RAN Persian Gulf Operations in perspective
Rear Admiral Mark Bonser, AO CSC RAN
Members of the Australian Naval Institute, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you on the occasion of the annual Vernon Parker Oration.
I was asked to give my perspective about RAN operations in the Persian Gulf, and thought it might be relevant to discuss Middle East operations from different perspectives over time.
Looking at ADF operations in the Middle East from 1990 until now. and especially those by Navy, to be useful in understanding campaigning in its broadest sense, and the maritime aspects of military campaigns that are not as well recognised as perhaps they ought to be.
We have seen and heard an awful lot of thirty second grabs about the six week air/land war to liberate Kuwait in 1991. and the six week air/land war for Iraq in 2003. The things that have not received as much publicity are the precursor operations that enabled both of these actions to be completed relatively quickly. Albeit, there is probably an argument that says the latter is not yet complete, or perhaps not yet completely successful.
In my view, just looking at small bites of what has happened can distort the lessons we learn from operations. When this happens, judgements may be made that overlook the enablers or precursor operations without which the decisive action could not have occurred. In its worse case this might lead to a future force structure based on incorrect assumptions. Additionally, we may not engender a good understanding of all the ways in which military power might be applied to meet strategic aims. Or, having decided what might be the best way to use force, then find it difficult to implement because we do not have the wherewithal necessary to generate, prepare, deploy or sustain the necessary forces.
Recently, I was looking up some information in the Centenary History of Defence about the Korean War. “where the RAN was involved in a blockade, the landing of raiding parties, supplying isolated units and the bombardment of coastal targets, often in poorly charted or mined waters “.
Those naval tasks, along with others, have been remarkably enduring through two world wars, the Confrontation, Vietnam, and in the Persian Gulf.
Whether we have given enduring emphasis to the capabilities necessary to achieve them, or not, is another matter. If not, there would be various reasons for this, many of them outside the control of Navy. Fortunately the lessons of history are always available to help inform the arguments.
The RAN has had a regular presence in the Middle East since September 1990. Other than for twelve weeks of combat, the main task for the Navy has been sanctions operations against Iraq.
In other words a blockade, aimed at controlling both exports and imports. Even though Iraq has only a very small coastline, since August 1990 they have had very few true allies along their land borders. Perhaps only Baathist Syria might have been counted in this category. As a result, Iraq has been enormously dependent upon sea trade for it’s economic well being, and the generation and sustainment of military capability. General Anthony Zinni, a former commander of the US Central Command has described these maritime sanctions operations and the concurrent air operations to limit Iraq’s use of air power as a very effective containment policy.
There is no easy way to quantify the effect of the sanctions program, but it is apparent that the blockade substantially prevented Iraq from regenerating its military after 1991. and must have led to a significant degradation in military skills and morale in the Iraqi armed forces. A useful question to ask might be, ‘would it have only taken six weeks to defeat Iraq’s military in 2003.
if the sanctions had not been maintained after 1991”? Whatever the answer, there is fairly solid evidence that in the right circumstances, the application of military power to contain an enemy may well be more sustainable and less costly than direct action. Having the options available to contribute to either gives far more flexibility in determining what is, or is not, possible.
Montgomery once said ‘that what is possible will depend firstly on geography, secondly on transportation in its widest sense, and thirdly on administration’. He went on to say, ‘really very simple issues, but geography I think comes first’.
Summer 2005 Number 115 Journal of the Australian Naval Institute There is no doubt that when it comes to implementing the chosen policy for applying military power, geography and the related time and space issues are major factors in ADF planning. Geography and transportation requirements across varying distances, to and from areas of operations, have been prime drivers in determining which ADF forces could possibly be sent to different locations around the world, and for how long they might be sustained.
The relative sizes of the land forces deployed to Timor, only 400 miles from Darwin, to the Solomon Islands, some 1000 miles from Townsville, and to the Middle East, some 5000- 7000 miles from various parts of Australia.
provide good comparisons in looking at the effects of distance. Naturally, the further the distance the more reliant the entire force becomes on the use of the sea for its deployment and sustainment, and also in critical parts of the operation for their protection. The Royal Marines rediscovered this on the Al Faw Peninsula in 2003, when reduced visibility prevented close air support and they were reliant on naval gunfire support to cover their advance. When multiple operations such as those 1 have mentioned are happening concurrently, a medium sized defence force such as the ADF can be faced with some stark realities in establishing the priorities for apportioning finite resources between activities that are geographically remote from each other. In this respect, the Middle East in 1990-91 was a much simpler challenge than in 2002-03.
I came to be involved in planning for the most recent action in the Gulf not long after assuming responsibility as Commander Australian Theatre in mid-2002. 1 was lucky enough to have been involved in similar planning in 1990 as a staff officer in Maritime Headquarters, then as a staff officer for an afloat commander in the Gulf in 1991, as well as subsequently commanding a ship conducting sanctions operations in the Middle East in 1993. The similarities and differences between 1991 and 2003 provide as many useful lessons as do the sanctions operations that were ongoing over most of the period. Similar to 1990- 91, the 2002-3 activity was planned as a potential combat operation. The big difference between them was that in 1990-91 it was just a Navy contribution, and in 2002-03 there was a significant contribution from all three Services.
And. in 2003 we had joint ADF command arrangements that had not been fully in place a decade earlier (we did not have a Theatre Command or a Joint Logistics Command in 1991 although we did okay without them in a simple scenario).
Another important difference was that the ADF had very little recent operational experience to draw on in 1990. but more than a decade of experience to inform planning in 2002. Not the least of which was some twelve years of participation in an Iraq campaign; a campaign that arguably started in 1990 and remains ongoing today. Regular contributions to containment operations against Iraq, and operations in Afghanistan in 2001-02 were fundamental in informing planning for the six week intervention action in April 2003. In 1990 we were only informed by the limited lessons leamt in exercises with our allies.
In 1990 the ADF was a bit like a football team that had only played in pre-season matches. In 2003 we had played in the main competition for a few years, and this, along with previous coalition command opportunities such as those enjoyed by the RAN in the Maritime Interception Force, were fundamental to successful preparations for 2003.
Perhaps Aristotle was right when he said ‘we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit’. If this is the case, then a lot of Navy’s habits were and are good ones.
In 1991 we sent three ships and a diving team to the first Gulf War, in what we called Operation Damask. The ADF contribution to the 2003 war in Iraq (Operations Bastille and Falconer) included: a national headquarters, a Navy task group (ships and divers), a P-3 task group, a special operations task group (including helicopters), an air task group with F/A-I8s and C-130s, and liaison officers in the various combatant, component and task force headquarters in the US Central Command. The experience gained by the frigates, the SAS and F/A-18s that were deployed for Operations Damask and Slipper (the War on Terror) was clearly a benefit in shaping the Australian commitment for the war in Iraq (perhaps another example of habitual excellence).
In looking back at the differences between 1991 and 2003. it confirmed for me that there is really no one answer that fits every circumstance.
Indeed, I think I have rarely seen any one solution meet the requirements of more than one operation or part of an operation. And. perhaps that is why the plans for the commitment in 2002-03 were different in part to the arrangements in 1990-91, and to the plans for other operations, such as those in the Solomon Islands.
A unique challenge that arose in the Middle East in 2002-03, that had been relatively simple in 1990 and was not evident in operations elsewhere, was the need for basing and access rights in third party nations. The Chief of Air Force personally visited a number of countries to secure basing rights for those forces that could not operate into Iraq from the sea. Of course, basing and access rights may not always be forthcoming, and we need to be prepared to conduct land operations from afloat, as well as transporting and sustaining deployed forces. The acquisition of new amphibious ships and air warfare destroyers provides an opportunity to regenerate a capability that has been missing from the force structure for part of Navy’s history.
In 1991 the activities concurrent with the Gulf War were largely related to training and international engagement: matters that were relatively easily deferred or reduced in scale. In 2003. the force had to be deployed and supported simultaneously with operations in Timor and Bougainville. As well, there were ongoing border protection operations across the northern approaches to Australia, emergent requirements in Bali, resources to protect in the Southern Ocean, and the need to consider future obligations such as Defence support to the Rugby World Cup in the post 9/11 security environment. All of this required the establishment of relative priorities for the apportionment of finite resources between different force elements and different operations.
Not surprisingly, the Middle East and border protection both had a relatively high priority for P-3 Orion aircraft, sea transport ships and frigates.
Sustaining both of these operations with these capabilities was a stretch, but fortunately different circumstances in the Solomons allowed us to use Other parts of the force structure in that operation.
Sea King helicopters operating from an LPA. and minehuntcrs operating as patrol frigates demonstrated the inherent flexibility of Navy’s capabilities.
Our most recent Gulf operation demanded the coordination of a much broader range of issues across some eight different force elements.
Included in this was the nearer simultaneous preparation of land, sea and air forces prior to and over Christmas 2002. Albeit some of Navy was already in the Gulf and well prepared, and the SAS and the Air Force had recently been in Afghanistan, or operating over Afghanistan from Kyrgyzstan.
The force preparation was achieved with only a few minor speed bumps, most of which, like in 1990-91, related to operating in a potential NBC environment. But, while anthrax inoculations received some public notoriety, this was a minor issue that was well resolved before operations commenced. An important lesson in this though, was that wherever possible we left nothing to chance. There was a very real threat that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons and would use them against an intervention force; and the thrcui could not be ignored.
Defining the employment for the forces m 1990 and in 2002 was similarly constrained because unlike in Timor and the Solomon 1st the ADF was not the lead coalition nation The US Central Command plans for the Middle East were evolving all the time, and were not settled until the last possible moment. Developing the plans for an ADF contribution within the component plans of a dynamic higher plan, so that it could be authorised in time to allow adequate preparation, compressed available timeframes to the limits. Clearly, those things that we had not done in war-like operations for a long time, such as air to air and air to ground combat, required longer preparation. In other cases we were able to revisit 1991 and include previously agreed and well practised tasks such as naval gunfire support, a capability that later proved quite fortuitous.
In 1990 we deployed two senior naval officers and a Defence civilian to the Middle East for a few days discussion with elements of the US naval component and some regional nations. But notwithstanding this, the coalition plans were still embryonic and we saw very little detail until well after our ships had deployed and integrated into the relevant task force in the US naval component.
In 2002 we had a forty person planning team working in the same location as the US Central Command. They had secure communications and helped identify the coalition commander’s general intent as it was evolving. But, similar to 1990, even this access did not give us universal visibility of the detailed component command and task force plans within which our forces would potentially operate. The ADF elements of these plans were refined later, both in Australia and overseas, but in many cases this only occurred in the last few days before operations were authorised to commenced. Planning limitations of this nature need to be expected when contributing to a coalition led by another nation, especially one as big as the US military. Our experiences in leading smaller coalitions in Timor and the Solomons were quite different, because in those operations the ADF was leading the military planning at all levels.
Navy had a significant advantage in overcoming this planning problem in 2003. By then the RAN task group commander was also a coalition commander in the US 5th Fleet chain of command. This arrangement commenced in 2001 when HMAS Anzac was reassigned from Operation Damask to Operation Slipper follow ing 9/11, The coalition command role was first met by the then Captain Nigel Coates. and was built on in following rotations by Alan du Toit, James Goldrick and Peter Sinclair.
The professional and innovative way those commanders approached their duties placed the 2003 CTG, Peter Jones, and his staff in a very well respected position in 5lh Fleet. Specifically, they shifted the focus of the sanctions operations to a close blockade that became very effective, and saw the ships operating in Iraqi territorial waters under the authority of the UN Security Council’s resolution. One upshot of this was that unlike in 1991, the Iraqis did not have an opportunity to lay defensive minefields because the coalition controlled the tempo of operations throughout all of the preparatory phases. In the end, the coalition plan for the North Arabian Gulf in which our ships participated was largely Australian planned, and commanded by the now Commodore Peter Jones. The operational results speak for themselves, and most importantly, the arrangement helped safeguard Australia’s national interests.
The SAS and air group teams physically integrated later than Navy. But. their professional standing with the coalition allowed the SAS to influence the special forces plan such that they could operate in a dedicated Australian sub-area that allowed us to safeguard national interests, but at the same time complement the overall coalition special forces plan. As a demonstration of another way to do business, the air combat group’s FA-18 operations were controlled on a sortie by sortie basis that ensured the selection of targets was in accordance with our national interests and guidelines, while complementing the overall air campaign.
The deployment and redeployment of some rather transport-intensive forces, mainly from Army and the Air Force, but also Navy’s divers, was complex in 2002-03. As Monty said ‘operations are dependent oil the ability to project a force, especially a long way from home, and extract it at the end. Fortunately, ships and some aircraft self-deploy, and some of them can help deploy other forces. Some of our ships and aircraft are a-bit more like a bus than a Formula I race car. You can only fit one person in the Formula I car, but a few more can share the close comforts of a bus. These transportation capabilities are a very good reason why we should never underestimate the value of the bigger, slower and less sexy bus.
Of course Navy divers don’t always self- deploy as readily as ships.,. But, getting the divers and others deployed is where our new joint command arrangements, including a dedicated Movements Group, makes it far easier now than in 1991. The benefits not only include efficiencies in moving all three Services, but allow the priority flow of people and materiel in a timely and synchronised manner. This is important because it ensures you can start the first innings with your opening bowlers or batsmen.
Unlike 1990-91 where we only had one task group, or operations such as those in Timor, each of the main task groups in the Middle East in 2002-03 were geographically dispersed. Staging was kept to a minimum b\ deploying force elements directly to their separate basing areas, wherever that was possible. The task groups then managed their own staging and reception. Onward movement in the Middle East was only required for the Special Forces task group and those people working in the coalition air operations centre, where basing and access requirements in some countries made that necessary.
Integration of the force elements into the relevant central command components was managed directly by each of the task groups.
Overall this meant that there was little requirement for a large footprint in the area of operations to centrally manage those functions across what were very separate and widely dispersed locations. All that was needed was a small joint movements coordination centre (a bit like a travel agent) to support the task groups with the movement of individuals or small groups of replacements. This meant we could use scarce people skills elsewhere, such as in Timor and the Solomons.
But. getting to the match is just part of the challenge. Even a bus needs the equivalent to the Formula 1 pit stop, occasionally. Sustaining the 2003 force, including rotations and replacements along with concurrent operations elsewhere was a challenge in some cases. Especially where border protection operations also placed high demands on the availability of the P-3’s and ships. And, there were sequential tasks that required a quick turn around. Such as when MM AS Manoora returned from sea transport tasks in the Gulf and proceeded directly into amphibious support for operations in the Solomon Islands; once again demonstrating the inherent flexibility of ships.
In 1990, all we had to do was put a couple of dozen people in the same location as the USN Logistics Command, let a single contract with a providore in the region and leverage off allies for immediate operational support for things such as fuel, and some ammunition. In sustaining the operational rate of effort in 2003, there was a whole range of administrative and logistic activities necessary to ensure we could maintain the force commitment, including the provision of some rotation forces, and unique Australian stores.
The philosophy that was used in sustaining the force in 2003 was to do as much of it as possible from back in Australia and reduce the administrative burden on the operating forces and deployed headquarters. This had two benefits, firstly it minimised the footprint forward, helping to maintain the authorised numbers in the force, and secondly it allowed scarce Australian assets to be able to support a number of operations and not be dedicated to just one.
The force protection of the deployed forces in 2003 was also different to 1991 in that it was now being conducted in a climate of threats from terrorism. All of it was very much reliant on intelligence and warning systems that talk to our allies. We did not have much of that in 1991. but it was much improved in 2003, But, irrespective of technology, the real issue for all of our commanders and staff officers was the need for a good understanding of just what is in the national interest, and why it ought to be safeguarded. This is a matter that did not change between 1990 and 2003.
The requirements for the direction of all of these aspects of operations are no longer as simple as they seemed to me from where I sat in 1990.
And. are certainly not as simple as when the Admiralty sent Nelson into the fray with a single short order and little opportunity for despatches until the next mail packet, sometimes months later. This would have made it very difficult to call for reinforcements or replacements, but there would have been a splendid absence of intervention from above. While command appears to be more complex now. perhaps because email has replaced the mail packet, our new joint arrangements do make the planning for the application of highly technical military forces more rigorous and efficient. Benefits that are essential given the cost of highly technical forces and the pervasive nature of modem communications, including the way they enhance timelines for the media.
Next to the allocation of car parking spaces, command and control is probably one of the most emotive subjects experienced in the planning and conduct of operations. In 1991 we had simple arrangements, with an afloat task group commander (also the national commander) reporting to the Maritime Commander, and he then to the CDF. We also had two or three liaison officers with the USN component and task force commanders. This arrangement worked well in those circumstances, and as I recall it, the only issue that needed resolution was whether the task group would he commanded by the senior ship captain or a separate CTG. In the end. wise heads prevailed and the latter option was chosen.
But, in 2003 we had the need for command arrangements at all levels, from unit through task group and national command, to the Theatre Command and above. Most of this was driven by an enduring fundamental of command. Witt needed to make what decisions, and where? The setting and changing of the mission or broad tasks was retained at a very high level. Crucial to the process was the ability to exercise national influence in the prime US headquarters, a task performed by our national commander. Equally vital to the safeguarding of our national interests was the relationship between our task group commanders and the US commanders to whom they were assigned. The necessity to be responsible to separate foreign commanders for agreed aspects of operations required considerable flexibility. In this case it meant that our own force elements or groups did not operate as a national joint task force like in Timor, but were dispersed within coalition components or subordinate task forces.
In Australia the then Theatre Command also had to look at a range of Australian support functions that required central coordination in the Middle East, relative to those that might have been coordinated by a coalition commander on our behalf or back in Australia. Importantly, there was a real need for the Theatre Command component commanders, such as the Maritime Commander, to provide operational and technical advice on the safe and effective use of their forces. Although this was one of first operations where they were not directly in the command and control chain, the arrangements worked very well and did not become a point of friction.
1 have already mentioned the need to synchronise and coordinate operations in the Gulf with other ADF operations and supporting activities. Theatre Command had to establish relative priorities for the apportionment of resources, and this was a matter of constant attention, particularly given the requirement for simultaneous ship and P-3 commitments off northern Australia. Our small and finite capacity in command and control resources, especially staff officers, was particularly critical. They needed to be placed where they could contribute effectively to as many operations as possible.
Deploying officers to fill every staff function may not always be the best answer, especially if the function can be performed back in Australia, and across more than one operation. Fortunately, Navy travels very light in this regard.
Summer 2005 Number 115 Journal of the Australian Naval Institute Overall, the success of Falconer would indicate that we got most of the planning right.
From a naval perspective, contributing factors to this success included long experience in the theatre, a well respected operational reputation built up during previous Damask and Slipper deployments, and an established command role in the Us 5th Fleet. I have no doubt that this latter relationship was the catalyst for coalition commanders accepting naval gunfire support as a viable part of the maritime plan. Naturally, there were some points of friction, but these were not present in the forces that went into combat. In the end good people ensured a good result.
Since then we have progressed to the point that joint operations such as those in the Solomons are becoming second nature to our commanders and staff officers. Even to the extent that we now operate in support of the Federal Police, who lead the operations in the Solomon Islands.
Perhaps all of this is why Patton once said to his commanders ‘gentlemen, the officer who does not know his communication and supplv as well as his tactics is totally useless’. He was right, but I don’t know that I would admit as much to any supply or communications officers.