It was mid-June when militant forces took control of Iraq’s second-largest city, routed thousands of Iraqi soldiers, and brought ISIL to the world’s attention. Now, ninety-five days later, the government has announced it will forward stage elements of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) at an airbase near Dubai in anticipation of joining a growing US-led coalition against the self-anointed “Islamic State”. The US military has been conducting airstrikes against ISIL for over a month, designed to stop their advance through Northern Iraq and prevent key infrastructure like the Mosul dam from being destroyed. Now that campaign has a broader mission: “disrupt and degrade ISIL operations” in Northern Iraq.
Australia will contribute fighter aircraft, support aircraft, and Special Forces personnel – approximately 600 in total. Though modest, this force is sophisticated – able to conduct a broader range of missions than most other militaries in the coalition. Importantly, both the Royal Australian Air Force and Special Operations Command are trained to integrate seamlessly with forces from the US military’s Central Command.
Because the government has chosen to send special forces personnel as military advisers, we can conclude that it is likely some of these soldiers will accompany Iraqi and/or Kurdish military units as they maneuver to attack and force back ISIL forces occupying towns in Northern Iraq. Similarly, the 200 strong special operations task group will give the government options to participate in counter-terrorism raids against ISIL leaders, conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions, or rescue downed coalition pilots.
This US-led military coalition is being assembled carefully, more like the 1991 Kuwait campaign than the 2003 coalition of the willing. But unlike 1991, this campaign is expected to be lengthy – Defence Minister David Johnston has warned it could last up to three years.
Assuming few aircraft and pilots are lost in combat (an ever-present danger), the Royal Australian Air Force should have little difficulty sustaining rotations of machines and personnel in Iraq for several years. But maintaining such a heavy Special Forces presence on an enduring basis will tax the ADF. Whilst Australia’s SAS and Commandos are highly coveted by US military planners, and often keenly deployed by Australian governments, they are relatively few in number.
ISIL may respond to air and ground attacks by dropping its black flags, abandoning its stolen armoured vehicles, and melting into civilian populations in cities like Mosul, population 1.8m.
There will be pressure on the Australian government to maintain, and perhaps increase its Special Forces contribution as the counter-terrorism aspects of this military campaign draw out over months or years. An enduring Special Forces contribution in Iraq will need to be finely calibrated against existing deployments in Afghanistan, ongoing domestic counter-terrorism responsibilities, and preserving the ability to respond to other crisis that might emerge in Australia’s increasingly uncertain region. The government will need to constantly assess just how critical an Australian military contribution in this new campaign, and just what costs Australians are prepared to pay to defeat ISIL.