By SBLT Nathan Willrow, RAN
Following completion of secondary education at Melbourne High School Nathan gained entry to the University of Melbourne where he graduated as a Bachelor of Science majoring in Mechanical Systems and as a Master of Mechanical Engineering. He briefly worked on the design of high performance motor vehicles before entering the RAN. His outside interests include piano and most sports. After completion of the New Entry Officers Course he will commence training as a Marine Engineering Officer.
Iraq’s invasion of its oil-exporting neighbour, Kuwait, on 02 August 1990, resulted in international intervention to influence a withdrawal leading to the 1991 First Gulf War. Australia’s contribution under Operation DAMASK, centred on a three-ship Royal Australian Navy (RAN) task force deployed to form a part of the multinational fleet enforcing United Nations (UN) sanctions in the Persian Gulf. While the RAN only played a minor role in the Gulf War, it is important to analyse how it performed in relation to Australian defence policy, as well as what was expected of it by both the Australian government and the coalition navies (Horner 1992, p. 1). This essay will primarily focus on RAN operations against Iraq from the lead up until the aftermath of the Gulf War. It will initially analyse the significance of the Gulf crisis to the RAN, as well as how the command structure of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) influenced the capacity of the RAN to respond to the Gulf crisis. Moreover, the RAN’s capability to meet the demands of the government, as well as the interoperability of its ships and task groups with coalition navies will also be explored. Finally the lessons learned through Operation DAMASK will be investigated, including how the events of the Gulf War can influence the modern Navy.
The Significance of the Gulf Crisis to the RAN
In general, it is not realised that the Australian contribution to the Gulf War was the first time that the ADF deployed to an active war zone (Horner 1992, p. 2). Prior to the establishment of the ADF in 1976, the three services namely the Royal Australian Navy, the Australian Army and the Royal Australian Air Force had separate administrative arrangements and each reported to their own Minister. The lack of an integrated command structure resulted in poor coordination between the services, made evident through the military’s hindered efforts during the Vietnam War (Horner 2001, p. 44).
In 1973, Arthur Tange, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, submitted a report to the Government recommending the unification of the separate departments which supported each service, as well as the creation of the post of ‘Chief of the Defence Force’ (CDF) (Horner 2001, p. 47). As such, on 09 February 1976, the Australian Defence Force was formed and such a post was established.
Horner (1992, p. 2) emphasises that describing the Gulf War as the first war in which the ADF participated goes beyond simple semantics. The crisis would significantly test the ability of the ADF to make a valid contribution to an allied force, as well as Australia’s ability to support and sustain operations at a sizeable distance from its shores (Horner 1992, p. 1). Furthermore, the CDF would play a crucial role in facilitating Australia’s response.
The International Response
The International response to the invasion of Kuwait was unprecedented, with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) calling for Iraq’s immediate withdrawal. When this request was ignored, on 06 August, UNSC Resolution 661 was passed banning the trade of all goods to and from Iraq (U.S. Department of State 2013). Shortly after the establishment of the sanctions, with the primary backing of the United States, a multinational naval force (MNNF) was created to enforce the trade embargo through a blockade. Ultimately, fifteen nations eventually contributed to the MNNF supplying ships ranging in size from minesweepers to aircraft-carriers. United in a common cause, the vessels displayed the ability to cooperate and work together effectively to enforce the sanctions (Stevens 1991, p. 15).
The new command structure which had been instituted 15 years earlier, allowed the ADF to efficiently coordinate a response. While there was initially no expectation of Australian involvement, senior commanders closely observed the unfolding events (Horner 1992, p. 24). On Monday 6 August, it became clear that the United States was planning action. As such, the CDF directed the joint operations staff to consider how Australia and the RAN could contribute to the MNNF. This was achieved through contacting the Maritime Commander, where it was agreed that if RAN units were to participate in the blockade they needed to have certain interoperability and self-defence capabilities, as well as sufficient enforcement and surveillance capabilities (Horner 1992, p. 25). Furthermore, a clearance diving team could also be provided if necessary.
On 10 August 1990, the Prime Minister, R J Hawke, made the announcement that the guided missile frigates (FFGs), HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Darwin as well as the replenishment tanker HMAS Success would join the forces assembling in the Middle East (Nash & Stevens 2006, p. 14). The mission of the RAN task unit would be to conduct blockade and quarantine operations in the Gulf of Oman. The vessels would be limited to operations outside the Arabian Gulf and would be expected to identify, contact, interrogate and warn relevant vessels in order to support the UNSC sanctions against Iraq (Stevens 1991, p. 15). The CDF would command the operation through the Maritime Commander who would nominate the commander of the task force in turn. In an address to Parliament on 21 August 1990, the Prime Minister justified the Australian commitment stating, ‘We have a real stake in doing what we can to prevent the Middle East from being engulfed in a widening conflict’ (Frederick 1991, p. 90).
The RAN task force had only three days to depart Sydney after the official announcement. In order to ensure that men and equipment would be in the highest state of readiness upon arrival in the Gulf, an intensive program of exercises was conducted en-route. This included training in damage control, anti-air warfare, as well as against chemical, biological and nuclear attacks. The task unit arrived in the Gulf of Oman in early September and immediately began to patrol in loose association with the international forces already assembled (Stevens 1991, p. 15).
Diplomatic and Economic Effects of the Sanctions
Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was ordered by its President, Saddam Hussein, to solve his severe economic problems, to enhance his personal power within the Middle East, and to secure access to the Persian Gulf (U.S. Department of State 2013). The sanctions established by the UNSC aimed to limit the supply of Iraqi arms and in turn compel Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait through imposing a near-total financial and trade embargo. Only supplies intended strictly for medical purposes were permitted to pass through (Rieff 2003).
It is evident from the resolutions that the UNSC intended to force Iraq into submission through starvation and famine. Food shortages resulted in food prices increasing from a range of 200 to 1800 percent between August and November 1990 (Alnasrawi 2000). In fact, the blockade was so effective that by 05 December 1990, it was reported that the embargo had shut off 90 percent of Iraq’s imports and 97 percent of its exports, causing significant disruptions to Iraq’s economy as well as hardships to its people. From the establishment of the embargo until the outbreak of war on 16 January 1991, it was estimated that Iraq lost US$10–17 billion through its inability to export oil (Alnasrawi 2000).
The United States insisted that the only acceptable terms for peace were Iraq’s full and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. Iraq countered that it would only agree to terms if Israeli troops withdrew from occupied territories in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria (‘Confrontation’ 1990). Ultimately, the sanctions failed to achieve their primary goal of affecting Iraq’s withdrawal; however they did succeed in crippling its economy.
The Interoperability of RAN forces
The presence of the three-ship Australian task force emphasised the multinational nature of the coalition forces. HMA Ships Adelaide, Darwin and Success were ideal for Operation DAMASK having recently honed their war-fighting skills in Exercise RIMPAC demonstrating the importance of maritime warfare exercises (Nash & Stevens 2006, p. 14). In order to board suspect merchant vessels, the RAN vessels required considerable upgrades, equipment and maintenance prior to departing Sydney. Preparations were based on the need to function as part of a multinational coalition, what tasks the ships could be expected to perform, as well as the perceived level of threat (Nash & Stevens 2006, p. 15). During their deployment Adelaide and Darwin were involved in the boarding of six Iraqi merchant vessels (Stevens 1991, p. 16).
On Sunday 07 October, Darwin was tasked to join USS Goldsborough and HMS Brazen in intercepting the small Iraqi tanker, Tadmur (Nash & Stevens 2006, p. 18). Tadmur was found to be in breach of sanctions and the boarding lasted 36 hours, highlighting the difficulties which could arise when attempting to coordinate three national navies, each with their own rules of engagement and operating procedures. Adelaide’sSeahawk helicopter eventually helped to transfer six tonnes of contraband cargo to Brazen. The Seahawk’s ability to carry five times more cargo than the Royal Navy’s Lynx helicopters greatly diminished the time taken to complete the operation. Success also proved her worth through reliably and consistently supplying ships of the MNNF (Nash & Stevens 2006, p. 18).
Resolution 678 was released on 29 November 1990, authorising the use of force against Iraq unless it withdrew from Kuwait by 15 January 1991 (Rieff 2003). Given the heavy naval blockade, it was felt that the likelihood of a pre-emptive attack by the Iraqi military was high which was reinforced by numerous feints by Iraqi combat aircraft into the Gulf (Stevens 1991, p. 17).
Moreover, in late December the Iraqis deliberately commenced releasing contact mines into the Gulf further escalating events. Following the defeat of Iraq, Australian Clearance Diving Team 3 (AUSCDT 3) consisting of 23 personnel, cooperated with USN and Royal Navy divers to begin the dangerous task of clearing wharves and warehouses of unexploded ordnance, booby traps and mines (Stevens 1991, p. 20). If it had not been for the assistance of AUSCDT 3 it would have taken much longer to reopen Kuwaiti ports. The Australian medical support team aboard US Hospital Ship Comfortalso strengthened the Australian presence in the Gulf whilst providing valuable service. Australia’s important contribution to the war efforts was recognised after the conflict, when the Commander-in-Chief Pacific told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that, ‘Australia quickly and easily integrated its naval and medical units with US units in the Gulf, proving the value of our relationship and interoperability’ (Stevens 1991, p. 20).
Lessons from the Gulf War
There were numerous lessons for the RAN to learn from its involvement in the Gulf War both in the short-term and long-term. As the crisis continued, it became necessary to relieve the two FFGs, hence the destroyer HMAS Brisbaneand the frigate HMAS Sydneywere deployed to the Gulf (Stevens 1991, p. 16). With a greater amount of time to prepare than the first DAMASK units and a greater knowledge of what to expect, it was arguably more straightforward to prepare and complete enhancements to Brisbaneand Sydney. Moreover, having more awareness of conditions in the Gulf, particular emphasis was able to be placed on anti-warfare as well as boarding operations in order to prepare the two vessels en-route to the Gulf (Stevens 1991, p. 16).
Focusing on the present, one of the goals of the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Tim Barrett, through the initiative of Plan Pelorus is to continue to develop high-end war fighting proficiency and task group operational skills (Gough 2015). These are prerequisites to re-establish and deploy self-supported and sustainable maritime task groups which are capable of accomplishing a full spectrum of maritime security operations (Gough 2015). Australia’s Gulf commitment was one of the last significant occasions when a task group was deployed in wartime operations, demonstrating the value which could be gained from reviewing the RAN’s operating procedures throughout Operation DAMASK.
The period of Operation DAMASK marked the first time that RAN ships had been involved in a conflict for almost twenty years. Ultimately, the RAN task groups were not vital to the successful application of the UNSC sanctions or to the outcome of the ensuing war; however they were able to smoothly integrate into the naval blockade and operate just as, if not more effectively as vessels from other navies. All personnel involved in the Gulf gained a multitude of experience, while in a materiel sense the Navy also benefited greatly. Furthermore, Australia’s involvement demonstrated its support for the role that the UN plays in protecting smaller nations, and also displayed its ability to pull its weight internationally. The RAN’s ability to rapidly dispatch, as well as the high level of interoperability it displayed in the Gulf, answered criticism that the RAN was a ‘blue water Navy’ limited to Australian coastal waters, while it also validated the changes made to the ADF structure years earlier (Macdougall 2005). Moreover, without suffering any casualties it achieved the job requested of it in an efficient and professional manner whilst helping to foster relationships with the coalition navies, distinguishing Operation DAMASK as an ideal model for future RAN activity.
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