John Howard Iraq War
(Image: AAP/David Moir)

A newly-released study of the Australian Defence Force’s logistical preparations for and operations in Iraq during the invasion of that country in 2003 demonstrates how terrified of public opposition to the invasion the Howard government was — and how that led to significant limitations on the ADF’s role.

The report Deploy, Sustain, Return was prepared by Dr Albert Palazzo of the Army’s Land Warfare Studies Centre in 2008 and is a companion piece to his massive study of the ADF’s role in the Iraq War. The logistics report was obtained, mostly unredacted, by Professor Clinton Fernandes of UNSW.

As the ABC’s Andrew Greene has reported, the logistics study provides extensive detail of how the Howard government’s obsession with keeping its decision to join the US invasion of Iraq a secret hampered effective preparation by the ADF: 

Since the Government had not made clear its intentions regarding war, all planning took place under the condition of what ADF staff termed “prudent planning” … One of the most common complaints voiced by planners was the lack of accessibility to the planning process. Obviously, the best way to keep a secret is to control the number of individuals privy to the information … planners resorted to suggestive yet opaque conversations with specialists to get the information they wanted … care was required in placing requests because they could not inform the warehouse staff of the rationale for the needs, nor why they needed the items immediately.

It also meant the ADF — constrained by a lack of heavy airlift capacity, either of its own or internationally, given the demand from other Coalition forces — could not move by sea, but instead had to rely on US air transport, which itself dictated timing. “By failing to make a timely announcement on the nation’s participation, the Howard government succeeded in boxing itself into a corner, while at the same time abdicating one of its few strategic decision opportunities to the United States.”

But the hard cap on the size of the deployment — 2058 — determined by the Howard government to minimise the possibility of any casualties, also acted as a serious impediment. 

During the pre-deployment phase, the setting of the manpower cap … raised concerns among the units destined for the [Middle East Area of Operations]. The cap’s inflexibility — and the unwillingness of the military command to ask the Minister for Defence for even a minor increase — meant that instead of deploying in their entirety, units had to choose which particular skill-sets they wanted and to what depth … And wrong judgements would be met not by deploying more staff but through greater reliance on Coalition, contractor and host-nation resources.

The report identifies, time and again, moments when the government’s politically-motivated cap hampered preparations. “In some cases it was simply impossible to get desired staff. The Commander of the Maritime Task Group was greatly concerned about the [HMAS] Kanimbla’s lack of a six-person … surgical team. There was no room for them under the cap, and higher command refused to raise the Kanimbla’s limit.” Or there was the case of the unused environmentally controlled tents:

Australia did have in inventors a few environmentally controlled tents of its own, and … did send them to the Middle East. However, to meet dangerous cargo standards the air conditioners had to be bled of their gas before travel. The idea was to re-gas the air conditioners upon arrival. However, due to manpower cap restrictions, the deployment did not have a craftsman with the necessary accreditation to recharge air-conditioners. Moreover, the host nation was unable to provide the Australian-specific gas. In the end, the tents were put back on an aircraft and returned to Australia unused.

And the Navy’s Clearance Diving Team, more or less abandoned for the duration of their deployment in “a case study of what can go wrong”, were forced to rely on a contractor for whom they were “an afterthought, to be provided for at the contractor’s convenience”, and who was “slow to fill even mission-critical demands”.

In the end, the ADF was lucky that the short duration of the conflict didn’t ask hard questions of its line of communication. But it was no thanks to the Howard government, which let its partisan interests hamper our preparation for conflict.

Peter Fray

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