Operation Okra is the Australian Defence Force (ADF) contribution to the military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The force is part of Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East. The operation commenced on 31 August 2014, and its initial stated aim was to combat ISIL threats in Iraq. In September 2015, the Australian airstrikes were extended to Syria. In June 2017, flights in Syria were temporarily halted in response to American forces shooting down a Syrian Air Force jet, before later being resumed.
The Australian government announced on 14 September 2014 that an Air Task Group (ATG) of up to eight F/A-18F Super Hornets, an E-7A Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft, and a KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker, along with a Special Operations Task Force, would be deployed to the Middle East in preparation for possible operations against ISIL forces. The ATG commenced operations on 1 October, and on 3 October, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that his country would commence airstrikes. Australian forces operate from Al Minhad Air Base located in the United Arab Emirates. Australian aircraft have also been reported to have been operated out of Al Dhafra Air Base south of Abu Dhabi. An Australian Army training team known as Task Group Taji was deployed to Iraq in April 2015 to assist with training the regular Iraqi Security Forces. The force is part of Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East, originally under the command of Major General Craig Orme. Orme handed over command of JTF 633 to Rear Admiral Trevor Jones in December 2014.
Extension with airstrikes against ISIL in Syria
Airstrikes were extended to Syria in September 2015.
In late 2015 the United States Government asked the Australian Government, along with other members of the coalition, to expand its military commitment to the war. The Australian Government rejected this request in January 2016, but stated that it would increase the number of Australian personnel attached to the coalition headquarters from 20 to 30 and was considering increasing the amount of humanitarian aid it provides to people affected by the war in Iraq and Syria.
The strikes within Syria were reported to have been temporarily suspended on 20 June 2017 after the US shot down a Syrian aircraft. Operations over Syria resumed several days later, with an airstrike reported to have been carried out in the Middle Euphrates River Valley on 23 June 2017.
Air force component
Humanitarian air drops and munition and arms resupply
From August 2014 a number of C-17 and C-130J transport aircraft based in the Middle East have also been used to conduct airdrops of humanitarian aid and to airlift arms and munitions. On the night of 13/14 August an RAAF C-130J was part of a 16-aircraft mission including US C-17s and C-130Hs and a British C-130J which delivered supplies to Yezidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar. A second drop was later conducted to deliver supplies to isolated civilians in the northern Iraqi town of Amirli. Later, a C-130J was involved in the airlift arms and munitions to forces in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq in late-September.
Air Task Group
An Australian F/A-18 Hornet over Iraq in March 2017
Between 6 and 17 October, Australian aircraft flew 54 sorties. In at least two of them, a number of ISIL fighters were killed. Australian planes attacked ISIL military equipment and facilities in support of Iraqi and Kurdish troops on the ground. Vice Admiral David Johnston refused to give more details on the number of casualties or locations of airstrikes due to the "aggressive propaganda campaign" of ISIL. In late December 2014 Australian Super Hornets were involved in assisting Kurdish ground forces free Yezidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar along with other coalition aircraft.
A second ATG arrived in the UAE in early January 2015 to replace the first group of personnel and operate the aircraft originally deployed in September 2014. Providing an operational update on 12 January 2015, the Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston, stated that Australian aircraft provide around 13 percent of coalition airstrikes in Iraq.
Six single-seat F/A-18As from No. 75 Squadron RAAF based at Tindal deployed to the Middle East to replace the six dual-seat F/A-18Fs in March 2015. On 30 June 2015 the Department of Defence reported that the ATG had dropped more the 400 weapons in support of Iraqi forces since the commencement of operations with the F/A-18A Hornets and F/A-18F Super Hornets flying nearly 5000 hours, the E-7A Wedgetail completing 100 operational sorties, and the KC‑30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft providing 25 million pounds of fuel to Australian and coalition aircraft. By the end of November 2015 the F/A-18A Hornets had conducted 580 sorties over Iraq, during which they dropped 363 munitions. The aircraft also flew 18 sorties over Syria in September 2015, dropping two munitions.
In late December 2017 it was announced that the strike aircraft attached to the ATG had ceased air combat operations and would return to Australia in January 2018, although the KC-30 and Wedgetail will remain in support of ongoing coalition operations. This announcement followed the earlier recapture of the last remaining ISIL held areas of Iraq by government forces. The final RAAF strike mission was flown by two Super Hornets on 14 January 2018. By this time the Hornets and Super Hornets had conducted over 2,700 sorties.
As of October 2018, the RAAF forces assigned to operations against ISIL had been reduced to a single aircraft. This involved alternating four month long KC-30 and Wedgetail deployments.
Commanders ATG 630
Air Commodore Steve Roberton (September 2014 – January 2015)
An Australian soldier assigned to Task Group Taji observing Iraqi soldiers during marksmanship training in April 2016
Special Operations Task Group
In September 2014, the Australian Army deployed a Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) of approximately 200 personnel to the United Arab Emirates in preparation for operations to advise and assist Iraqi Security Forces. The soldiers were expected to be deployed to Iraq when a legal framework covering their presence in the country was agreed between the Australian and Iraqi Governments. The majority of the initial rotation of the SOTG was made up of Charlie Company, 2nd Commando Regiment. The SOTG began moving into Iraq in early November. As the Iraqi Government would not agree to sign a status of forces agreement to prevent the soldiers from being prosecuted, they entered the country using diplomatic passports instead. Iraq has agreed to grant the soldiers immunity from local laws under this arrangement, though they will be prosecuted in Australia in the event of any misconduct.
The role of the SOTG is to provide training to Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service, and personnel were stationed at the service's Counter-Terrorism Academy and Counter-Terrorism Training unit in January 2015, instructing in tactics, medical aid and counter improvised explosive device skills. The Counter-Terrorism Service includes two brigades of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, which fought against ISIS during 2014 at the cost of heavy casualties. Members of the service have been accused of killing prisoners and committing human rights violations. SOTG personnel are required to report any human rights violations they become aware of.
The third SOTG rotation occurred in September 2015 with a reduced strength of 80 personnel.
The SOTG role is also to provide mission support with SOTG personnel stationed in Iraqi bases assisting Iraqi units which are deployed on operations through remote means. In December 2015, it was reported that SOTG personnel enabled more than 150 airstrikes in support of Counter Terrorism Service 1st Iraqi Special Operations Force Brigade's offensive liberating Ramadi resulting in the destruction of some 50 Daesh fighting positions, 16 heavy machine guns and numerous vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices.
In April 2016, it was disclosed that SOTG personnel are assisting at the "divisional level" embedded with senior Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga commanders. Earlier in November 2015, it had been reported that the Australian Government had authorised SOTG personnel to advise units at battalion size and larger in the field but the Iraqi Government had not provided approval.
Task Group Taji
Members of Task Group Taji during a parade in November 2017
In April 2015, a 300-strong unit known as Task Group Taji was deployed to Iraq as part of the coalition Building Partner Capacity mission. The task group consists of a training team with command, force protection and support elements, and is tasked with training the regular Iraqi Security Forces. A New Zealand force element of approximately another 100 personnel is integrated into the unit, forming a combined task group. The second rotation of Task Group Taji departed Australia in November 2015. The unit's departure was delayed due to problems gaining visas for the soldiers, and this caused the initial rotation's tour of duty to be extended by two weeks. The third rotation arrived in Iraq during May 2016.
In July 2016, it was announced that the Task Group would be expanding its role training paramilitary police agencies including Iraqi Federal and Local Police and border guard forces. In addition, the Task Group will be allowed to conduct training at other secure coalition training locations, as the need arises. Also, 15 personnel from the 16th Air Land Regiment will be deployed to provide a counter rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) capability at Taji which is currently being provided by another Coalition member.
By the end of June 2018 the Task Group had trained more than 34,000 Iraqi soldiers since their mission began in early 2015.
Task Group Taji – 1 (Colonel Matt Galton), April 2015 – November 2015
Task Group Taji – 2 (Colonel Gavin Keating), November 2015 – June 2016
Task Group Taji – 3 (Colonel Andrew Lowe), June 2016 – December 2016
Task Group Taji – 4 (Colonel Richard Vagg), December 2016 – June 2017
Task Group Taji – 5 (Colonel Steve D'arcy), June 2017 – December 2017
Task Group Taji – 6 (Colonel Robert Calhoun), December 2017 – June 2018
Task Group Taji – 7 (Colonel Mick Say), June 2018 – December 2018
Task Group Taji – 8 (Colonel Jason Groat), December 2018 – June 2019
Task Group Taji – 9 (Colonel Michael Bassingthwaighte), June 2019 – present
^Bree, Max (9 October 2014). "Largest group in decades". Air Force: The Official Newspaper of the Royal Australian Air Force (5619 ed.). Canberra: Department of Defence. p. 3. ISSN1329-8909. Retrieved 7 October 2014.