The government will deploy a contingent including up to eight Super Hornets and special forces – involving 600 personnel in total – as part of the American-led coalition’s operations against ISIL (Islamic State) forces.
Announcing the deployment in Darwin today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said an early warning and control aircraft and an aerial refuelling plane would also be sent. The special forces could act as military advisers to the Iraqi armed forces or the Kurdish Peshmerga force.
The air personnel will number 400 of the 600 force.
While today’s announcement is a commitment to deploy rather than to engage in operations - which will involve another government decision – the distinction is a formality.
Abbott said the security committee of cabinet had ticked off today on the deployment, as had full cabinet.
The formal request had been received in about the last 24 hours, he said. On Friday night he had spoken with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who had welcomed the commitment.
Abbott warned the operation could last “many months indeed”. His conversation with US President Barack Obama last week “certainly gave me to understand that the President is prepared for quite a lengthy American contribution to this particular mission”.
Although Obama has flagged strikes on ISIL targets in Syria, Abbott said that at this point Australia was not intending to operate in Syria. He said the legalities were very different than with Iraq – Syria had a government Australia did not recognise.
The Prime Minister did not rule out an eventual increase in the Australian force. The contribution was “prudent and proportionate”, he said. “I do not anticipate the need for a stronger force but obviously these situations are things which are constantly kept under review.”
He repeated there was no intention to have combat forces on the ground.
The air elements are expected to depart in the next week or so and the special forces sooner.
In a careful build-up to today’s announcement, the domestic terror alert was raised on Friday from medium to high although the government denies that sending forces to the Middle East increases the local danger.
Abbott is spending this week in north-east Arnhem Land but will be in touch with Canberra to monitor developments through secure communications set up by the Australian Defence Force.
The Australian commitment came as news broke of a third beheading by ISIL of a Westerner - British hostage David Haines, an aid worker. Two American journalists have recently been beheaded.
Abbott said the latest beheading “is further demonstration that this particular terrorist group does not just do evil, but exults in doing evil.
"We also know this is a terrorist group which is reaching out to Australia because there are at least 60 Australians that we know of that are working with terrorist groups in the Middle East and at least 100 that we know of here and abroad that are supporting terrorist groups in the Middle East.
"This is not just an international security situation, but it is a domestic security situation,” he said.
Abbott emphasised Australia would be part of an international coalition - this was not something that was just an American-Australian operation. A number of Western and Middle Eastern countries had indicated they were prepared to contribute including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
“I stress that this is essentially a humanitarian operation to protect millions of people in Iraq from the murderous rage of the ISIL movement. But if we are to protect people from ISIL it is important to have the capacity to disrupt and degrade ISIL operations.”
Abbott said he had consulted opposition leader Bill Shorten, who had given his full support. Thanking Shorten, Abbott said: “It is right and proper that when it comes to national security, the government and the opposition should stand shoulder to shoulder.”