Allegations of misconduct and worse by ADF Special Forces personnel have resulted in an independent Inquiry by the Inspector-General ADF (under administrative law) and an investigation by the AFP (under criminal law). Media and public interest in these inquiries has tended to focus, often sensationally, on personalities alleged to be involved, rather than discuss the allegations in their full contexts.
Media coverage and public discussion of alleged breaches of the laws of war by Australian special forces is heavily focused on individual personalities. Little attention has been paid to longstanding collective, structural and cultural drivers, nor to decisions made over decades by the chain-of-command up to Cabinet level.
After World War II, two reservist commando companies were raised in each of Melbourne and Sydney in the mid 1950s and tasked with maintaining Army’s capacity for raiding from the sea or by parachute.
The UK's re-forming of its Special Air Service regiment during the Malayan Emergency led to the Australia raising its first full-time special forces unit, the 1st Special Air Services Company, in 1957. After experimentation on extensive military exercises, this became the 1st Special Air Service Regiment in 1964.
Whilst sharing many attributes, the reservist commandos and the full-time SASR naturally developed cultural cleavages based on separate roles and conceptual development, Army-Army Reserve distinctions, and the then legislative restrictions limiting the employment of ARES units short of major war.
A further factor stemmed from the decision to base 1SAS Company in Perth. Both West Australian political pressure, and the perceived need to be based near the sea and a RAAF airfield, meant the beachside Campbell Barracks at Swanbourne seemed ideal.
This decision has, however, had periodic cultural and professional consequences. Over decades an elite unit developed, sometimes in relative isolation, from the rest of the army and the defence force. It’s also long been the army’s only full-time combat unit in WA and has much support among WA politicians and society generally.
In the early years, isolation was tempered by being part of the Royal Australian Regiment and, later, the respect the SASR won operationally in Borneo,1965-66 and Vietnam, 1966-71, mainly in their primary role of long-range reconnaissance in enemy areas. Moreover, SASR squadrons came under the command of the 1st Australian Task Force in Vietnam, as all units did, not any separate chain-of-command or tasking.
In the decades of peace following the Vietnam War, the reservist commandos (who’d not been used in Vietnam because the Defence Act then prohibited it) remained focused on direct-action tasks. The SASR initially struggled to adapt its highly successful jungle warfare methodologies for long-range patrolling to strategic doctrine then focused on defending the Australian continent directly, especially across our large and arid north.
In 1979 the peacetime and wartime contingency task of assisting civil police with assaults on terrorist strongholds during siege-hostage incidents added a significant and burdensome role. Special recovery roles naturally followed. Significant resourcing eventually flowed, as did ministerial interest and great public curiosity.
The counter-terrorist role also led to personnel receiving additional financial allowances tailored to very-high-readiness, additional training and dangerous conditions. This added a financial incentive to the general unwillingness to serve elsewhere in the army once soldiers and NCOs had won a place in an elite unit.
The Directorate of Special Action Forces (DSAF) in Army Headquarters was also created in 1979 to lead the SASR, the ARES commando units and, initially, the ARES’s Norforce as per Defence-of-Australia doctrine. This creation of a quasi-brigade headquarters effectively broke the last technical control link with the conventional infantry.
In 1981 the commando companies and their signal squadron were grouped to form the 1st Commando Regiment with a full-time commanding officer, often from the SASR. A full-time commando regiment, now known as 2 Commando Regiment, was formed in 1997.
Operations in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan saw DSAF morph into Special Operations Command. Its command level influentially rose from brigadier to major general, largely from an election promise rather than ADF decision.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, under governments of both political persuasions, concern about possible political blowback from ADF casualties led to a ministerial preference for using SF units instead of conventional ones. Given the SF’s necessarily much smaller numbers relative to conventional forces (otherwise they wouldn’t be special), this meant a high operational tempo, though tours were shorter than for conventional troops.
Our Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) in the Afghanistan province of Uruzgan combined both SASR and commando elements. It was under local Australian command but tasking was increasingly integrated with coalition SF arrangements. Some physical segregation at Tarin Kot, between the SOTG and other ADF elements, also hampered wider interactions.
In SF units there’s naturally a high dependence on small-group cohesion through mutual trust. However, throughout a career, officers tend to be posted in and out of the unit far more often than NCOs and soldiers.
With high operational tempos, dependence on group culture tends to increase. The professional continuity provided by longer-serving NCOs and soldiers is a pillar of unit resilience. But, if a culture becomes too elitist or inward-focused, wider perspective and accountability risks can develop among such tribal-elders.
The SASR has a high ratio of senior NCOs to officers because most of its small-group patrol operations are necessarily led by them and, in Afghanistan, were often dispersed geographically. Commando units tend to operate in larger groups, with a higher likelihood of on-scene command decisions being made by officers and more senior ones at that.
Interplay of factors
The interplays of rank, responsibility, perspective and accountability can vary between the two main types of SF unit. Unit cultural longevity also plays a part. Since near-continuous operational service for the ADF began in 1999, and especially in the 2007-2013 period, a combination of factors seems to have been at play:
- Australia tried to fight its modern wars without a whole-of-nation focus and commensurate community engagement. Even within the ADF, and unlike previous wars, much greater reliance was placed on SF rather than conventional forces.
- Australia sent its SF personnel ‘to the well too often’. The high operational tempo taxed individuals psychologically, pressured their families, stressed unit cultural norms, strained unit resilience and seems to have diluted accountability mechanisms.
- There was governmental reluctance to take coalition responsibility for Uruzgan Province after our Dutch partners left in 2010, and institute command arrangements accordingly.
- Highly-motivated and highly-trained SF personnel finally got to undertake a range of combat tasking they’d long prepared for, and they performed very professionally. Units were keen to prove their Tier-1 SF status to allies.
- SASR elements were used for direct action tasks (principally a commando role) as well as covert reconnaissance. While good for morale and individual skills in the short term, this risked necessarily distinct individual specialisations and unit functions over the longer one.
- High operational tempo fostered both worthy and risky elements of elite-unit culture. As did regular tax-free pay and allowances when deployed, protected-identity status and public curiosity about personnel and their necessarily high-security operations. Individual and collective recognition of these risks became obscured.
- The war in Afghanistan was fought under particularly difficult operational, legal and environmental conditions. Afghan society is riven with major and often intractable socio-cultural divisions.
- Enemy personnel were and remain often difficult to distinguish from the general populace. Even if captured, they could not be easily interned by international forces for more than three days. As capture invariably involved life-or-death risks for our personnel, the ‘catch and release’ situation was professionally and morally frustrating.
The ADF is the disciplined defence force of a democracy and rightly subject to the rule of law both domestically and internationally. Our troops and their leaders are rightly accountable for their combat actions, even in difficult situations. And our political leaders are also responsible for their decisions.
But great care must be exercised in publicly judging whether allegations of misconduct or breaches of the laws of war are valid or not. Analysis of why they may have occurred must acknowledge the actual context.
Neither simplistically excusing possible fault by claiming ‘bad things happen in war’, nor context-free criticism of our troops using peacetime civil standards, meet the mark.
All allegations and any consequences need to account for complex structural causes stretching back to the mid-1950s. These include decisions made by the highest levels of government—particularly those that led to over-dependence on special forces personnel in meeting Australia’s contemporary strategic challenges.
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association.