On 6 September 1990, the Royal Australian Navy commenced contributions to Operation Damask in the 1991 Gulf War. This was part of a larger international task force that was already underway.
On 18 July 1990, following a build-up of diplomatic tension, the President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, charged that neighbouring Kuwait had been stealing Iraq’s oil and building military installations on Iraqi territory.
On 2 August 1990 Iraq invaded and then annexed neighbouring Kuwait. In response, the United Nations Security Council placed a trade embargo on Iraq, and on 10 August the Australian Prime Minister RJ Hawke announced his government’s intention to commit two Royal Australian Navy (RAN) frigates and a supply ship to the Multinational Naval Force then assembling to enforce sanctions in the Middle East.
Under the codename Operation DAMASK, the despatch of the first RAN task group comprising HMA Ships Adelaide, Darwin and Success, with just 72 hours notice was a notable demonstration of the readiness, flexibility, reach and responsiveness of naval forces.
None in this first deployment knew what to expect, but the ongoing commitment, eventually involving a wide range of military, constabulary and diplomatic tasks, thereafter became one of the longest and most complex ongoing operations ever undertaken by the RAN, or indeed the Australian Defence Force.
On arrival the RAN ships immediately joined with the multinational naval force then assembling in and around the Arabian Gulf. The maritime embargo served as a continuing demonstration of international resolve and a highly visible deterrent to any Iraqi attempt to widen the crisis.
Equally important in the context of building up what was the first post-Cold War military coalition, the use of warships in the operation allowed individual nations to make a finely tuned contribution – one which could be matched to changing objectives and varying national interests.
The USN ran the overall campaign, but throughout the embargo’s evolution, the RAN played a major partnership role. Despite an initial degree of uncertainty over tasking, the Australian task group commander (CTG), Commodore Don Chalmers, RAN, was able to build on a common doctrine and many years of combined exercises, and consequently the task group found it relatively easy to operate within an ad hoc coalition.
On 12 November 1990 HMA Ships Brisbane and Sydney sailed from Sydney to relieve Adelaide and Darwin. Commodore Chris Oxenbould and his staff were embarked in Brisbane and on arrival in the AO assumed responsibility for the Australian naval task group.
En route to the Middle East, Oxenbould was advised that the United Nations Security Council had adopted Resolution 678 authorising the use of force against Iraq unless it withdrew from Kuwait by 15 January 1991. In support of that resolution Prime Minister Hawke announced on 3 December that the Australian units were to be allowed to pass through the Strait of Hormuz and enter the Arabian Gulf.
There they were to become part of the largest grouping of warships seen since the end of World War II. Indeed it was probably the most powerful and complex naval force ever assembled. At the height of the conflict 15 nations had together deployed six aircraft carriers, two battleships, 15 cruisers, 67 destroyers and frigates and more than 100 logistic, amphibious and smaller craft. In total these forces operated more than 800 fixed and rotary wing aircraft.
On 26 January 1991 HMAS Westralia arrived in the Middle East Area of Operations (MEAO) completing the RAN’s seaborne commitment. In a noteworthy operational first for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) her ship’s company included seven women.
Both Westralia and Success embarked Australian Army RBS-70 missile teams to provide an improved air defence capability. Ashore in Bahrain, RAN divers from Clearance Diving Team 3 had assembled and were preparing for a broad range of tasks ranging from explosive ordnance disposal to underwater inspections of ports and facilities.
In addition to naval forces, Australian personnel took part on attachment to various British and American ground formations. A small group of RAAF photo-interpreters were based in Saudi Arabia, together with a detachment from the Defence Intelligence Organisation. Four medical teams were also dispatched at the request of the United States. Individual members of the ADF also served with American and British air and ground formations.
Iraq failed to comply with Resolution 678 and on 17 January full-scale war erupted when a barrage of Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles was launched from ships of the Arabian Gulf naval strike force (Battle Force Zulu). Air strikes followed as Operation DESERT SHIELD transitioned to Operation DESERT STORM.
On 24 February 1991, after more than a month of air attacks, the coalition’s ground forces moved against Iraqi positions in Kuwait and in Iraq itself. The magnitude and decisiveness of these strikes destroyed what was left of Iraq’s capacity to resist.
After two days of air strikes, Baghdad radio announced that Iraq’s armed forces had been ordered to withdraw from Kuwait to the positions they had occupied before August 1990. Two days after this order, the coalition ceased hostilities and declared victory.
Throughout the 43-day war, Australian warships formed part of the protective screen around US aircraft carriers, defending them from air and missile attack. Elsewhere the two RAN replenishment ships provided ongoing logistic support. An indication of the dangers facing Coalition naval forces came on 18 February when Iraqi minefields off the Kuwaiti coast seriously damaged two USN warships injuring a number of personnel.
Once Iraqi forces had surrendered, maritime patrols aimed at ensuring Iraq’s compliance with UN sanctions continued, and for the next decade Australia maintained a regular presence with the Maritime Interception Force (MIF) in either the Gulf or the Red Sea.
HMA Ships Brisbane and Sydney, and AUSCDT3 were each awarded Meritorious Unit Citations for “sustained outstanding service in warlike operations”.