Special forces issues have deep historical roots

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, or to decisions made over decades by the chain-of-command up to cabinet level.

After World War II, reservist commando companies were raised in Melbourne and Sydney in the mid-1950s and tasked with maintaining the army’s capacity for raiding from the sea or by parachute.

Britain’s re-forming of its Special Air Service regiment during the Malayan Emergency led to Australia raising its first full-time special forces unit, the 1st Special Air Services Company, in 1957. This became the 1st Special Air Service Regiment in 1964.

While 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 then legislative restrictions limiting the employment of reserve 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 Royal Australian Air Force airfield, meant Campbell Barracks at Swanbourne seemed ideal.

This decision has had 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.

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 and Vietnam, mainly in their primary role of long-range reconnaissance. In Vietnam, SASR squadrons came under the command of the 1st Australian Task Force, as all units did, and did not have separate chain-of-command or tasking.

In the decades following the Vietnam War, the reservist commandos (who’d not been used there) 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, especially our large and arid north.

In 1979 the contingency task of assisting civil police with assaults on terrorist strongholds during 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 counterterrorist role also led to personnel receiving additional financial allowances tailored to very high levels of readiness, additional training and dangerous conditions. This added a financial incentive to the general unwillingness to serve elsewhere in the army once soldiers and non-commissioned officers had won a place in an elite unit.

The Directorate of Special Action Forces was created in 1979 to lead the SASR, the reserve commando units and, initially, Norforce as per the 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 were grouped to form the 1st Commando Regiment with a full-time commanding officer who was 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 as the result of an election promise rather than an ADF decision.

Our Special Operations Task Group in Uruzgan combined both SASR and commando elements. It was under local Australian command but tasking was increasingly integrated with coalition special forces arrangements. Some physical segregation at Tarin Kowt, between the SOTG and other ADF elements, also hampered wider interactions.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, concern about possible political blowback from Australian casualties led to a ministerial preference for using special forces units instead of conventional ones. Given their necessarily much smaller numbers relative to conventional forces, this meant a high operational tempo, though tours were shorter than for conventional troops.

In special forces units there’s naturally a high dependence on small-group cohesion. 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.

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.

The interplays of rank, responsibility, perspective and accountability can vary between the two main types of special forces units. Unit cultural longevity also plays a part. Since 1999 and especially in the period from 2007 to 2013, a combination of factors seems to have been at play:

  • Australia tried to fight modern wars without a whole-of-nation focus and commensurate community engagement. Unlike previous wars, much greater reliance was placed on special forces rather than conventional forces.
  • Australia sent its special forces 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.
  • Highly motivated and highly trained special forces personnel were finally able to undertake a range of the combat tasks they’d long prepared for, and they performed very professionally. Units were keen to prove their ‘tier-one’ special forces 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 specialisations.
  • 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 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. 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 surrounding them.

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 overdependence on special forces personnel in meeting Australia’s contemporary strategic challenges.