Australia is about to send to the Middle East a squadron of fighter planes, three military transport aircraft and a headquarters unit equipped to coordinate operations with allied forces in preparation for war with Iraq.
Defence Minister Robert Hill said the 14 F/A-18 Hornet fighters, three C130 Hercules transport planes and the Air Forward Command Element would be sent overseas “in the next couple of weeks”.
He said the departure dates would be announced at an appropriate time.
Senator Hill said the government still hoped that Iraq would stop developing weapons of mass destruction and would destroy the weapons that it already possessed, but he said that after the past 12 years the world realised that Saddam Hussein understood diplomacy only if backed by military pressure.
Opposition Leader Simon Crean said the deployment was unnecessary and precipitous, and he said Prime Minister John Howard was guilty of hypocrisy that knew no bounds.
“Today he’s unleashed the Hornets for war,” he said. “This is a Prime Minister who tells us he’s made no commitments to the United States in terms of our troops, but this commitment of our F/A-18 squadrons can only be a response to a US request.”
Mr Crean said the deployment should not happen. Mr Howard should stop listening and following only President George Bush, and should wait for a decision from the United Nations.
Senator Hill reiterated his point that the government had made no decision to commit forces to operations against Iraq.
He said the government was sending its forces overseas to step up pressure on Saddam Hussein and to ensure that Australian personnel were given time to prepare for a conflict if a diplomatic solution could not be found.
He said he hoped this increased pressure would help avoid a war.
“We don’t rule out the possibility that all diplomatic efforts of the international community as a whole through its Security Council will fail in that objective of a peaceful resolution and that it will be necessary to apply military force,” Senator Hill said.
He said he could not say where the Australian units would be sent because the host country had asked that no announcement be made.
The RAAF units will join the transport ship HMAS Kanimbla, which left on January 23, special forces troops, and an RAAF reconnaissance team preparing for the Hornets’ arrival.
With two frigates already in the Persian Gulf, the latest teams will bring the number of Australians in position for war on Iraq to just over 2000.
Once there, they will be involved in exercises with allied units.
“Whatever happens in the future they’ll remain under Australian command,” Senator Hill said.
Other units still on stand-by in Australia include special forces trained to deal with chemical, biological and radiological weapons, the army’s Chinook troop-carrying helicopters, quick-reaction commandos from the 4 Royal Australia Regiment, and navy divers trained to clear mines.
The Hercules transport planes would support Australia’s special forces.
Senator Hill said that the cost of the deployment would run to hundreds of millions of dollars, and that more units were being prepared to join them