Herald Sun (AU)
“Australians were the first into action in this war,” a grateful US leader told the Prime Minister in reference to SAS troops who had already taken on Iraqi forces by the time the first cruise missiles hit Baghdad on March 20.
The SAS’s unique role in western Iraq, eliminating the threat of ballistic missile strikes on Israel and disrupting Iraqi troop movements and command posts, proved to be one of the most successful covert operations of the Iraq war. SAS troops, in company with their counterparts from the US and Britain, crossed into Iraq on March 19, only hours after the expiry of the US-imposed deadline for Saddam Hussein to quit Iraq.
“I think they showed early on in the campaign that the area in which they were operating was not an area where they (the Iraqis) could bring their theatre ballistic missiles,” defence chief General Peter Cosgrove told The Weekend Australian in an exclusive interview on the conduct of the four-week military campaign.
“They realised: ‘Oops. We won’t be going back into that area. Every time you go in there you get hit.”‘
Coalition special forces are believed to have mounted their initial forays into Iraq from a number of countries including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey.
General Cosgrove said the SAS had been able to dominate their area of operations, reporting accurately on Iraqi troop movements before taking action directly themselves or calling in coalition air strikes.
“This is the pointy edge of this special reconnaissance role, which they do better than anyone else in the world.”
Australia’s 2000-strong force deployed to the Iraq theatre has emerged from four weeks of combat operations without a single casualty # a historic first for a wartime deployment that included all three military services.
The war has seen F/A-18 fighters fly 130 combat sorties to date, and marked the first time since the Korean War, 50 years ago, that RAAF fighters have been in combat operations. And the frigate HMAS Anzac became the first RAN warship to fire its guns in anger since the Vietnam War.
General Cosgrove said the military campaign had been an “outstanding success” from the overall coalition perspective and that of Australia’s forces.
Although the coalition had not enjoyed superiority in terms of numbers of troops, it had been overwhelmingly dominant in terms of the quality of fighting platforms, command cohesion and morale.
“Undoubtedly their crucial superiority was information superiority. They knew, and even the most junior of fighting soldiers knew, much more about their environment than the opposition.”
Coalition commander Tommy Franks and his fighting forces “knew almost down to the last tank and armoured personnel carrier what was out there # where it was and what it was trying to do and how to go about either avoiding it or destroying it”.
General Cosgrove said a big lesson for the Australian Defence Force was to accelerate the application of networked systems linking surveillance, intelligence and command and control for future war-fighting.
“We need to push hard on network-centric warfare and its applied relevance to our forces. For our future inter-operability with likely coalition partners we need to be network-enabled ourselves, and make that network part of a bigger network.”
Defence would also have to look carefully at ways it could provide high mobility and high protection for its ground troops.
“I will be watching the post-activity report on the US Marine Corps and looking to see what are the lessons learned out of their experiences in combat.”
Australian army planners believe the Iraq war has clearly demonstrated the need for armoured protection, including tanks, for troops on the ground, as well as close air support.
“I don’t see a need at this stage to lighten down the mechanised brigade,” General Cosgrove said.
The Iraq campaign had shown the “huge value” of the navy’s multi-role ship HMAS Kanimbla, which had operated as a command centre and “jack of all trades”.
The RAAF’s combat performance had shown that years of patient training had paid off.
General Cosgrove said the coalition’s strategy of bypassing Iraqi towns in the drive to Baghdad had been shown to be not only logical but “spectacularly successful”.