Brendan Nicholson, courtesy of The Australian, 18 September 2015, where the title is “Mortality meets Morality. Bomb accuracy is undermined when terrorists hide amid civilians”
Kilometres above the ancient landscapes of Iraq and Syria, RAAF fighter-bomber crews are linked to surveillance equipment so sophisticated they can tell if someone below is likely to be adult or child, male or female, or a member of Islamic State. That’s why almost all of the nearly 1000 bombs they’ve dropped so far have hit their targets precisely. It’s also why the US-led coalition’s aircrews bring their bombs home on about 75 per cent of missions — as Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 Hornets did after their first sortie over Syria.
The RAAF carried out its first “effective” airstrike against Islamic State in Syria several days after it was cleared to operate there, on Monday destroying an armoured personnel carrier near Al-Hasakah in the country’s northeast. Australian crews spotted the armoured vehicle in a compound. They passed the information back to the coalition’s Combined Air Operations Centre via the RAAF’s Wedgetail command and control aircraft, which was part of the mission along with a RAAF air-to-air refueller.
The Australians were told to destroy the vehicle and hit it with a guided bomb, dropped from a height that left the Hornet safe from enemy fire. If there were any fighters in the vehicle at the time it is likely they were killed, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews says.
So far Australia’s Air Task Group has carried out 408 such missions over Iraq. The conduct of this air war is a long way from the days of World War II carpet bombing, which would kill the enemy along with any civilians within kilometres, and often many Allied troops. It’s also far from the Vietnam footage of bombs tumbling out of giant B-52 Stratofortress bombers on to villages and paddy fields far below.
Going to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties, the aircrews and those directing them abort attacks if there is any doubt about who or what is in their sights.
The RAAF teams are a key part of the strategy of decapitating Islamic State’s leadership and eroding its expertise; they consistently hit targets using GPS satellite information and laser-guided bombs from great heights and great distance. If they are unsure of the target or think it cannot be hit without killing civilians they wait for another opportunity, a practice known as “strategic patience in targeting”.
There’s a similar reluctance to destroy critical infrastructure such as bridges, roads or water supply facilities unless necessary because it is hoped infrastructure will help with future rebuilding.
RAAF personnel in Iraq, from senior commanders to the fighter-bomber crews carrying out airstrikes, have the right to call off missions if they believe they will hit civilians. Australian Defence Force chief Mark Binskin has stressed that anyone down the chain to the crew in the cockpits of the Hornets can play what has become known as a “red card” should they not be happy with targeting, or if there is potential for collateral damage.
These assessments are a routine part of each mission, says Binskin. ADF officers in coalition headquarters are accompanied by legal officers, who are influential in planning operations.
Islamic State fighters are aware of coalition efforts to avoid civilian casualties and increasingly hide in built-up areas. That has afforded the terrorists some protection, but it also limits their room to manoeuvre, making it more difficult to mass their forces for attacks.
The RAAF’s very accurate “smart” bomb is a standard bomb fitted with wings and a GPS or laser guidance system that allows it to glide to its target from at least 30km away, and from the staggering height of 40,000ft, increasing the element of surprise and allowing the aircrew to stay out of range of anti-aircraft defences.
Improved strap-on “wings”, developed largely by Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation and tested at the Woomera rocket range, are said to have increased the range of the Joint Direct Attack Munition to about 80km.
In the tangled and bitterly contested conflicts in the Middle East, the bomb’s accuracy is crucial to minimising civilian deaths. The US has confirmed that airstrikes have caused a small number of civilian casualties but it rejects claims by various groups that the number runs to hundreds.
Rodger Shanahan, an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College, says making an accurate assessment of casualties is extremely difficult.
“It would be naive to say civilians are not killed in airstrikes,” Shanahan says. “There has never been a zero civilian casualty air campaign in the history of air campaigns. That’s the reality. All you can do is do everything in your power to minimise them and that is certainly what the coalition tries to do.”
Shanahan says the numbers are difficult to assess because most of the bombing takes place in areas investigators cannot get to and it is rare to get a completely objective view on exactly what occurred. “You are relying on people on the ground to relay information to you,” he says, “so how do you ensure the veracity of that information?”
On one hand are groups whose information cannot be verified on the ground; much of that information is second or third hand. On the other you have the coalition, which disputes those claims but cannot release the information on which its conclusions are based.
Shanahan says it is bizarre that while the Australian government insists its airstrikes in eastern Syria are intended to degrade Islamic State and not to have an impact on the broader conflict in that country, the reality is they are bound to affect the wider war. It’s nonsense, Shanahan says, to claim those attacks are having a minimal effect on the overall Syrian conflict. “This is a complex area and they’ve simplified it to a point where it makes no sense,” he says.
He says the first RAAF strike in Syria occurred in Al-Hasakah, an area where the Syrian Army and Kurdish forces are fighting Islamic State. “If they’ve destroyed an armoured personnel carrier in an area where Islamic State is fighting the Syrian military — and where that vehicle might be used against the Syrian military — then you can’t say we’re not part of the broader conflict in Syria,” Shanahan says.
“Is the government accepting that degrading Islamic State in parts of Syria where government forces are fighting IS, one of the second-order effects is relieving pressure on the Syrian military? If they are targeting IS in the same provinces that the Syrian army is fighting IS then our strikes have got to be having an impact.” If that is not the government’s intent, says Shanahan, how is it going to stop it happening?
It is also possible, he says, that if Islamic State is badly weakened in eastern Syria, and Bashar al-Assad’s army is not strong enough to retake and hold those areas, they might be occupied by another regional terror group, such as the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as al-Nusra Front.
“Who’s going to benefit from our bombing?” Shanahan asks. “I find it bizarre that you are going to degrade an organisation in an area as complex as Syria with no consideration of what’s next.” “We have now bought into the Syrian problem.”
As well as the RAAF’s jets operating over Iraq and Syria, five RAAF personnel are embedded with a US Air Force unit based in Nevada, where they are remotely operating unmanned aircraft to carry out missile strikes over Iraq and Syria.
All the same rules of engagement apply to them, says Andrews: “They operate as part of a US unit, but they do so in a manner consistent with Australia’s obligations under international law.”
At present the Australian Defence Force operates only unarmed drones, which are largely used to scan the landscape ahead of patrols and convoys, in search of ambushes or improvised bombs.
The Australian has been told the coming defence white paper will reveal that the ADF is to be equipped with a range of new drones. Some will be unmanned, such as the ultra long-range Triton, which will monitor the oceans around Australia. Others will be armed and will include the deadly Reaper.
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced last week that last month an RAF drone killed Reyaad Khan, a Cardiff-born jihadist who was allegedly directing from Syria a terrorist plot to kill the Queen; it also killed a second British man, Ruhul Amin, from Aberdeen.
Veteran war correspondent and military historian Max Hastings believes unmanned aerial vehicles are fast becoming the weapons of choice for Western nations engaged in struggles against non-state enemies.
“They seem to carry none of the weighty political baggage associated with committing ground troops, and have been extensively employed in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan — and now Syria,” Hastings wrote in London’s Sunday Times last weekend. “Yet they raise important moral and legal issues that Western governments have scarcely begun to acknowledge, still less to address. What would be our attitude if the Russians or Chinese began to use UAVs to kill their enemies in Ukraine or Taiwan?”
Some of the CIA’s misjudged drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan have resulted in scores of civilian deaths, generating dire publicity, especially within the combat region, and recruiting many more young men to the jihadist cause.
The men who pushed the buttons that killed the British jihadists in Syria were controlling Reaper drones from a cabin at the RAF base at Waddington, Lincolnshire.
“Although airmen emphasise the immense psychological stresses on drone pilots, however remote from the battlefield, they are exposed to no hazard or physical discomfort. After finishing their shifts they could stroll through the August sunshine for a pint in the local,” Hastings says.
It is important to pause for a moment before welcoming this prospect of war with no “butcher’s bill” among our own forces.
“What happens when the other side uses drones, as it assuredly will?” Hastings asks. “They are already the toys of children and hobby geeks. It is only a matter of time before terrorists employ them against us.”
The West operates in a new world of warfare, where we are threatened by faceless, non-state enemies that have no qualms about hiding among civilians and fighting without flags or uniforms. The challenge, as machines and long-range weapons become more convenient, is how to respond without compromising our own morality.