Cabinet has given the go-ahead for Australia’s Super Hornet fighter jets to strike ISIL targets in Iraq, as well as for its special forces to start working with the Iraqi military as soon as legal documents are finalised.
The strikes will start soon but the government is not giving detail on timing.
At a news conference with Defence Minister David Johnston and the chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned: “This deployment to Iraq could be quite lengthy – certainly months rather than weeks.
"I want to reassure the Australian people that it will be as long as it needs to be, but as short as it possibly can be.”
It was a dangerous mission, he said, but Binskin had put in place all possible measures to minimise risk.
Abbott argued the military engagement was an “essentially humanitarian mission”.
“Yes it is a combat deployment but it is an essentially humanitarian mission to protect the people of Iraq and ultimately the people of Australia from the murderous rage of the ISIL death cult,” he said.
“ISIL must be disrupted and degraded at home and abroad. So it is absolutely in Australia’s national interests that this mission go ahead.”
Opposition leader Bill Shorten was briefed by Abbott shortly before the announcement. Shorten later publicly reconfirmed the opposition’s support, saying “Labor and government are working together”.
An Australian refuelling aircraft and an early warning and control aircraft have already been flying in support of the coalition planes.
Asked whether today’s decision meant Australia was now at war, Abbott said: “I know you’d love to have that headline, but it’s not strictly accurate.
"Yes we are engaged in combat operations, but these are combat operations against an insurgency in support of the legitimate government of Iraq. So we are not in combat against another country.”
Shorten said language was a second-order issue.
Abbott said the risks to the Australian aircraft were from small-arms fire, anti-aircraft fire and surface-to-air missiles. The risk to the special forces in an advisory and assistance role with the Iraqi forces would be from roadside bombs and infantry attacks. These forces would be assisting at the higher headquarters level and the brigade and battalion levels.
Binskin said there had been a full threat assessment.
The government has approved up to eight Super Hornets, but only six are in the Middle East. The crews include women.
Abbott said there had been a very broad-ranging discussion in the national security committee of cabinet and then in the full cabinet.
“Every member of the cabinet had an opportunity to say his or her piece and almost everyone exercised that opportunity. We were all acutely conscious of the gravity of the decision we were making,” he said. “But we are absolutely confident that this is right for Australia and it’s right for the world.”
Condemning the engagement, Greens leader Christine Milne said: “This is Tony Abbott rushing into war at the behest of the United States.”