Vice-Admiral David Johnston Photo: Alex Ellinghausen’s military operations chief has conceded Russia’s entry into the multi-sided civil war on the side of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad has “self-evidently” changed the situation on the ground, making the fight against Islamic State “increasingly complex”.
The n airforce has not flown a single mission over Syria since Russia began bombing targets in the war torn country a week ago, Vice-Admiral David Johnston says, but he has insisted strike missions are not on hold.
Russia has been accused by the US of propping up President Assad and targeting moderate rebels, including elements of the Free Syrian Army, but insists it is targeting Islamic State.
Defence Minister Marise Payne has left open the door to ‘s stepping up its contribution to the air strike campaign in Syria, while echoing US concerns over Russian air strikes.
Admiral Johnston conceded it was not clear that Russia’s engagement in the regional conflagration was complementary to the Western allies’ aim of degrading and destroying Islamic State, also known as Daesh.
But he said Coalition forces were “very confident” in the procedures that had been put in place to ensure the safety of pilots flying in the increasingly contested space.
“The Coalition has its own procedures in place to ensure the safety of flight over Syria, what has changed with the Russian presence of course is that there is another participant that is flying operations in Syria. We have to make sure that we preserve safety of flight and those arrangements have been put in place by the US while they go through dialogue and discussions with Russian authorities about how to best manage those outcomes,” he said.
Last week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop told Fairfax Media that could consider stepping up its tempo of air strikes in Syria after the US vowed to “accelerate” the Western-led coalition’s efforts in the war-torn country.
And despite not having flown a mission over Syria since last week, Admiral Johnston said that “if there was a mission tonight to do so, we would do so”.
“Our tasking depends on the priorities of the day that come out of the air operations centre; there is no change in our availability to conduct air operations in Syria,” he said.
“We have not [flown a mission over Syria] but not because there is any restriction, tactically our focus has been elsewhere but there is no restraint.”
Admiral Johnston said RAAF aircraft loads have not changed since Russia entered the battle space and that “as always with military forces anywhere we have self-defence, but all our procedures are to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in that position”.
has now carried out two successful air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria, with one taking out an armoured personnel carrier and the other hitting a check point.
In total, has flown 434 strike missions over Iraq and Syria since October 2, 2014, when the mission began – with 209 of them being flow by Super Hornets and 225 flown by FA-18 Hornets. Nine of those 434 missions have been over Syria.
In addition, ‘s KC-30 refuelling aircraft has flown 411 missions, including five missions over Syria, and delivered 15 million kilograms of fuel while the Wedgetail surveillance aircraft has flown 142 missions, including 1 over Syria.
Admiral Johnston – who in August said n missions in Syria would not be a “game changer” – said was making a valuable contribution and that the Iraqi government, rather than Islamic State, now owned the operational initiative in that country.
“I said at the time it will provide flexibility to operational commanders…to move aircraft across a border that Daesh does not recognise itself,” he said.
“It is not a significant change for the air operations but it does bring significant latitude for a mission commander.”
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