Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, Chief of Australian Defence Force

Monday, 5 January 2009




Early yesterday evening, Australian time, Taliban insurgents engaged an Afghan forward operating base with rockets. An Australian element was deployed at the base during this attack.

As a result of this indirect fire, it is with deep regret that I inform you that an Australian soldier has been killed. No other Australian soldiers or other nationals were wounded in this attack.

The soldier was killed instantly when a rocket exploded in the compound. The soldier’s next of kin have been informed.

To the family, I want to convey that I am terribly sorry for their loss. Though I can bring them no comfort at this time, I do want them to know that they are in the thoughts and prayers of a grateful nation. I will ensure they are provided with caring support as they endure their devastating loss.

At this stage, I’m unable to share any of the soldier’s personal details. In time, I want every Australian to know this fine soldier’s name. He has died serving our nation and deserves our recognition and respect. However, until such time as we are able, we will not be releasing his name.

Australians will be aware that this is the eighth soldier the ADF has lost in Afghanistan. The situation there remains very dangerous and we have a number of operations currently ongoing, involving various force elements.

Our troops are well prepared, well trained, well equipped and well led. But the very nature of our work means our men and women will sometimes be in harm’s way. And sadly, sometimes we lose those whom are among our finest and most courageous.

This soldier died serving our nation. He was experienced, with a previous operational tour in East Timor. He was professional and a great team member, and his actions and service exemplified the spirit and values of the Australian Army. We should remember his service with much gratitude and respect.

Despite this tragic loss our operations will continue. And we will not be deterred, nor our resolve lessened, from taking the fight to the Taliban.

I will now take your questions. However, I remind you that the family have requested privacy at this time. And thus I will not be releasing any personal details about the soldier.

Also, I am sure you understand that I must protect our people still deployed on those operations that are still ongoing. I will be therefore very limited in what I can say about those operations because, simply put, I will not compromise the safety of our people who are actually out there, right at this minute, doing a very difficult and very challenging job.

Thank you, I’ll take your questions.

QUESTION:   Air Chief Marshal, Daniel Street from the Nine Network. What was the particular role of this soldier killed in Afghanistan? What was he doing? Was he part of the Reconstruction Task Force?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            As you know, we have a number of combat elements in Afghanistan and at the moment we have several operations ongoing. We know that our adversary monitors occasions such as this. I’m not prepared to give you any of that detail at this time.

Now, in the fullness of time when those operations are complete, I will be very forthcoming and I will tell you everything that I can. But it – I’m sure you respect my position. My first responsibility, my first accountability, is to those wonderful, courageous soldiers who are out there doing an exceedingly difficult job. And I won’t put their safety at any risk. So, you’ll just have to bear with us on this occasion.

QUESTION:   Air Marshal, Sarah Smiles from The Age.

I was wondering what kind of compound the Australian soldier was in. Was that for the Afghan police?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            As you know, our – our engineers, over the last 18 months or so, have built a number of bases around Afghanistan, particularly in our province. And some of those bases are now occupied by the Afghans. I guess it was one of those – one of those facilities where this happened.

QUESTION:   Are you able to provide us with – I appreciate the privacy of his family and himself – but are you able to give us any more detail on exactly how he was killed and how it came to be that he was the only person killed and no other Australians injured?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            Over the last five years or so, our people in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been subject to frequent attacks by indirect fire. Usually 107 millimetre or 122 millimetre rockets. These are rockets that are fairly inaccurate, but they’re fired at coalition facilities. And over the last five years we’ve been extremely lucky. We’ve had some people who’ve been wounded. But I regret that on this occasion our luck ran out and we had a rocket that has sustained a direct hit in very close proximity to this brave soldier.

QUESTION:   David McLennan from The Canberra Times.

We’re heading out of the fighting season in Afghanistan, I think, at the moment. Are you expecting that some of these fatalities and people being wounded are going to start tapering off for a few months now?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            I think you’ve got to be a little bit careful about this terminology, the fighting season. The fighting continues all the time in Afghanistan. It’s just that during the very harsh winters that they have ground movement is very difficult and the conditions preclude easy movement by our adversary.

So in those circumstances, yes, I would expect things to taper off. But, conversely, if we have a mild winter, the ground movement is reasonably easy, their operations will be ongoing.

QUESTION:   Air Chief Marshal, are you able to say whether or not the soldier was an officer or not? Exactly, also, are you able to specify exactly where the compound was in Afghanistan? It was Oruzgan Province, I assume.

ANGUS HOUSTON:            Yeah. The – unfortunately I can’t – I can’t give you too much detail for the reasons I stated up front. But, yes this – these operations we’re conducting are in Oruzgan. And I say operations, because we have more than one operation going and they’re ongoing right at this very minute.

So, I’m not prepared to give locations. And in terms of his private details, officer or soldier, I’m not prepared to go there at this stage because that information would be very valuable to our adversary.

QUESTION:   As you mentioned, he is the eighth Australian to be killed in Afghanistan. With Barack Obama coming into office, he’s asked Australia to put more troops in Afghanistan. What would be your message to the Australian people about not putting more troops in, particularly in wake of the latest death?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            This is really a matter for government, but let me just say that we currently have a very substantial deployment to Afghanistan. If you bear in mind all of our regional responsibilities, this is a substantial contribution by a relatively small defence force. So, I think our contribution is about right, and our contribution is greatly valued. Clearly, troop levels are a matter for government and the Prime Minister has made it clear that he too thinks that we’re at about the right level.

QUESTION:   Do you see this death signalling that fighting is intensifying?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            The last campaign season, the last Afghan summer and fall – autumn, was probably more intense than the previous years. And, I guess, we can anticipate that if we have a relatively mild winter that, yeah, the tempo of operations will continue at a higher level than we’ve seen in the past. But I stress again, it depends a lot on the weather. If we have a bad winter that could shut down their operations altogether.

QUESTION:   Can I just ask, was it only one rocket that hit the compound, or was it part of a salvo of rockets and what sort of rocket was it?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            We suspect that the – these were probably 107 millimetre rockets. Several rockets were fired. One hit the facility that our people were in.

One more question and then we might call it quits.

QUESTION:   Air Chief Marshal, you mentioned that the soldier was experienced. Are you able to elaborate on that and tell us, for instance, how long he’d been in Afghanistan, when he was due to come home?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            All of our people have now – who are in Afghanistan at the moment, they all deployed at a similar time. They’ve all been there for a reasonable period of time.

They’re, what I would call, in the early stages of their mid tour, if you like. So they’ve been deployed for a while.

And what was the other issue?

QUESTION:   This particular soldier who has died, how long had he been in Afghanistan?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            Oh, I think he – he’d been there for a number of weeks. He’s probably about one – he was about one third of the way through his tour.

Okay, one last question and I’ll call it quits.

QUESTION:   Can I ask – beg yours – can I ask, and I know it’s quite rare for Australians to be hit by indirect fire, but is it simply a case that this soldier was unlucky to be in the spot that he was? And how rare is it for soldiers, for other nations to be hit by indirect fire in a similar situation to this?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            We have been incredibly lucky. You may recall a couple of years ago we had a young lady that was in an accommodation block in Baghdad, and the rocket landed very close to her and she was seriously wounded. And, fortunately, she survived and she’s in good health now.

However, if you have a look at the coalition experience, over the years, there’s been a lot of people that have been killed by indirect fire. That’s the nature of the beast.

If you fire these heavy rockets into areas where there are people, from time to time, they will hit people or they will hit structures in which people are located, and cause them to be killed or wounded.

QUESTION:   Nobody was wounded in the attack?

ANGUS HOUSTON:            No, nobody else was wounded in this attack.

I might call it quits there. I think today, our thoughts should be with the family. This is a time of year where we all like to celebrate Christmas, New Year, and for them to have this loss at this time is very sad. And my heart – my feelings go out to them at this very difficult time.

Thank you very much.

Media contact:

Defence Media Liaison: 02 6265 3343 or 0408 498 664