Operation Okra is the Australian Defence Force (ADF) contribution to the military intervention against the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) terrorist threat.
As part of Joint Task Force 633 in the Middle East, the operation began in August 2014, and its initial stated aim was to combat ISIL threats in Iraq.
Australia’s contribution is being closely coordinated with the Iraqi Government, Gulf nations and a broad coalition of international partners.
In September 2015, the Australian airstrikes were extended to Syria.
Around 400 ADF personnel work under Operation Accordion to support operations, including Operation Okra, as well as personnel in the Australian/New Zealand-led task group Taji, the special operations task group (SOTG) and embedded personnel in the combined joint task force Operation Inherent Resolve, established by the US-led international coalition against ISIL.
In late-September 2014, an air task group (ATG) of personnel from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) was deployed to Al Minhad Air Base in the UAE.
The initial commitment included six F/A-18F Super Hornet strike aircraft from No1 Squadron, based at RAAF Base Amberley in Queensland, alternating with FA/18A Hornets of No 75 Squadron from RAAF Tindal, Northern Territory. There was also one E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft from No 2 Squadron from RAAF Williamtown, New South Wales, and one KC-30A multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) belonging to No 33 Squadron from RAAF Base Amberley.
In December 2017, the ADF announced that the strike aircraft attached to the ATG would cease air combat operations and return to Australia in January 2018, although the KC-30A and Wedgetail would remain in support of ongoing coalition operations. The final RAAF strike mission was flown by two Super Hornets on January 14 2018, by which time they had conducted more than 2,700 sorties.
RAAF E-7As and KC-30As have continued to carry out four-month deployments as part of Operation Okra. The E-7A plays a critical role as it contributes to the control and tactical movement of aircraft over Iraq and Syria to ensure safety and mission success, while the KC-30As carry out air-to-air refuelling operations with coalition fighter aircraft involved in Operation Inherent Resolve. These include the Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-35, as well as all variants of the F/A-18.
In August 2019, Australia also became the latest country to join the US-led international maritime security construct (IMSC) in the Gulf, which includes Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, to enhance the safety of shipping assets passing through the region.
Tensions had escalated after a spate of incidents. In June 2019, Iran allegedly downed a US Air Force RQ-4A Global Hawk high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in the Gulf for allegedly breaching international aviation rules.
The following month, an Iranian vessel was seized by Gibraltar over sanction violations. In retaliation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) seized a British-flagged oil tanker.
To ensure the safety of ships transiting the key shipping route, the UK Government joined the US Navy in the security mission and also invited European allies to join the alliance to put up a strong force to ward off threats from Iran.
As part of the mission, Australia deployed an RAAF P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), operated by No11 Squadron from RAAF Base Edinburgh, South Australia to the Middle East for a month by the end of 2019, and a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) frigate in January 2020 on a six-month deployment.
Australia Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, said: “This is the first time the P-8A aircraft has operated in the Middle East and its deployment will support freedom of navigation in the region, which is a fundamental right of all states under international law.”
This was not the first time that Australia had deployed MPAs to the Middle East. A detachment of RAAF AP-3C Orions was deployed between 2003 and 2012, conducting maritime surveillance patrols over the Persian Gulf and North Arabian Sea in support of coalition warships and boarding parties. They also conducted extensive overland flights of Iraq on ISR missions, and supporting counter-piracy operations in Somalia.
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