort surged, peaking with 82 sorties in the month from mid-April 2016.
Statistics for Air Task Group activities, posted on the Defence website, only go up to mid-November, with 2,673 sorties over Iraq and 50 over Syria. By the time the aircraft get home, that could be around 2,800, with around 2,400 bombs dropped.
So, Australia played a significant but not overwhelming role in eliminating IS from Iraq and Syria. Conceivably, some Australian jihadis lie in dusty graves courtesy of RAAF bombs. No aircraft or personnel were lost.
Despite the best efforts of mission planners and aircrew, there were a small number of incidents in which civilians and some non-enemy combatants may have been killed by Australian bombs.
As a learning organisation, the ADF has no doubt looked hard at what’s called Operation Okra, and will continue to do so. It could reasonably conclude that Australian forces have performed very well indeed and learned plenty along the way. Deploying the air task group at short notice in 2014 was itself a substantial achievement, demonstrating an advanced expeditionary capability.
At every level, from aircrew to maintainers, personnel have learned useful stuff.
Example – many of the ADF’s cadre of lawyers deployed through the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) in Qatar, participating in the mission planning process and overseeing implementation of Australia’s particular rules of engagement.
Old soldiers sneer at the role of the lawyers in modern warfare but that’s a fact of life certain to feature in any future conflict, even the Korean Peninsula.
While the Iraq and Syria conflicts have been a useful experience for Australia and other coalition nations, so too have they been for Russia, which threw in its lot with the Syrian Government.
This was an opportunity for Russia to extend its influence in the region and also try out some of its new kit and give personnel operational experience. That included ship, submarine and aircraft-launched cruise missiles.
According to a recent report by War is Boring (WIB), Russia never deployed more than 30-50 combat aircraft inside Syria but maintained a substantially higher tempo, with fewer losses, than in previous Russian operations, indicating support practices are much improved.
But as WIB noted, old habits die hard. Russian air attacks on rebel territory and deliberate targeting of civil infrastructure killed many civilians, perhaps more than 10,000, far more than coalition forces, which dropped many more bombs over a longer period.
While the coalition actively sought not to kill civilians, planned attacks to minimise the risk, and only used precision-guided weapons, the Russians mostly dropped big iron bombs.
That may have been the policy intention and it certainly contributed to resurgence of the Syrian regime. But it’s also because most of the missions were conducted by older aircraft. Only the latest Su-34 Fullback has the ability to drop satellite-guided weapons and not many Su-34s went to Syria.
Indeed Russia’s satellite guided KAB-500S-E satellite bomb, equivalent to the American JDAM, made its combat debut in Syria in September 2015. The US dropped its first operational JDAM in Afghanistan in 2001.
WIB concluded that Russia had demonstrated improvements in tactics and capability but still had plenty to learn when it came to operations far from home.
This article first appeared in the February edition of ADM.