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Australia commits combat aircraft to fight IS

Australia will commit air and special forces assets to the international coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Speaking to media in Canberra on 14 September, prime minister Tony Abbott and Australian defence chief Mark Binskin said an official request to join the coalition had been made by the US on September 13, and that his government’s National Security Committee had agreed to support the effort in a meeting that morning.

No details about when the deployment or commencement of operations would occur were provided, although the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has already conducted several humanitarian air drops and arms delivery missions in Iraq’s north with RAAF Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 and Boeing C-17A transports through late August and early September.

The ADF will commit up to eight Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets from 1 Squadron based at RAAF Amberley near Brisbane, a Boeing E-7A (737) Wedgetail airborne early warning & control aircraft from 2 Squadron based at RAAF Williamtown, and an Airbus Defence & Space KC-30A (A330 MRTT) air-to-air refuelling tanker from Amberley’s 33 Squadron. The ADF will also provide a task group element of about 200 Army special forces soldiers to provide training to anti-IS forces.

The deployment marks the operational debut of the Wedgetail and the KC-30, both of which have undergone troubled development programmes over the past decade. Neither have been declared fully operational with the RAAF.

Wedgetails have successfully completed several key exercises in recent months including Red Flag in the USA and Australia’s Pitch Black exercise. It will likely be employed over Iraq in a command and control role with its considerable electronic intelligence capability also playing a key part.

The KC-30A, despite recent advances in the development of its Advanced Refuelling Boom System (ARBS), will be limited to refuelling UK and US Navy-style probe equipped aircraft with its wing-mounted hose and drogue system, as recent successful modifications to the ARBS are not expected to be declared operational until 2015.

The RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornets are common to late-build US Navy F/A-18F Block IIs and achieved full operational capability in December 2012 after being acquired as a bridging capability between the retirement of the General Dynamics F-111C and the delayed service entry of the Lockheed Martin F-35A JSF from 2019.

The Australian forces will be initially based at Al Minhad Air Base in the UAE, about 1,500 kilometres south-east of Baghdad. With most of the operations against IS expected to be conducted taking place north and west of the Iraqi capital, if they are committed to operations missions of five or more hours for the Super Hornet crews will be common.

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