Australia’s incremental steps to war

Regardless if it is technically at war or not, Australia is becoming more and more involved in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Keeping in line with the US, the operations of Australian armed forces are gradually being escalated. It is likely the Australian government had considered an extended military role in Iraq as early as August, and was encouraging the US to increase its military involvement there.1 But politicians know the unpopularity of sending Australian troops overseas, so the government adopted an incremental approach to escalation, as if breaking the news to the public gently, with each step further involving Australian armed forces in the conflict. Over the course of two months Australian operations evolved from humanitarian aid drops into airstrike missions and the deployment of SAS Commandos as military advisers. How long before the government commits ground troops to the battle?


The incremental escalation began with Australia’s involvement in Iraq in August. In mid-August Abbott first floated the idea that Australian combat forces could be sent to Iraq, emphasising it would be a limited mission to prevent genocide.2 At the time Iraqi refugees were stranded upon Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, surrounded by hostile IS forces. Abbott emphasized the non-military dimension of the deployment, to protect people ‘who are at risk not just from the elements, from starvation, from dehydration, from exposure,’ but adding ‘but also who are at risk from ISIL forces.’ Within days Australian aircraft were dropping food and supplies to the refugees. The main message was humanitarian assistance, however, Abbot stated that he couldn’t rule out further military action.3

By the end of August the US was ready to authorize airstrikes in Iraq, and expected Australia would be willing to contribute.4 Although officially no decision had been made to commit Australian forces to join air strikes, Abbott said that Australia stood ready to provide more humanitarian support and was continuing to talk about what could be done to provide “peace and safety” in northern Iraq.5 He ruled out sending Australian troops to fight extremists in Iraq and stated that Australia’s involvement would continue to be a humanitarian one with air drops to continue.


Over the following days the humanitarian air drops morphed into transporting weapons and munitions to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, a decision which was apparently made a week earlier (Aug 24), before Abbott’s previous comments on humanitarian support.6 This small incremental step from food and supplies to weapons went largely unnoticed by the Australian public. At the same time the Australian media prepared the public for the next step by introducing the idea that the US may ask for RAAF fighter aircraft to support US airstrikes.7


During the first few days of September Abbott was paving the way for possible military action by emphasising Australia’s good intentions, stating that “We will do what we can… to defend our national interest, to support our citizens, to advance our values and to build a safer and more secure world.”8 Meanwhile he ensured the Australian public fully realised the horror of ISIS. “[ISIS] revels in evil, it exalts in evil.”

Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt and independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie voiced concerns over the possibility of mission creep, identifying that Australia’s role had already moved from humanitarian drops to the possible use of RAAF fighters. In answering if he had offered the use of RAAF warplanes, Abbot avoided answering by stating “that no specific request has come, no decision has been made.”9

But after the IS’ murder of US journalist Steven Sotloff, Abbott confirmed that the government had at least been asked whether it would contribute to a wider, US-led military campaign, stating that the journalist’s murder “abundantly justifies” intervention.10 In this regard the journalist’s murder was used to facilitate the incremental step from air drops to direct military action.


Following President Obama’s 10 September speech where he announced he would dramatically escalate an aerial bombing campaign and send military advisers to Iraq, the Australian government was expecting a “specific” request for Australian military involvement in a new war in Iraq. This request removed some of the responsibility of the Australian government on making decisions for further involvement, making this incremental step appear as if Australia is coming to the assistance of an ally – if the US is doing it, we should too. From this point forward the government emphasised that military action would be part of an international coalition, suggesting Australia’s role was minor and that we are going along with the rest of the world. Again, this partly absolves the Australian government from decision making responsibility.

At this time the idea of Australia sending Special Forces to Iraq was floated. “A specific request for military assistance in the form of air capability, in the form of military advisers, could come – it could come – but it hasn’t yet come and if it does come it will be dealt with in the normal way,” Abbott said.11 Perhaps not surprisingly the request came only a few days later, coinciding with IS’ murder of British aid worker David Haines. In response the government committed 600 ADF personnel to Iraq. In addition a Special Operations Task Group was to be deployed as military advisers to help Iraqi and other security forces. Abbott said the decision to send forces into action was not yet made, “But obviously that’s something we have in contemplation.”12 He further warned that if the deployment extended into combat operations, it could go on for quite some time, “months rather than weeks, perhaps many, many months indeed.” Already the foundation was being laid for the next step of extended military action, again on the back of a murder video.

The government had also moved closer to admitting Australian troops could be involved in fighting. Speaking of the military advisers, “Well, if they are military advisers to Iraqi and Peshmerga forces that are engaged in combat operations, they are themselves engaged in those operations.”13 However, even Coalition members warned against sending in Australian soldiers.14 Abbott reassured them that no government decision on actual military action had been taken, but foreshadowed a decision by adding that events were “hastening” in the region.

After meeting world leaders at the UN on 25 September Abbott briefed cabinet on Australia’s participation in joint military action. According to the SMH, “in doing so he confirmed what has been an open secret in defence circles from the moment Australia signalled its support for a US-led assault on IS. That is, that the final commitment to go to war was all but inevitable. ”15 At this stage even Iraq’s ambassador to Australia was confident Australia would launch strikes on IS targets.16


By October Australian aircraft were flying missions over Iraq. But Abbott stressed “…ours are support operations not strike missions.”17 The missions did not involve the Super Hornet fighters, but since they had been deployed to the region it seemed likely they soon would be. After all, in Abbott’s words, “We didn’t send them there for merely an exercise.”18 A few days later (3 October) the government military actions were approved. Abbott downplayed the approved actions, saying it was not “strictly accurate” to refer to the military engagement as a “war.” He refused to rule out extending action into Syria however. “Let’s focus on what’s been done today rather than speculate on what might be done in months or years to come.”19

The first airstrikes were carried out 9 October. Despite earlier downplaying Australia’s possible involvement, Abbott now stated that the Super Hornets were “doing the job that they were sent to Iraq to do.”20


With the onset of RAAF airstrikes Abbott indicated that the mission of the 200 SAS members seemed to have slightly shifted: in addition to advising, “some of them may be deployed as kind of combat air controllers to call in air strikes and so on.”21 This may place them in the middle of ground combat.

As early as September experts were talking about other ground troops. US Army General Martin Dempsey said he would recommend the US consider deploying ground forces to Iraq if the air campaign to destroy IS failed. The idea was obviously being floated in the USA. In Australia experts were also doubting whether air strikes combined with the Iraqi army would be enough to defeat IS. “The idea that it’s a credible proposition to send in a few hundred trainers and advisers and suddenly turn the Iraqi Army from the rabble it is into a serious fighting force is very doubtful indeed – to put it mildly,” said Hugh White, a former deputy secretary at Australia’s Department of Defence.22

Almost immediately after air support missions began in late September, media articles discussing the possibility of the requirement of “boots on the ground” started to appear. Although in general the articles referred to the use of Iraqi soldiers, there was the hint that Western troops, if not Australians in particular, would be needed. Having come this far, from humanitarian assistance to airstrikes, the next step of involving ground forces was being floated. For example:

The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 201423

Peter Jennings, a former senior Defence official who now heads the Australian Strategic Policy Institute… soon the fight needed to shift towards Iraqis on the ground retaking villages and towns, with the help of Australian and American advisers. This would take at least months, he said. ‘‘We are in for a long haul and what the US is going to find is that, as they realise that demand . . . the pressure will come on Obama to allocate more American trainers.’’

Canberra Times, 4 October 201424

Former elite soldier from Sydney’s 2 Commando Regiment Paul Cale… said the only way to defeat [IS] was to send in ground troops, as soon as possible. ‘‘You cannot control the war from the air,’’ he said. ‘‘ISIS is a threat to the entire region and there’s a domestic threat to Australia as well and the longer it’s allowed to go on with impunity the greater the confidence ISIS will have and the more foreign fighters will join them.’’ Mr Cale said that going back to Iraq was the right thing to do, morally.

The Australian, 6 October 201425

…it is already clear that combat forces on the ground will be needed… the nation’s leading military experts warned that, without a substantial ground campaign, the conflict could grind to a stalemate… This is likely to be a long campaign and, at some point, depending on how it unfolds, Australia could be asked to do more.

The Drum, 3 October 201426

Air strikes can only do so much and there will be diminishing returns… Will Australian military forces assist with deep battle efforts to deal with IS in Syria through air strikes or assistance to the insurgent elements that oppose both IS and Assad? If the goal of this campaign is the destruction of IS, then participation in this phase with Australian forces is part of the ways and means to achieve it… While Australia has embarked on a noble effort to join the fight against IS, there are tougher decision points ahead. Preparing the public on these likely futures is something that should begin today.

By an incremental process, step by step, it seems the government has already been preparing the public for some weeks…


The government’s expansion of Australia’s involvement in Iraq from humanitarian aid drops to the spectre of sending in soldiers has occurred incrementally. At each stage the government has refused to rule out further involvement. Each step has provided enough time for Australians to consider the new developments and assuage their concern about Australia’s involvement, but at the same time, has provided little opportunity to discuss and debate the involvement. Even if serious debate was organised, unfolding events in the Middle East and the next incremental step would quickly change the situation, rendering any debate moot.

It is also important to note that this strategy largely mirrors that being used in the US and UK, with various state actors and media personalities foreshadowing the next step before it is implemented.

With further incremental advances, and without clear and defined goals, it is inevitable that Australian will become more involved. How long before the government commits ground troops to the battle? With Abbott refusing to rule out becoming involved in Syria, how long before Australian troops are operating in that country?

Show 26 footnotes

  1. In fact The Australian revealed that even this early the ­Abbott government was considering an extended military role in Iraq and was encouraging the US to increase its military involvement there and possibly in Syria. Morton R & Balogh S 2014, ‘Greens warning on Iraq “mission creep”’, The Australian, 26 August 2014,
  2. Abbott T 2014, Press conference, 12 August 2014, London
  3. As referenced above, it seems the government was already considering an extended military role by this time.
  4. AAP 2014, ‘US officials suggest RAAF Iraq role’, 27 August 2014,
  5. Abbott T 2014, Doorstop interview, 26 August 2014, Melbourne
  6. The Australian 2014, ‘Abbott govt plans to fly arms to Iraq for fight against IS: report’, 31 August 2014,
  7. The Australian 2014, ‘Abbott govt plans to fly arms to Iraq for fight against IS: report’, 31 August 2014,
  8. Abbott T 2014, Questions without notice, Parliament of Australia, Canberra, 3 September 2014
  9. Abbott T 2014, Interview with Chris Uhlmann, 7.30 ABC, 2 September 2014
  10. Abbott T 2014, Doorstop interview, 3 September 2014, Canberra
  11. Abbott T 2014, Joint doorstop interview, 11 September 2014, Launceston
  12. Abbott T 2014, Joint press conference, 14 September 2014, Darwin
  13. Abbott T 2014, Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3W, 16 September 2014, Melbourne
  14. Crowe D 2014, ‘Tony Abbott assures MPs Australia will have “minimal involvement” in Iraq’, The Australian, 23 September 2014,
  15. Kenny M 2014, ‘Abbott to pull trigger on war’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 2014,
  16. Shanahan D 2014, ‘RAAF on brink of strikes against Islamic State in Iraq’, The Australian, 27 September 2014,
  17. Abbott T 2014, Update to Parliament on Iraq deployment, 1 October 2014, Canberra
  18. Abbott T 2014, Interview with Chris Uhlman, ABC AM, 26 September 2014
  19. Abbott T 2014, Joint press conference, 3 October 2014, Canberra
  20. Hurst D & Murphy K 2014, ‘First Australian air strike in Iraq bombs Isis target, says ADF’, The Guardian, 9 October 2014,
  21. Abbott T 2014, Interview with Neil Mitchell, Radio 3AW, 9 October 2014, Melbourne
  22. Allard T & Wroe D 2014, ‘Boots and all? Long war looms in Iraq’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 2014,
  23. Kenny M & Wroe D 2014, ‘RAAF bombing runs begin’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 October 2014,
  24. Strachan J 2014, ‘Veteran commando Paul Cale calls for ground troops in Iraq’, The Canberra Times, 4 October 2014,
  25. The Australian 2014, ‘Conflict deepends as ISIS goes into guerilla mode’, The Australian, 6 October 2014,
  26. Gleiman JK 2014, ‘The tough decisions on Iraq have only begun’, The Drum, 3 October 2014,

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