Australia at odds with US over Islamic State bombing campaign

The Turnbull government plans to stick with the RAAF’s strict rules of engagement to avoid civilian casualties from its bombing raids in Iraq and Syria, putting it at odds with Washington’s plans to ramp up the air campaign against the Islamic State group.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said late last week that the US was “prepared to change the rules of engagement”, referring to the tight strictures on when weapons can be released. These rules ensure air strikes are lawful and do not pose an unacceptable risk to civilians.

However, both in the US and Australia, these rules are increasingly being criticised as too tight, making it hard to hit IS targets and meaning that many missions return to base without dropping bombs.

Those criticisms have been amplified in the wake of the Paris attacks.

But Defence Minister Marise Payne told Fairfax Media that the government has “no plans to change Australia’s rules of engagement”.

“Members of the Australian Defence Force operate under strict rules of engagement designed to protect our forces and minimise the risk of injury to civilian non-combatants and strictly comply with Australia’s obligations under domestic and international law,” she said.

Dr Carter said the US had already started hitting IS fuel trucks, which had not previously been within Washington’s rules.

Australia and other countries in the Western-led coalition work through a central command that is led by the US, meaning Australian pilots are often tasked by American commanders.

But Australia has its own rules of engagement – as does each country – and the final decision on whether to release a weapon always rests with the RAAF pilot.

Senator Payne added: “In order to maintain inter-operability with our coalition partners, the Australian government has an interest in understanding the rules of engagement that apply to countries operating within the coalition.”

IS fighters are known to take advantage of the strict rules of engagement by placing themselves among civilians, hiding their weapons and disguising their vehicles as belonging to civilians.

But particularly in the wake of the Paris attacks, the Obama administration has come under pressure from critics at home including Republican rivals, to take a more robust approach.

In Australia, Jim Molan, a former Army general who led coalition operations in Iraq, tweeted in response to Dr Carter’s remarks that it was “about time, only a year late”.

Mr Molan, who has long called for looser rules of engagement, added that the coalition should “now get JTACs [joint terminal attack controllers] into units and mentor Iraqi battalions in combat”.

Those controllers, who act as spotters on the battlefield to more accurately guide air strikes, would help minimise the risk of civilian deaths but would also put coalition troops closer to the front line.

Other influential analysts have also called for looser rules. Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings has said previously that any increased risk to civilians had to be balanced against the damage being done by allowing IS to continue its atrocities.

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