Photo of the Day: TNI-AL Boarding Party during Exercise Kakadu

An Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Laut; TNI-AL) boarding party with Captain Mal Wise, Australian Commander Task Group after a simulated boarding exercise conducted on HMAS Perth (FFH 157), during Exercise KAKADU 2012. Interesting to note the integration of Indonesian Naval SOF, KOPASKA (Komando Pasukan Katak; Frogman Commando Team), operators with a regular Navy boarding party. Australian boarding parties often operate in a similar way, with members of a Clearance Diving Team attached.

KOPASKA was influenced by USN Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) and US Navy SEALs, and has roughly similar operational responsibilities, including maritime counter-terrorism. Their insignia features a winged frog and anchor device, and their motto is “Tan Hana Wighna Tan Sirna” (“there is no obstacle that cannot be overcome”).

Defence notes: “Exercise Kakadu 2012 is Australia’s largest maritime exercise and allows the RAN to develop operational capability and skills in a coalition environment. Exercise Kakadu will be conducted from 29 August to 14 September in the Northern Australian Exercise Area off the coast of Darwin.  In 2012 there will be 15 ships, and over 2000 sailors and officers from 17 participating and observing nations taking part”

Photo credits: Department of Defence

In Brief: The Netherlands’ De Zeven Provinciën class frigates

N.R. Jenzen-Jones

HNLMS Evertsen on patrol off the Horn of Africa, as part of  NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield.

HNLMS Evertsen is one of four De Zeven Provinciën class air defence and command frigates in service with the Royal Netherlands Navy (Koninklijke Marine). Evertsen is the youngest of the four, having been completed in 2003 and commissioned in 2005. These ships superseded the two smaller Tromp class frigates, decommissioned in 1999 and 2001. Despite being classified by the Netherlands Navy as frigates, their displacement (6,050 tonnes), complement (202 + 30 aircrew), and role make them comparable to many destroyers. They are similar in these respects to the RAN’s planned Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD).  The Netherlands Navy also intends to use the De Zeven Provinciën class in a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) role, having recently awarded a contract for modification of the ships’ Thales SMART-L and APAR radars. According to an article in January’s Proceedings magazine, these modifications are expected to be complete by late 2017. It should be noted that the currently planned modifications only endow the class with the capability to detect and track ballistic missile threats, and do not provide for surface-to-air interceptor missiles.

Continue reading

Indonesia series post #3: special forces and foreign policy (part II)

In yesterday’s post (part I), I touched on how the goals of drawing closer to Indonesia and developing counter terrorism capabilities were met by encouraging joint exercises between SASR and Kopassus, starting in 2003. In this post, I explore the trickle down effects this relationship has had on Asian Pacific partners, their respective foreign policies, and regional security.

First, SASR’s long-standing and robust engagement with Kopassus has provided a testbed for US engagement with the unit. The US has been able to observe Australia’s handling of challenges such navigating sensitivities over human rights records. For instance, in 2003 Kopassus’ commander was denied entry into Australia for a meeting on joint exercises as he was at that time still on trial for suspected human rights abuses. In retaliation, the commander in question Major General Sriyanto cancelled the visit. But times have changed. Continue reading

Losing the narrative battle: civilian deaths and Defence PR

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

Two commandos of the Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) were cleared in late May of manslaughter charges arising from the death of Afghan civilians in a botched raid on a local compound.

The SOTG, comprised of special forces soldiers operating under US command, is deployed as part of Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and is involved in targeting commanders in insurgent networks. This incident reflects the tactical challenges that come with operating in a complex environment. In fact, it is the result of a lack of clear strategic aims in Afghanistan that are yet to be rigorously debated and communicated to the Australian public.

As revealed in an Age article by Bette Dam and Tom Hyland, the commandos acted on false intelligence that an insurgent was living in the compound. After an exchange of gunfire and fragmentation grenades, an Afghan civilian man, Amrullah Khan, and five children were killed, and several others wounded. Amrullah Khan was later found not to match the description of the insurgent. Rather, he was falsely accused of insurgent activity by a family member as part of a blood feud, as Dam and Hyland explain, in which the commandos became unwittingly entangled.

Such entanglements and exploitation of ISAF forces by Afghans in local blood feuds are not unknown. In another article published the same day, Dam explained that such practices are well documented; in fact, two separate reports, one by the United Nations and the other by the Afghan Analysts Network, found that there have been numerous instances of false intelligence having been provided to ISAF members, and, in many cases, these have led directly to the deaths of innocent civilians.

Yet, serious questions must follow. As Amrullah’s wife, Shapiro, asks, why was the intelligence not independently verified by the commandos? With the practice of false intelligence widespread and noted between coalition partners, what procedures were in place to ensure this would not happen to SOTG members? If procedures were in place, how did they fail the commandos in question? What information sharing takes place between coalition partners? While there are ever-present challenges with human intelligence, there is one explanation as to how such an incident could occur.

In a January 2010 report, Major General Michael Flynn, the top ISAF intelligence officer in Afghanistan, argued that there has been a serious disconnect between military intelligence and the overarching strategic aims of the conflict. He condemned poor coalition intelligence practices in Afghanistan that are driven by a lack of understanding of the strategic demands of the war. As a result there is a perceived disengagement of intelligence officers from aid workers and local Afghans best placed to provide human intelligence, and so intelligence product is at times ignorant of local power dynamics and social relations. With such narrow intelligence forming the operating picture, accidents such as the death of Afghan civilians occur and further undermine the strategic imperatives such as protecting the local population. Furthermore, local actors keen to exploit ISAF assets supplement this narrow picture with false leads.

The inability to translate strategic objectives to tactical gains is hardly limited to the realm of military intelligence. Rather, it is reflective of the overall difficulty in extracting a clear strategy for continued engagement in Afghanistan. The muddied way in which our strategy in Afghanistan is handled in Australia’s public debate is the result of limited information about our role in the conflict reaching the public.

The tight grip on information held by the Department of Defence is striking. The recent shooting of Australian soldier Lance Corporal Andrew Jones at the hands of an Afghan soldier, for instance, was reported by Reuters and a Kabul-based BBC journalist some 12 hours before an official Defence notification of an “operational incident” was released. While delays are caused by operational security and by the need to notify next of kin, questions must be asked about the efficiency of the Defence public relations machinery in effectively responding to a 21st Century of instantaneous news. For its part, the media has been curtailed in its ability to provide information about operations to the public. In July of last year, journalist Chris Masters imparted to an audience at the Lowy Institute the frustrations involved in trying to report on Australian Defence Force activity.

The self-defeating nature of Defence’s restrictive information policies was demonstrated after the compound raid in question. The Department merely issued a statement in the wake of the incident stating that a “suspected insurgent” alongside five children had been killed and that an investigation would be launched. In contrast, Shapiro claims the Australian commandos immediately compared her husband to a photo of their intended target and realised their mistake, whilst their translator repeatedly shouted “it’s not him”. Perhaps a better course of action for Defence could have included clarifying the matter, issuing an appropriate apology and stating upfront that not only was it mistaken to think that Amrullah was an insurgent, but that such a belief was credibly constructed on false information.

Defence needed to be honest about the nature of complex operations; in modern low-intensity conflict, there are a multitude of challenges, including linguistic, cultural, environmental and technological dimensions. Defence, and the Australian Government, did itself no favours by failing to take charge of the course of public perceptions of not only the commandos, but of Australia’s overall conduct in the war. Instead, an opportunity to help shape the narrative of the Afghan conflict was lost.

Australia’s response to civilian deaths in Afghanistan contrasts sharply with that of other ISAF contributors, particularly the United States. There are numerous instances where ISAF commanders, particularly the current commander General David Petraeus, have apologised for such incidents. While Defence issues similar apologies, they are by no means as public or replete with emotion as are those issued by Petraeus. In response to the killing of nine Afghan children in an air strike, he said, “[ISAF] are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologise to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions. These deaths should have never happened and I will personally apologise to President Karzai.”

In contrast, the media release related to the commando incident acknowledged the killing of five children but merely stated, “Defence is obviously concerned about any loss of life.” In both cases, the civilian deaths were accidental but Defence’s approach to handling the information operations side of the Afghanistan conflict leaves much to be desired.

In any case, Defence’s lack of disclosure is the result of weak public demand for greater information. The lack of push from the media and the public, which provides no political incentives, allows current practices to continue. This dearth of information provided by Defence in the public domain in turn allows Australia’s political leaders to continue to maintain a parsimonious narrative regarding Australia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. The parliamentary debate held in October last year saw broad agreement between the Government and the Opposition on the nature of our commitment there.

This lack of disclosure, maintained under the guise of either operational security or legal restrictions, does not help to shape the Australian public’s perceptions of our engagement. In the case of the commandos, full disclosure about the complex operational environment would have enabled better understanding of their situation in combat. Both sides, the tactical and strategic, are required for a balanced understanding of this conflict. Indeed, when Defence can be seen to be making excuses rather than discussing the facts maturely, it is hardly surprising we have not seen a serious dialogue on the matter.

This article and image first appeared in the Winter issue of AIIA Quarterly Access.

Big Boys Do Crye: MultiCam for Australia

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones

Please note: a number of serving Australian Army officers and soldiers were interviewed for this piece. Their names have been withheld at their request.

Last November the Minister for Defence Materiel, Jason Clare, announced that Australian troops operating in Afghanistan would be issued with Crye Precision MultiCam uniforms, following a successful trial. Australian special operations units had been wearing the pattern for some time, and the decision to expand its use to all troops in the theatre was a direct result of the positive feedback received by SOTG members. In late May of this year Chief Executive of the Defence Material Organisation, Dr Stephen Gumley, announced that the DMO had reached “an arrangement with the Crye company for them to design an Australian version of their pattern in the various materials”.

There have, however, been concerns about the final design, colouration and testing of the pattern, and some concerns from local industry and politicians.

The rise of MultiCam

The current, US-issue MultiCam pattern is already in service with a number of militaries, law enforcement organisations and private companies. The US Special Operations Command have been using the pattern for years now, and MultiCam had previously featured in various iterations of the US Army’s futuristic Future Force Warrior/Land Warrior program (cancelled in 2007).

Some of the first ‘real world’ adoptions of the camouflage came from the private sector, however. Blackwater tested MultiCam with some of its teams early on and featured the pattern in its ‘Pro Shop’ also (leftover product). Private contractors I have spoken to and worked with have also recognised the utility of MultiCam in Afghanistan, despite the tendency to avoid camouflage patterns.

The pattern is also in use with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Response Teams and a number of other US law enforcement agencies, some units of the British military (whilst awaiting the roll-out of their very own licensed Crye pattern, MTP) and the Australian Federal Police.

The UK has also adopted a variation of MultiCam. The Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) investigated the effectiveness of ten different camouflage patterns under the PECOC (Personal Equipment Common Operating Clothing) program. The assigned team conducted a wide range of tests, used computer modelling, developed several experimental techniques and tested the pattern in the UK, Cyprus, Kenya and Afghanistan. MultiCam, already in use by UK special operations forces, was the stand out of the test group. Crye was then asked to develop an exclusive pattern for the UK MoD. As one Crye representative said: “MultiCam won all their trials so they wanted us to develop a pattern for them that performed like MultiCam but had a distinctly British identity. UK-MTP is the result”. The pattern itself, properly called Multi-Terrain Pattern, features the familiar MultiCam colour palette in a design featuring brush-like strokes reminiscent of its predecessor, British Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM).

MultiCam for the ADF

The new Australian pattern will be developed for the ADF by Crye at a cost of US$3.1 million. Additionally, Defence will be licensing the rights to manufacture uniforms in the existing pattern, for a sum of US$4.7 million. The Australian pattern will be known as ‘Australian MultiCam Pattern’ (AMP). At this stage it is unclear whether AMP will feature the current MultiCam palette in a distinctly Australian pattern, in a similar approach to the UK’s MTP, or will also feature a colour range modified for Australian terrain. It is also unclear how widely uniforms in the new pattern will be distributed, and whether they will be issued for use in Australian terrain. Previous proposals, however, have not fared so well.

Around late March and early May of last year, a number of sources began reporting on the Australian Army’s field testing of a new ‘mid-point’ camouflage uniform, designed to “better meet the range of environments deployed troops are encountering”. Disruptive Pattern Midpoint Uniform (DPMU), or ‘vomit cams’ as two of the serving soldiers I interviewed referred to it, was a DSTO (Defence Science and Technology Organisation) project to develop an ‘Australian’ pattern camouflage in a colourway optimised for semi-arid regions. There were allegations made during the testing of this pattern that it had essentially been pre-selected for distribution, regardless of the outcome of the field testing. It was also stated that other patterns (the “US and UK solutions”) were undergoing testing at the same time as DPMU, however the AMP pattern was not mentioned at this stage.

Australian troops I spoke to have mixed feelings about the idea of introducing a new ‘Australian MultiCam’ to replace the DPCU pattern. The utility of the current-issue MultiCam pattern for overseas deployments – referred to in Australian service as Crye Precision Camouflage Uniform (CPCU) – has been widely acknowledged by Australian troops. As one serving Australian Army officer put it: “The MultiCam pattern is excellent for Afghanistan because of the relatively small distance between desert areas and green zones there, and the fact that we often have to operate in both of those areas as part of one operation”. However, the same officer went on to say that whilst the utility of the pattern for work in Afghanistan was widely acknowledged, there was an uncertainty as to how well the current colour palette would suit the Australian bush. DPCU, based on aerial photographs of Australian terrain and designed specifically for the country’s bushlands, is held in high regard by many of our troops. A serving digger interviewed stressed that DPCU is ideally suited for use in Australia and that, in his opinion, MultiCam (as it stands) should be reserved for troops deploying overseas. While it is unlikely, due to issues of cost, that two sets of uniforms (and spares) will be issued to all Australian-based ADF personnel, it may be that MultiCam is issued in anticipation of overseas deployment. It will be interesting to see how the balance will be struck.

The Crye uniforms currently being issued have gained a lot of their popularity with troops not just from the MultiCam pattern, but from the design of the uniforms themselves. Of course, there have been a few hiccups, notably in sizing. Nonetheless, several serving troops and officers I spoke with pointed out a number of design features that were very popular. The rip-stop fabric, location of pockets, knee and elbow padding, and cooler fabric designed for use under body armour were the stand-out features. It should be noted that these features are not exclusive to Crye’s range of products, and could be incorporated into uniforms produced in Australia using a licensed Crye pattern, or any other camouflage design.

Australian industry concerns

There has been some outcry (see comments section here) about the non-competitive adoption of a foreign camouflage pattern. The Shadow Defence Minister, David Johnston, has also asked for comment on the matter. Unfortunately for Australian designers and producers, MultiCam has a noted track record and enjoys a high-level of support from the troops. Of course, if the new AMP pattern turns out to be very similar to DPCU but featuring Crye’s colour palette (in the same vein as the UK’s MTP), one could reasonably ask why such a relatively minor change couldn’t have been conducted by an Australian company. Additionally, a shift towards Crye patterns by the US, UK, private sector companies and now Australia has the added effect of diminishing differences in appearance between various Western militaries.

One thing is for sure though, Crye Precision continues to represent what Western militaries believe is the vanguard of camouflage design, and will no doubt continue to be financially successful as a result. For the new AMP pattern to be successful it will require proper theoretical and operational testing in the environments it is expected to serve. If we decide to issue such a pattern to troops stationed in Australia, then it is my sincere hope appropriate tests are conducted in Australian terrain. Wise doctrinal guidance outlining the scope of deployment for the new pattern will also be necessary, and it will be interesting to see whether we arrive at a pattern designed to replace DPCU, or a pattern designed specifically for expeditionary use.

Addendum: We may well see an announcement of further details at Defence and Industry 2011, in Adelaide next week (28th – 30th June).

This piece has also appeared at KitUp!

An SOTG squirrel so secret …

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

By chance, we stumbled across an interesting addition to the Department of Defence’s Afghanistan frontpage: video footage of Australian troops in Afghanistan, including the SOTG.

The latest SOTG footage (video here) relates to an incident on 6 May 2011 in which members of the SOTG administered first aid to Afghan civilians injured by an IED. While the faces of SOTG soldiers and Afghan civilians have been obscured, the footage (which appears to have been recorded with a helmet-mounted camera) provides only momentary insight into operations there.

Moreover, there appears to be no announcement of what seems to be a step towards greater visibility of Australian operations in Afghanistan.

Defence still appears to be lurching towards greater (though currently modest) openness but lags behind coalition partners. ISAF partners including US, UK, Germany and the Netherlands to name a few, have defence ministries and departments that have extensive and regular video footage as a part of their Afghanistan media operations. We acknowledge that some of these partners may have greater capacity to conduct media operations. It seems as though the Dutch have no shortage of video footage of their troops in Afghanistan. In comparison, one decade into the conflict, Defence’s output is sparse.

We have been critical of Defence’s PR machinery here at Security Scholar and can only hope this development marks a milestone on a road towards modernising the public image and accessibility of the ADF. With any luck, an announcement will be forthcoming from Defence so that this latest step towards greater accessibility is not lost on the general public.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user ISAFMedia.

Defence public relations: see no evil, hear no evil?

Yesterday, the Australian Department of Defence released information and images depicting the desperate attempts of Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) personnel and their Afghan counterparts to save Afghan civilians critically injured from an IED attack (pictured). Set aside was the bravado and triumphalism of past releases on weapons caches or insurgent leaders; here was a more human, more fragile side of the war, seen through the eyes of our special forces.

This is worth noticing because, as mentioned previously on this blog, Defence has been reluctant to engage with the public and indulge information about its operations, particularly in relation to the conflict in Afghanistan. Media releases are few and far between, and are lacking in detail. Defence’s lack of candour has created a fog of war for the Australian public and an information vacuum in which journalists are able to indulge in their favourite special forces fantasy and call it defence reporting. But, it seems that this is changing.

In the past few months, there has been a surge in reporting on the activities of SOTG operations in Afghanistan. Such reporting has not only increased in frequency but has been produced much more promptly after incidents have occurred. In April alone, there were four SOTG-related releases: two on the disruption of insurgent operations (here and here), one on an insurgent commander killed, and one on the death an Afghan child caught in crossfire. Compared to last year, there is a remarkable increase. This may be the result of a higher operational tempo or the new Defence Information Publication Scheme Plan (under which it should become easier to obtain Defence information). In any case, it seems as though Defence has gotten into gear with its PR.

It will take time to paint a fuller picture of our Afghanistan operations however, if it continues, this trend is a start for the better. The picture above of SOTG doctor Major D hunched over the fragile body of a child is a clear depiction of the pressures in a war zone. Such depictions help us understand better (but not excuse) the difficult decision made in the heat of battle, for example, by Australian commandos that resulted in the deaths of Afghan children.

As General Sherman once said, war is hell. But we need to understand how and know why. So even if Defence is late coming to the game, and even if a substantial withdrawal of our troops occurs by 2014, it is still better to see some evil and hear some evil than nothing at all.

Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Australia and a Post-bin Laden Pakistan

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Natalie Sambhi.

Nic Jenzen-Jones has had several years’ experience working with and producing analyses for private defence and security contractors. He currently consults on a freelance basis.

The death of Osama bin Laden undeniably brings a sense of closure to many and marks an important moment in the 9/11 chapter of history. Yet it brings to a head the many uncomfortable questions raised about Pakistan over the past years. The bin Laden episode highlights, as commentators like Joshua Foust explain in more detail, the steady degradation of US-Pakistan relations. What the killing of bin Laden demonstrates is that the US is capable of conducting complex operations within Pakistan, such as acquiring a high-value target, with what seems to be minimal (if any) assistance from the Pakistani security forces. Does this state of relations cause a necessary shift-of-mission for the US? And if so, is this a shift towards an approach more focussed on counter-terrorism operations?

With Pakistan’s ability to enjoy, hitherto, financial and material backing from the US (some US$18 billion between 2001 and 2010) and other Coalition partners like Australia, questions will need to be asked about how the Coalition will move forward in light of these developments. There is no denying that Pakistani assistance has been valuable in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, in particular in the support of targeting insurgent-rich areas bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US has based drones within Pakistan, and the Pakistani military has even captured high-ranking terrorists, and conducted airstrikes against Taliban targets sheltering in the tribal regions. However its many transgressions—particularly those of the ISI—have often come to light as well. They include ISI connections to the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, the tipping off of insurgents, and allegations of close relations with the Haqqani network.

In light of this balance sheet, Coalition partners will have to reflect upon the most effective way to continue to operate with such an ally. Citizens around the world, most certainly from those countries which have committed troops to Afghanistan, will demand an answer as to how the world’s most wanted man was allowed to operate under the watch of Pakistan’s intelligence service (the ISI) for so long and, astoundingly, so close to a Pakistani military training academy and a nearby police station.

If the current state of relations between the US and Pakistan—the determinant of the broader relationship between the Coalition and Pakistan—continues, what does this mean for Australian operations overseas? As our Prime Minister and others have observed, this episode will likely leave our Mentoring Task Force mission of training the Afghan National Army relatively undisturbed until the withdrawal of 2014. On the other hand, if continued Pakistani intransigence leads to the US adopting a more counterterrorism-centric approach (along the line of Joe Biden’s light footprint plan), there is a good chance Australia’s Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) mission will be affected. At present, the main focus of the SOTG is disrupting insurgent networks in and around the province of Uruzgan. To date, they have also conducted operations in Kandahar involving the targeting and capture/killing of insurgent leaders. Being under US command, should the US mission increase targeting of al-Qaeda elements in the AfPak region, it is not too difficult to envisage that the SOTG would follow suit. With increased operational tempo (in April alone, the latest rotation of SOTG has produced results here, here and here), there has been speculation that we have physically and mentally exhausted our SAS personnel.

This morning, Prime Minister Gillard affirmed a desire of maintaining close security ties with Pakistan, but this statement will ring hollow if Pakistan continues to produce a mixed balance sheet. Without Pakistan on board, many of Australia’s efforts in stabilising Afghanistan with the aim of denying terrorist safehavens would be in vain. Ultimately, however, the Coalition partners must be prepared to look at alternatives to working with Pakistan’s security forces.

Of course, that begs the question: how tough is Australia prepared to get on Pakistan if we risk burning out some of our most valuable military assets?

 Photo courtesy of Department of Defence

The serious scarcity of Defence data

An article, ‘Repeat deployments ‘good for diggers’‘, in this morning’s The Australian detailed a departmental submission to the Defence Personnel Minister addressing concerns over repeated deployments of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. According to the article, Australian studies showed a positive yet “not statistically significant” relationship between deployment and mental health indicators. Obtained by The Australian via Freedom of Information laws, it is worth examining the information supporting such a view, contained in the unclassified submission ‘Multiple Operational Deployments – Effects on Australian Defence Force Members’ (PDF), linked to from the article.

The main finding: the information supplied to a Minister informing him of the mental health effects of repeated deployments on the ADF was woefully lacking in comprehensiveness and detail.

First, only one Australian study (Curtis 2008) on the ADF mental health and repeat deployments was supplied. Research supporting the study was conducted between 2002 and 2007. At the time the submission was drafted, another study was being finalised, yet when considering the 11 years Australian forces have been in Afghanistan, from this submission there is seemingly an alarming dearth of information from which a proper appraisal of the effects of repeat deployments can be made.

Second, the information to the Minister did not disaggregate certain groups such as special forces. In the case of Afghanistan, as reported in yesterday’s press, the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) is involved in high-tempo operations such as Operation TEVARA SIN 24 which involve difficult tasks such as the targeting and killing of insurgents. With many having already completed multiple deployments since October 2001 (Defence, PDF), their experiences in the AfPak theatre in particular should form an important basis for the Minister’s consideration of the human effects of such conflicts.

Third, if there were no other studies available, it must be asked, what must be done to collect, analyse and disseminate data to Defence decision makers quickly and efficiently? While another study on the frequency and duration of ADF deployments has since been published, academic publication channels are admittedly slow. Therefore, in circumstances such as warfare in which time lapses have significant ramifications for those in-theatre, what can be done to produce relevant and timely information without compromising its integrity?

That our Ministers are provided such limited information with which to make decisions on matters such as deployments is a matter of concern. That the submission is unclassified is immaterial. If repeated deployments have significant mental health effects, they should be made known to the public. Together with informed debate on the strategic and political gains of engaging in such conflict, information on the effects of deployment must form part of the Australian public’s and Government’s consideration of conflicts such as Afghanistan. Hopefully, it is not too late when we understand what the costs of our departmental and even media-muteness on this side of warfare has been.

The problem with defence journalism

I nearly choked on my cup of tea whilst reading Ian McPhedran’s report of the latest Victoria Cross recipient Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) soldier, Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith, in last week’s Daily Telegraph. McPhedran carefully set the scene:

The brown dust from the departing choppers that carried the SAS squadron south from their base at Tarin Kowt had barely cleared when all hell broke loose. It was October 2010, at the height of the Afghanistan fighting season, and a large Taliban force had established numerous firing positions around heavy machineguns. More than 24 elite Perth-based Diggers from the Special Air Service Regiment were under withering fire. Realising his mates were in grave danger, and with no regard for his own welfare, the SAS Corporal charged headlong into the Taliban machinegun fire. The sight of the 202cm Australian warrior coming at them must have shocked the bearded Afghans.

It was a little more action-packed than your run-of-the-mill defence article, but I was still sipping at this stage. However, what I was about to read next—an excerpt from an earlier battle during which Corporal Roberts-Smith earned his 2006 Medal for Gallantry—put me off my Earl Grey:

During that fight, according to comrades, “RS” tore a Taliban fighter off his back like an insect, stood on his throat and shot him dead.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Reporting on the conditions facing members of the Special Operations Task Group (of which the SAS is a part) is a necessary part of painting a picture of the war in Afghanistan for the Australian public. On the other hand, against a context of information scarcity on the conflict, the sexed up nature of McPhedran’s description was uncomfortably magnified.

I wish to make clear that my issue with McPhedran is not ad hominem. My issue is with the lack of consistent and informative reports available about the ADF in Afghanistan, brought to light by the nature of McPhedran’s article.

Defence’s tight grip on information flow has been striking and to its detriment. In July of last year, journalist Chris Masters imparted to an audience at the Lowy Institute the frustrations involved in trying to report on ADF activity. In November, Prakash Mirchandani pointed out an inconsistency in Defence’s stance on Wikileaks by highlighting the conflicting opinions of two frontline young officers interviewed by an embedded journalist and the Minister for Defence Stephen Smith. The same month, Monash University held a conference on information warfare during which it was revealed Australia was the most restrictive in providing access to defence correspondents in Afghanistan.

I cannot help but think that this lack of public information in turn stifles real discussion about our commitment, leaving us with only McPhedran-style action-packed postcards and, more alarmingly, lackluster parliamentary debate (see Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s opening speech here and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s here).

We owe it to the Australian public and to members of the ADF to depict an honest and comprehensive picture of Afghanistan. The mental image of an SAS soldier with his foot on the throat of an enemy is a rather confronting one. It would be a shame if it turns out to be the most striking.

Postscript: For those of you interested in reading about the SAS, let me steer you first towards In Action with the SAS by military historian David Horner, before pointing out McPhedran’s books, The Amazing SAS and Soldiers Without Borders: beyond the SAS. Or, Matthew Reilly.

See also, our related article ‘Losing the narrative battle: civilian deaths and Defence PR‘.

Photo courtesy of Department of Defence