Australian contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq

From Academic Kids

The Australian Government was a strong and uncritical supporter of United States policy during the Iraq disarmament crisis and one of only three nations to commit combat forces to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in any substantial numbers, under the operational codename Operation Falconer.

Australian forces committed to the conflict included include three Royal Australian Navy ships, 150 special forces troops, P-3 Orion patrol and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, and RAAF 75 Squadron equipped with 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighters.

John Howard has yet to announce a withdrawal of Australian troops, and refuses to give a deadline, stating that Australian troops will remain for as long as they are required.


The scale and purpose of Australian force commitment

The Australian military contribution was relatively small, around 2000 personnel in total, which is also smaller than other Coalition commitments in proportional terms. Calculated on a military personnel per head of population basis, the Australian forces could have been seven times larger and still not have been equal to the per-capita commitments of either the United States or the United Kingdom.

2003 Gulf War commitments relative to population

Population Size of force per 1000 pop
Australia19.6 million20000.1
UK60 million45,0000.75
USA282 million214,0000.76
(Iraq)22.7 million400,00018.2
All figures approximate. Iraq is included for purposes of comparison. At around 0.0005% of its population, the Polish troop commitment is roughly 1/20th of the Australia's, or 1/150th of the United States, allowing for population in both cases.

The overall purpose of the Australian commitment to the US invasion of Iraq is difficult to define with certainty. According to Prime Minister John Howard's public statements, it was to "deprive Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction" which are a "direct undeniable and lethal threat to Australia", as well as to remove "a dictatorship of a particularly horrific kind".

The notably smaller size of the Australian force in comparison is such that some do not regard it as a serious attempt to substantially influence the result of the campaign. Many domestic political commentators have described it as a 'token force' to show solidarity with the United States, and yet it is argued that if a mere token commitment were required, a still smaller force would cost less, reduce the risk of casualties, and serve the political purpose equally well—note that Poland is generally described as one of the belligerents and yet to equal the Polish troop commitment in population-adjusted terms, a reduced contingent of 100 Australian personnel would suffice.

Critics of the government charge that Australian support for the US was geared towards influencing the US-Australian trade negotiations which were taking place at the time in Melbourne and which provide less restricted access to US markets for Australian agricultural products—a charge the Howard Government denies. Many political commentators suggest that Howard is obsessed with the idea of being (to use Howard's own words) the "deputy sheriff of the United States."

One suggestion put forward is that Australian participation is intended to buy what amounts to an insurance policy against any aggression by Indonesia. Howard's public statements on this, perhaps moderated by the international and domestic outrage produced by the deputy sheriff remark in 1999, have been restrained. In the words of his speech to the nation announcing and justifying the war: "There's also another reason [for sending forces to Iraq] and that is our close security alliance with the United States. The Americans have helped us in the past and the United States is very important to Australia's long-term security." According to Howard, "It is critical that we maintain the involvement of the United States in our own region".

According to Simon Crean, who was Opposition Leader before December 2003, Australia's support for US Iraq policy has substantially increased the risk of further terrorist attacks on Australians like the 2002 Bali terrorist bombing which killed 88 Australian tourists and about 120 people from other nations as well. The Howard Government strenuously denies this claim.

There is also the possibility that Australian troops were sent to Iraq because the Australian government believed that ousting Saddam Hussein and hunting down any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons they may have possessed was a worthy cause and that the more countries that contributed to the efforts, the more legitimate and successful they would be. Australian troops in the Korean War were well regarded and amongst the most effective in that conflict, despite the small size of the commitment (between one and three infantry brigades were deployed, along with some naval and other assets). The quality of training and equipment and determination of the force allows it to have a disproportionate influence for its size; however, 2000 troops is still a small number.

Forces committed

  • A headquarters staff of about 60 personnel under the command of Brigadier Maurie McNarn.
  • Royal Australian Navy
  • Royal Australian Air Force
    • RAAF 75 Sqn., operating 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets together with 250 command, coordination, support and aircrew personnel.
    • Three Hercules transport aircraft and 150 support personnel.
    • Two Orions described as maritime patrol aircraft, but widely thought to be specially modified for electronic intelligence gathering and 150 support personnel.
  • Australian Army


With one obvious exception, the particular forces committed by the Australian Government can be seen by some as modest and follow past practice closely. Australia committed special forces to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in roughly similar numbers to those above. The two RAN frigates were already on-station for the Afghanistan campaign; Kanimbla was a relatively small addition to the naval force. RAN clearance divers also took part in the first Gulf War.

Australia sent Hercules and Orion aircraft to assist in the Afghanistan campaign—but also Boeing 707 tankers, which have not been committed to the Gulf conflict, despite a marked Coalition shortage of probe/drogue capable tanker aircraft. The absence of the 707s is likely to be for technical rather than policy reasons: the RAAF has only four second-hand 707 tankers; all are at the end of their service lives, very difficult to maintain and soon to be replaced.

The commitment of 75 Sqn. and its supporting personnel, however, is a major change from past practice. Australia did not commit combat aircraft to the 1991 Gulf War, and although a small detachment of Hornets was deployed to Diego Garcia during the Afghanistan campaign to provide airfield defence for the joint United States-United Kingdom military facility present there, this was not a true combat role however, but simply a precaution against possible suicide attacks by hijacked civil aircraft. The commitment of 75 Sqn. was the first combat deployment of Australian aircraft since the Vietnam War.

No official statement has been made on the reasons behind the choice of F/A-18 fighters as Australia's primary combat commitment, but it is commonly assumed that the obvious alternative of sending a substantial land force instead was considered to involve an unacceptably high risk of casualties, particularly given the possibility of house-to-house fighting in Iraqi cities. With Iraq being largely landlocked, and Australia no longer having a fixed-wing naval aviation component, a larger naval commitment could not be considered particularly helpful.

F-111 debate

In military terms, some saw Australia's F-111 bombers as a more viable alternative, due to several issues.

  • Air-to-air refuelling issues.
    • Although the overall Allied force mix, as compared with the first Gulf War, has a smaller number of relatively short range and thus tanker-dependent F-16s and F/A-18s than was used during the first Gulf War, tanker capacity remains at a premium. This is particularly so for the types which use probe/drogue refuelling (the British, US Navy, and US Marine types) less so for those that use the USAF-style flying boom method. To address this, it is possible to attach a single hose/drogue assembly to the flying boom of the standard USAF tanker, the Boeing KC-135. However, this provides only a single refuelling point per tanker aircraft, meaning that a back-up tanker must be available at all times lest a single malfunction result in fighters being unable to return to base. (Although the United States forces have extensive search and rescue arms and the risk to combat aircrew from a fuel emergency is relatively small, losing any aircraft in the Persian Gulf would have been unacceptable). The United Kingdom's VC-10 and Tristar tankers are designed for multiple-point probe/drogue refuelling but relatively few in number. The USAF KC-10 tanker/transports can also provide a multi-point probe/drogue option, but with a fleet of just 60 and heavy demand for them in their transport role as well, refuelling capacity for probe/drogue aircraft is nevertheless constrained. The RAAF F/A-18, being a US Navy derived aircraft, uses the probe/drogue system: the F-111, however, is a flying boom type.
  • Range and payload.
    • The F-111 has substantially greater combat radius than the F/A-18, carries a much heavier payload, and as the USAF F-111 fleet demonstrated in 1991, is more than capable in its design role: that of penetrating deeply into defended airspace and delivering heavy munitions with precision.
  • Survivability.
    • The primary threat to coalition aircraft is relatively low-tech surface to air missiles and conventional anti-aircraft guns. The F-111's much higher speed gives it a significantly lower exposure to hostile fire. Where Australian F/A-18s have an obsolescent electronic warfare self protection system which is due for upgrade soon, the F-111s carry a current technology Elta EL/L-8222 jamming pod.
  • Weight of contribution.
    • Even without allied United Kingdom forces, the United States Air Force, US Marine Corps and US Navy already operated a similar to the Australian F/A-18. However, neither the US or UK operate the F-111 or a direct equivalent.

However, from a political perspective, a deployment of F-111s to the conflict would have been restricted, for several reasons:

  • Restricted role.
    • The F-111 is a bomber: by design, it can only play an offensive role. Unlike the F/A-18, it cannot be used for more politically uncontroversial tasks like escorting tanker and AWACS aircraft.
  • Practical tasking.
    • Given the capabilities of the aircraft, a realistic set of assignments for the F-111 must involve a heavier emphasis on attacking rear area installations in built-up areas than on the tactical battlefield support that an F/A-18 is best suited to (if used in a ground attack role at all). The nature of these attacks however, carry a risk of inflicting civilian casualties of which the political cost to the Australian government would have been severe.
  • Operational costs.
    • The F-111 has twice the aircrew and burns twice as much jet fuel as an F/A-18, and requires a larger maintenance crew—however, because it can carry more munitions further per sortie, for a given quantity of munitions delivered at a given distance, the cost differences would be minimal. The F-111 also has a substantially larger combat payload, requiring further investment in supply of munitions. Given the relative expensive per-round cost of precision weapons (a necessity for high-value urban targets for minimising collateral damage) and the ability of a single F-111 to carry a substantial load of them each day the Australian government would either face the cost themselves or request the United States to do so.

Military significance of Australian forces

In Australia there was little public debate about the scale or military impact of the Australian commitment. Instead, public debate centred on the more fundamental question of whether forces should be sent at all, and if so, whether they should take part without explicit United Nations backing.

Australians generally regard their soldiers, sailors and airmen as a highly trained elite group, worthy of comparison with any in the world. Their ability to affect the course of the war in a significant way is limited by the different and relatively restrictive rules of engagement that the Australian Government has mandated and severely limited by their numbers. Given those numbers, however, they are regarded by military experts as highly effective.

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