Big boys’ rules

To the Commandos, their Special Air Service Regiment rivals are known as ‘the cats’. To the rest of the Australian Defence Force, the shorthand descriptor is their location, ‘Perth’.

Autonomy from the restraint of regimentation in part explains the propensity for scandal to routinely afflict SASR. That it mostly goes unpublished and unpunished is down to much the same reason.

The special nature of SASR can make rule-breaking a virtue as well as a command nightmare. The ‘who dares wins’ freedom to operate with agility and independence is a defining characteristic. ‘Big boys’ rules’ they call it when stretching the budget to rent a Porsche or treat the elite, if the Seals, 22 Squadron or Kopassus come to town.

Perth itself also bestows special entitlements and a unique form of ‘top cover’. Beyond the comparative isolation, SASR became aligned with wealthy benefactors who were eager to join arms with Australia’s most prestigious regiment and, along the way, leverage influence and support.

The special privileges accorded Special Forces and SASR in particular are a source of broad resentment across ‘Big Army’.

But this is long offset by an equally enduring reality, that supreme skills sets, risk profile and sensitive tasking earn them special status.

In the 60 years since its inception, SASR has been subject to a passing parade of reviews and culture studies, none more testing than the current Inspector-General ADF’s inquiry into ‘rumours’ of war crimes in Afghanistan.

While only a fool would imagine the bad eggs are all in one basket, reported wrongdoing so far points exclusively at SASR. Given the lethality of tasking, going after Taliban commanders and bomb makers, this might not surprise. But it should. SASR selects and trains soldiers who know how to kill, but also sets great store in getting the thinking right. They often proclaim the shot not fired is more important than the one that is fired. Understated excellence, courageous restraint and professional integrity are also core values.

So, given the growing likelihood that the matters under investigation by IGADF have moved from the whiff of rumour closer to a bloated body of evidence, what went wrong?

In the shaping of this inquiry, former Special Operations Commander Major General Jeff Sengelman applied focus to specific wrongdoing, but also deficiencies of command. No surprise that it made him unpopular among some peers. But a little further down the line there is appreciation. According to one officer, ‘Love him or hate him he is the only SOCAUST to do anything about it.’

Sengelman, who did not agree to be interviewed, is understood to have deliberately sought to avoid a process similar to the inquiry that followed Australia’s worst peacetime military aviation disaster back in 1996. A Black Hawk training exercise gone wrong resulted in 18 deaths, mostly from SASR. A perceived quarantining of blame to those more directly responsible led to lingering resentment and demoralisation. Whether it was a fair or unfair reckoning, operators saw themselves blamed while senior command stood aloof.

Fast-forward to Afghanistan and questions of deeper responsibility again loom large. While the evidence is yet to be tested, it’s understood members of SASR have asserted that some comrades are guilty of planting weapons on Afghans, executing detainees and orchestrating ‘blooding’ (initiation killing) by junior members. So, who knew this was going on? And even if the command chain was not linked in, how far should responsibility reach?

My own sense is that direct culpability more likely rests with a small and rogue band of non-commissioned officers and troopers. As former Troop Captain Andrew Hastie noted after he arrived for the 19th of 20 Special Operations Task Group rotations, the men were ‘grasping for operational clarity in a fog of strategic ambiguity’. Abstract measures of success such as improved trust in central government were never as easy to comprehend as a long-discredited Vietnam-era kill count. As the Afghanistan conflict bled on, desensitisation set in, something Hastie and many of his peers worked hard to counter.

A likelihood that junior officers were not directly complicit is supported by objective facts. One is down to the target area itself, which in some instances became a no-go zone for the troop captain. The signature five-man patrol model did present logistical difficulties; a troop captain was often held at a ‘one tactical bound’ distance. Another is that knowledge of bad behaviour was clearly tightly contained in theatre, tending to surface and become elevated well after the incidents occurred—indeed, after the respective squadrons returned to Perth.

It is to the credit and moral courage of a different group of soldiers that anything at all is known. To quote one member of the regiment, ‘There are a number of specific soldiers who more than others bore the brunt of attacks yet continued to stand up for what is right.’ This alone is a promising indicator that the regiment’s core values were holding on.

Even so, it stands to reason that if officers were innocent of complicity, they must at least be guilty of incompetence and neglect. A long-held maxim is that at its optimum, if the human radar settings between a squadron or company sergeant major and a commanding officer are well calibrated, nothing is missed.

But a Special Operations Task Group working within a never cohesive International Security Assistance Force, fighting an enemy without rules, alongside an ill-trained partner force, and all at a frantic pace, is no small challenge. The main force elements, the Commandos and SASR, despite sharing the same camp, were barely integrated.

Special Forces personnel are conditioned to secrecy and compartmentalisation. A CO with roots at 2 Commando at Holsworthy was not on direct-dial to the brothers in arms from Perth. Integration with neighbouring conventional forces was even worse. One of the Mentoring Task Force COs told me that he didn’t have access to the code for the keypad to enter the gates of the Special Operations Task Group’s Camp Russell.

Talk to a Commando officer about why the scandal so far contaminates Perth more than Holsworthy and they contend the Commandos operated in much larger numbers so illegal acts were harder to hide. Officers were more likely to be on the scene and, in the view of more than one, ‘less likely to be compliant’.

A notable and even notorious feature of SASR is the amount of authority vested in senior NCOs. A patrol sergeant with multiple deployments was going to be more than the usual challenge for any first-time-in-theatre troop captain. A so-called ‘NCO Mafia’ could be withering, as those who have endured the SASR ‘stirrers parade’ (a ‘mean girls’–like denunciation of the faithless) will attest.

But presuming that SASR officers are weak, and indeed chosen by NCOs during the rigorous selection process for that very reason, is clearly wrong. SASR officers who resisted apathy and bravely persisted with efforts to reinforce integrity are also a big part of this story.

I think of them often, the ones who stepped up and said, ‘No, we don’t do that’. They weren’t always thanked at the time, but should be now, as IGADF comes knocking at the door. The officers and NCOs who enforced ethical command and preserved the collective conscience are owed a great deal by many a veteran who continues to sleep well at night.