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SAS: Combat Fatigue

Sunday 9 March  2003 

Produced by Gerald Tooth

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Program Transcript

Gerald Tooth: Hello, I’m Gerald Tooth. Today: combat fatigue. Background Briefing investigates claims that our Special Air Service Regiment is being stretched to breaking point as a result of poor military planning. That planning not only has resulted in the overuse of the SAS but also brings into question our ability to fight a war on terror overseas.

We might be willing, but are we able?

It’s been a busy time for our military in recent years. First there was East Timor, then Afghanistan, and before they could draw breath, Iraq. Busier than anyone else and at the sharp edge of every mission were the elite soldiers of the SAS.

It’s hardly surprising then that the Prime Minister was out to welcome them home from Afghanistan last December.

John Howard: How are you?

Man: Good morning.

John Howard: Welcome home.

Man: Thank you very much.

John Howard: You look well.

Man: Yes, I feel well.

John Howard: How are you, Brigadier? It’s very nice to see you.

Brigadier: It’s good to have you back at Swanbourne.

John Howard: Thank you, it’s nice to be back.

Gerald Tooth: As he arrived at the SAS’s Swanbourne base near Perth, he was told that this was the first Christmas these men would be spending at home for a number of years.

Man: That’s right, yes. This squadron will probably have the first Christmas at home for about two or three years, so it’s a good break for them.

John Howard: Oh, that’s fantastic.

Man: It is great, yes.

Gerald Tooth: When the formal speeches started, Chief of Defence, Peter Cosgrove acknowledged the huge burden the SAS regiment had been asked to carry.


Peter Cosgrove: I know better than most of how hard this regiment’s been working especially in the last few years. You are indeed at the sharp edge of Australia’s defence capability. You are indeed the strong shield of our national interests, wherever those interests occur. We’ve much admired the work that you’ve done. We’ve watched you with anxiety and great pride. You have performed in a wonderful manner, in the finest traditions of the Army and of the regiment whose badge you so proudly wear.

I welcome you home on behalf of all those men and women in the Australian Defence Force, and I’ll now introduce to you, to add his welcome, the elected leader of the Australian people, the Honourable John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia.


Gerald Tooth: As the Prime Minister came to the podium he had two things on his mind: first was the unfinished war on terror.

"It’s a new and different and dangerous and threatening reality. It requires the special highly developed professional skills that you have."

John Howard: Our country finds itself in a new and different defence circumstance. The war against terror is probably something that many of us mightn’t have thought likely a decade ago or even five years ago. But it’s a new and different and dangerous and threatening reality. It requires the special highly developed professional skills that you have. It requires the special discipline that your training gives to you.

Gerald Tooth: He was also thinking about all those Christmases the soldiers had spent away from their families.

John Howard: And I understand from Lieutenant-Colonel Gilmore that this for many of you, is the first Christmas you’ve had home for a couple of years, and I know that Santa and the children will have a very special resonance in your homes because of that. And can I, for myself, and I know for all Australians, say to wives and children and other family members and sweethearts of the men of the regiment, Thank you for what you have done. Without your care and your support and without your understanding, it wouldn’t have been possible.

Gerald Tooth: While he wouldn’t say it to their faces the Prime Minister was about to ask those families to do a lot more for their country. Even as he was delivering his welcome home speech it had already been decided to send the SAS to another war.

He gave the speech on December 19 last year. Four days before that, on December 15, while they were still on their way to Australia, they were told that they would be going to Iraq.

It was a bitter blow to SAS wives like Bridgette who was expecting to finally spend more than a few fleeting days with the husband she had barely seen in the last two years.

We’ve changed Bridgette’s name and used an actor to voice her words to protect her identity.

Bridgette: My husband in the past 18 months, well, two years, my husband’s been away 18 months. He went overseas in August last year and came back in December, and he’s now been deployed since early February.

Gerald Tooth: In that time, how long has he been home for?

Bridgette: Just under a month.

Gerald Tooth: Even when they are in the country, SAS soldiers spend months on training courses that take them away from home. Their schedule is more intense than any other in the Australian Defence Force.

Middle east training sounds.

Gerald Tooth: The Australian government sent 2000 military personnel to the Middle East as our contribution to the Iraqi campaign. Spearheading that force is the SAS. Their presence was especially requested by the US following their role in Afghanistan, for which America awarded the unit their prestigious Bronze Star.

Often called the ‘force of choice’, the Special Air Service is a small elite Army regiment of around 700 men. Just 300 of those are fighters, divided into what they call three Sabre squadrons. Each squadron has a support team of 50 or so.

SAS men are known as ‘chicken stranglers’ or ‘snake eaters’ in military circles. It’s a reference to the survival techniques they are taught in order to live off the land during long-range missions. That’s just one set of the myriad skills they’re trained in. Others include explosives, marksmanship, parachuting as well as mastering sophisticated computer communication systems and learning to speak a number of languages.

Set up in 1957 their initial brief was surveillance and reconnaissance behind enemy lines, where they operate in small groups of around five men. Following the Hilton bombing in 1978 the SAS was also charged with counter terrorism duties.

Self-contained and highly mobile, SAS squadrons can quickly be inserted into combat situations. They are on four hours call at any time. They carry pagers when not on base. On counter terrorism duty that call time can be reduced to just half an hour. There is always one squadron in Australia performing this task.

In Iraq they’ll be used to search out missile sites and other military targets and use laser designators to call in accurate air strikes. There’s speculation they may even be in position to do that now.

We don’t know because out of necessity, the SAS is an organisation cloaked in secrecy.

What that also means is that they have a strict code of honour. They will not speak out, even when, as you’ll hear through the voices of those around them, they have a growing list of grievances about how they’ve been treated in recent times.

SAS wife, whom we’ve called Bridgette, says for a start they barely had time to draw breath after returning from Afghanistan before they had leave cancelled and were deployed to the Middle East.

Bridgette: When my husband came home, he was meant to have four weeks off, which he did, but before the four weeks was up, he was called back to go away again, which was surprising. Having two children I just assumed he’d be at home to the kids to go to school again. It was hard for him to leave us. Both kids were a bit emotional, so was I. But in the end that’s what he wanted to do, to go for the first push.

Gerald Tooth: When you say the first push, you mean the first on the ground in Iraq?

Bridgette: Yes, that’s right.

Gerald Tooth: On January 10 in Canberra, the National Security Committee of Cabinet met. Prime Minister John Howard interrupted his holiday to attend. At a press conference afterwards he was categorical that the government had not committed to forward deploy the SAS and other troops to the Gulf despite what the soldiers had been told before Christmas.

He told journalists contingency plans had been made for such a course of action but no decision had been taken. He was then asked how much such a deployment might cost.

Reporter: Prime Minister do you have any estimates of how much a deployment would cost to the region?

John Howard: It’s a little early for me to go hard and fast on a figure, because you’ve got, to start with you’ve got to know that, when you say deployment, you mean a military contribution. That’s a hypothesis upon a hypothesis, and it’s a bit early. I mean obviously it will not be cheap, but at this stage I’m not going to commit myself to a figure. Obviously work is being done on that once again on a fairly contingent basis.

Gerald Tooth: There was nothing hypothetical going on at SAS headquarters in Western Australia as they were once again preparing to be at the sharp end of our government’s political imperatives.

Later that afternoon the PM returned to his family holiday. Meanwhile in Perth, Bridgette’s long anticipated holiday with her husband was cut short as those political imperatives and the personal collided. Bridgette and her children were devastated.

Bridgette: When my husband left we all sat on the couch for about an hour and we sort of hugged each other and my son said to me, ‘Mum, if you miss Dad that much, go and smell his aftershave and the clothes he just had on the day before he left. Grab that and put it on the pillow and sleep with that at night.’

Gerald Tooth: For some SAS soldiers the sort of pressure the constant call to war has put on their families has proved too much. Sources from the SAS community have told Background Briefing of a jump in the number of marriage and relationship breakdowns within the regiment in recent times.

We’re informed the number of resignations from the unit has also risen to unprecedented levels, as men choose family life over military duty.

Bridgette confirms that men are leaving in numbers.

Bridgette: Some of the guys getting out value their family, and what they’ve seen over in the countries, they probably do get affected by it. But if they’ve chosen their families, then good luck to them. But the guys who are still there, well, obviously they want more. It comes down to everybody, they’re all individuals, and you can’t stop them.

Gerald Tooth: Is it fair to say that they’re under more pressure than they ever have been before?

Bridgette: Yes, I think they are. Now with the death of Drew Russell, I think it’s more impact, and the women are getting involved, and the guys are aware as to what may happen. And also the wives. The wives are standing up and saying ‘What will happen to us when you die?’

Reporter: The remains of Sergeant Andrew Russell arrived at Perth airport early this morning, greeted by fellow members of the SAS and his family. Sergeant Russell was killed on Saturday when the truck in which he was travelling hit a land mine. The 33-year-old leaves a widow and a two-week old daughter.

Reporter: The widow of an SAS soldier killed in Afghanistan has renewed calls for better compensation …

Newsreader: Kylie Russell claims the government promised legislation to update the military compensation scheme …

Reporter: Kylie Russell’s husband, Andrew, was the last Australian soldier killed in action. His death, in Afghanistan, almost 12 months ago, drew attention to the inadequacies in compensation.

Gerald Tooth: The issue of what will happen to their loved ones if they are killed in action is also eating away at morale in the regiment. The death of one of their colleagues in Afghanistan has raised some uncomfortable questions. His wife Kylie received $92,000 in a lump sum as compensation and has been provided with a war widow’s pension for life. She now receives $13,000 a year, plus concessions and benefits like a gold health care card. But she says she should be entitled to something more substantial.

Kylie Russell spoke to ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing on the phone from Perth.

" Everyone that I’ve come across has been absolutely appalled with how I’ve been treated."

Kylie Russell: Everyone that I’ve come across has been absolutely appalled with how I’ve been treated.

Gerald Tooth: The Prime Minister, when this issue first came up, said that he was inclined to be generous in these matters, to quote him; is that your experience of what’s happened?

Kylie Russell: Absolutely not. No-one has certainly been generous in any way, shape or form. It’s extremely the opposite, and I think when you take in the fact that they are so tight as to add on the tax to a $13,000 pension to make the figures sound so much better, and then to include our private superannuation and the health care card, it just shows you that they’re desperate to make themselves look generous when they are certainly not.

February anti-war protest sounds

Gerald Tooth: Also disturbing for the SAS community is the level of division in Australia over what they are being asked to do. They came back from East Timor as heroes and were praised for their work in Afghanistan, but this time it’s not the same.

Kylie Russell: And I think that does put more stress on soldiers, and on the family. Because not only are you having to cope with your loved one going overseas to a potential war zone, you’re also having to see on the TV and the newspapers, people marching and protesting about what your husband is doing. Now we need to know that the people are behind what your husband is doing, that if he dies or is injured, that the people are there and support you in that he was doing the right thing. If that’s not there, it makes you question why is your husband there and why is he putting his life on the line for his country if it’s not appreciated. It can make you become bitter. I don’t know how I would have coped bringing up my daughter, explaining to her that her father was sent to a war that the people of this country were protesting about, and I think that’s where it really does hurt.

Gerald Tooth: And that’s what you’re seeing now amongst other families?

Kylie Russell: Yes, yes.

Gerald Tooth: Kylie Russell, the widow of SAS soldier Sergeant Andrew Russell.

Her public campaign for better compensation sits on top of much private anger within the regiment. Comments such as ‘Politicians get more for falling off a pushbike’ have become common at soldiers’ gatherings.

It’s also prompted comparisons with politicians’ pay and created another source of frustration.

Andrew Russell was earning a reported $70,000 a year when he was killed. SAS soldiers obviously aren’t on a huge base wage. They rely heavily on the special allowances they get.

For example, those on duty in the Gulf are earning an extra $220 a day while they’re there. Again though, with resentment high, some soldiers have told loved ones the extra money is the only reason they have chosen to go to the Middle East instead of taking the other option of resigning.

Clearly there’s a morale problem if our fighting elite, supposedly our most highly motivated soldiers, are beginning to talk in this way.

And that problem is compounded by the growing unhappiness amongst SAS wives. There’s a saying in the regiment that it’s the wives that keep a bloke in or out.


Gerald Tooth: The stories of the rigours of SAS training are almost mythical. The gruelling ordeals they are put through leave no room for self-doubt or weakness. The Bulletin magazine recently outlined some of their exercises. For example, having to carry a 50 kilogram pack, plus a weapon on a 100 kilometre, 3-day trek, without any sleep while being hunted by other SAS men.

Much was also made of the so-called Killing House at their Swanbourne base in Perth. There live fire exercises are conducted at close quarters inside the building. The SAS apparently takes great delight in putting politicians through the hair-raising experience of being a hostage in one of their counter-terrorism scenarios.

While no politician has ever come to harm, plenty of SAS soldiers have. Since 1979, 26 of them have been killed in training. That includes 15 men who died, along with 3 members of 5th Aviation, when two Black Hawk helicopters collided during night exercises near Townsville in 1996.

Others have been maimed and crippled.

There’s now a call for their training to be officially classified as what is known as ‘hazardous duty’. It’s the equivalent of being at war and would give the soldiers higher rates of pay and compensation under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act.

Brigadier Jim Wallace is a former commander of the SAS. He now holds the position of Executive Chairman of the Christian Lobby Group in Canberra, which is where we meet at a popular café.

He’s one of those leading the call for official recognition of the dangerous nature of SAS training. He says it’s not just like being at war, it’s in fact more intense than being at war.

"You’ll find that most of them are exposed to those stresses on a more continual basis than many people who’ve been to war."

Jim Wallace: SAS training is done at such a high tempo because people are at a very short notice to move. Now what that means is that if you’re at a very short notice to move, you have to duplicate or replicate the pressures of combat, because you can’t allow people the time to make that step up into conflict, and for counter terrorist troops, particularly for SAS in almost any role, they have to make that transition immediately, and so if that’s the case their training has to be done at a very high tempo. It has to replicate the pressures and the stresses of war. And so these fellows are going into training situations which so replicate the pressures of war that actually I think you’ll find that most of them are exposed to those stresses on a more continual basis than many people who’ve been to war.

Gerald Tooth: Perhaps not surprisingly, Jim Wallace says there’s a heavy psychological price that’s paid for being constantly battle ready. He says that no matter how tough these guys appear there often comes a time when they lose control of their emotions.

Jim Wallace: The reality is that everybody has a store of courage, and if you’re put into situations time and time again which test that store of courage, even if it’s training, if it’s replicating the stresses of war, then you’re drawing on that store of courage, and while you’re in the SAS regiment and while you’re training, you might be able to paper over the result of those stresses, but once you get out and suddenly you don’t have the restrictions or you don’t have the incentive to suppress whatever those emotions might be, or the effects of that training might be, then I think it is a fact that they are in some cases starting to come out.

Gerald Tooth: Jim Wallace acknowledges that recognising training as hazardous service could open a Pandora’s Box. Governments may be forced to also acknowledge claims from firefighters, police and others who work in life-threatening situations. However he maintains the SAS is a special case.

But the argument has fallen on deaf ears.

The Federal government recently released a review of veterans’ entitlements. The review was conducted by former New South Wales Supreme Court Judge John Clarke, and examined this issue.

The Clarke report draws a graphic picture of the dangers of SAS training. It describes explosives being detonated a metre away from soldiers, scenarios where up to six men at a time operate in a confined space shooting live bullets in every direction including from behind and over the top of their mates, and exercises where soldiers are exposed to large amounts of tear gas and smoke, among others.

The report acknowledged that serious injuries and deaths have occurred, but nevertheless in the end recommended “that SAS training not be declared hazardous service”.

Background Briefing spoke to Defence Minister Senator Robert Hill and discovered that he had first-hand knowledge of the nature of SAS training.

Robert Hill: The training in my view was always hazardous. I can remember when I was Shadow Minister over ten years ago, witnessing their training in Perth.

Gerald Tooth: Were you one of the ones put in a darkroom and shot at, were you?

Robert Hill: They shot past me. I was certainly in the dark room with them, that’s right, and they were trainees. It was quite a, for a soft pollie, a pretty enlightening experience. But certainly I recognised then the risks were inherent within their training. Now you make an interesting argument in saying that because of the war of terror being so close at any one time, and the time lines for preparation and adjustment there should that lead to a reassessment of training allowances. I hadn’t thought about that. Well I hadn’t thought about it in those terms.

Gerald Tooth: Are you sympathetic to that argument?

Robert Hill: I’m sympathetic to many arguments but we’ve got 109 recommendations out of Clarke, and they need to be carefully and logically worked through. Now I recognise that we ask a lot of our personnel in both training and in operations.

Gerald Tooth: On the broader issue of overuse of the SAS and the effect that was having on morale in the elite unit, Senator Hill said morale was good. He rejected the allegation that men were leaving in greater numbers than ever before. The Minister was adamant that he’s seen nothing to suggest the pressures of constant deployments were taking an unreasonable toll. He also said he is acutely aware of the need to ensure the unit wasn’t being overworked.

"We’ve got to ensure that we don’t push them to breaking point ... it’s wrong to ask them to do that. "

Robert Hill: You don’t wait until you get to breaking point. Even though they can almost do anything, those chaps, it’s wrong to ask them to do that. We’ve got to ensure that we don’t push them to breaking point.

Gerald Tooth: Senator Hill points to the Government’s decision late last year to increase Special Forces by 300 soldiers as recognising the need for the burden to be shared more widely. Relief from present pressure is however, some time off. There is a long lead-in time before those new SAS soldiers will be ready. There’s a 12-month training period to start with, and those within the SAS say it takes seven years inside to be fully effective.

The numbers leaving right now can’t be replaced quickly.

To describe the situation using a political analogy: There may only be small numbers of men leaving the SAS but it’s the equivalent of losing half a dozen front benchers from Parliament in the lead up to an election.

It’s an analogy Senator Hill could relate to.

Robert Hill: [Laughs] I’d never thought about it in those terms.

Gerald Tooth: But that’s the sort of situation you’re facing in the SAS right now.

Robert Hill: You can’t grow it too fast, that’s right, because in a force the size of our army there are only so many that have the unique qualities that you want within Special Forces, and you can grow it and we are growing but if you grow it too fast, as you’re implying, it will be with a reduction of quality. But I’m not arguing against the fact that it does require a long training period to really get up to the level of skill and experience that is necessary.

Gerald Tooth: For mere mortals like you and me, we’re told to take a break from driving after every two hours so that we don’t get exhausted and have an accident. These guys are off to their third war in a row. I mean they are really feeling as though they’ve been pushed as far as they can go.

Robert Hill: No, they’re not. No, I’ve been to the farewells for the Special Forces in Perth and Commandos in Sydney and there’s no sign on the part of the men that they’re fatigued or had enough or whatever. But they wouldn’t show it. So I’m not totally in disagreement with you. In fact in principle I’m saying there must come a point where it’s too much and we must ensure that we don’t go over that point. So it may be in some conflicts we say ‘Look I’m sorry, with a force our size and with our capabilities, we can’t make a contribution.’ We’re very conscious of that.

Gerald Tooth: Hazardous training of course, is about performing in real-life hazardous situations. For example dealing with deadly militia incursions in East Timor. Such an incident near the West Timor border three years ago is now being described in the press as “having the potential to cause unparalleled harm to the morale of the regiment on the eve of combat”.

A recent front page article in The Weekend Australian told the story of a fire fight in which a convoy escorting prisoners was ambushed by militia. Two SAS soldiers were injured and two of the attackers were killed. Late last month a senior SAS officer was charged with ‘conduct unbecoming’ for allegedly kicking the dead body of one of the attackers. As reported in The Weekend Australian, “the soldier in question is revered by his peers and subordinates alike as probably the hardest man in the Australian Defence Force, and quite possibly its best soldier”.

The charges, laid by the Military Police, are seen as a direct assault on the honour and integrity of the regiment.

On another note, there’s unease about some of the politically partisan things they found themselves involved in; for example, the Tampa crisis, and now a deployment in Iraq that is deeply unpopular.

There’s also a feeling that they’re now serving America’s interests and not our own. Background Briefing has been told there’s a line being used by the soldiers that runs: The British have the Ghurkhas while the Americans have the [Australian] SAS. The Ghurkhas recently lost a race discrimination case against the British Army after revelations they’d been underpaid. Some SAS men believe they are being used similarly as poorly-paid hard men by the U.S.

Yet another source of disquiet are the conditions of service under which the soldiers are operating in the undeclared war in the Gulf. The government maintains it’s made no commitment for our troops to be involved in any conflict with Iraq. That’s created uncertainty in the regiment that as military personnel who are forward deployed, as opposed to actually deployed, they are unsure whether they’re at war or not. The significance is that it could make a difference to compensation and access to pensions if someone is killed or injured.

And while the SAS is facing the real pressure of a war in the Gulf, that may be just days away, they are also maintaining the highest possible level of vigilance as our frontline in counter terrorism.

Their former commander says the small force is clearly being stretched to the limit. Jim Wallace says that overstretching is a direct result of following a flawed defence strategy for the last 15 years.

Jim Wallace: This really gets back to the fact that we are using the Special Forces to the degree that we are, and we’re having to re-use the Special Forces all the time because our defence strategy didn’t allow us to have other forces, which were able to be used instead, which were able to be deployed instead, as options, because of this fanciful structure, or scenario, that our defence policy was designed around.

Gerald Tooth: The ‘fanciful scenario’ that has shaped our defence policy is the idea that our major priority is to be capable of repelling an attack from an invading nation to our North, the so-called Dibb Doctrine, or Defence of Australia.

Authored by military academic, Professor Paul Dibb, it was based on the belief that any such attack would come through what’s called the air-sea gap between us and Asia. It became official policy through various defence White Papers since then, the latest in 2000 authored by Hugh White.

So we became fortress Australia with our Navy and Air Force beefed up to protect our mote and our army cut down to just enough soldiers to pour boiling oil on the few hardy invaders that managed to get across the water and storm the parapets.

Visually it was represented by a map of Australia with a series of concentric circles radiating outwards, each one representing a line of defence.

Now though, the Dibb Doctrine is at the centre of a fierce debate within the military community. Jim Wallace says it meant we spent wasted years getting ready for the wrong war.

Instead of preparing to fight against global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and developing the ability to work in coalitions, we were mistakenly focused on an invasion scenario which, in truth, was never likely to eventuate.

Jim Wallace: It allowed people to pare the Army, while giving priority of development to particularly the Air Force and to a lesser degree, the Navy. But even that was based on the fact that we would have self-reliant defence. So being self-reliant of course, there was no great imperative there to make sure that we kept the procedures alive and the equipment compatibility, particularly high tech compatibility, and communications and the sensor systems, with people like the United States, to make sure we could operate with them at very short notice, which all these things require, these are all very short notice.

Gerald Tooth: It’s like training to play rugby league in the pre-season but when you go onto the field, having to play rugby union. The game is similar, but the rules and tactics, and the strengths you need to win, are vastly different. You may be the best in the world in rugby league, but out on the rugby union oval you have no idea of where you should be standing, or what you should be doing.

The end result is that when our government wants to join the US in Afghanistan or Iraq, our Special Forces, the SAS and Commandos are the only element of the Army that can do so quickly and effectively.

Tellingly, Wallace says that we in fact developed our Special Force capability despite our defence policy. He says he saw the need to expand our Special Forces capability to meet the demands of the real security threats we are now facing. He saw the development of a Commando unit as strategically crucial to provide a highly trained mobile force that could do the sorts of things now being asked of defence, and also provide support for the overworked SAS. But Jim Wallace says he had to use subterfuge to get the unit together.

Jim Wallace: We could see that for instance that what we really needed in the region was a force that could be introduced by water, and you need special skills to do that, and a Commando regiment was the obvious unit to raise. But we couldn’t justify that against the defence strategy. We couldn’t have justified that against Dibb. We couldn’t justify that against the White thinking. So what we had to do was we had to justify it instead within this silly little scenario in North Australia, and we did that by painting a scenario where these fellows would actually go and do raids against an enemy behind these lines in the case of defence of Australia.

Now although we justified it that way, we knew that more than likely we would probably never do that. But we will in short-term contingencies, need forces that can be introduced by sea.

Gerald Tooth: So you had to tell white lies to get around the White strategy, it must have been a bit frustrating for you, was it?

Jim Wallace: Yes, essentially that is right. Now of course we did justify it against that scenario of theirs, but I mean for us it was a joke, because we knew that the real reason that we were putting forward the capability was not any expectation that they’d act within the scenario as White and Dibb proposed, but rather that they be operating, or more likely to operate, in the short term contingencies for which they’ll actually be needed.

Gerald Tooth: On the other side of the lake in Canberra, Defence academic Alan Dupont is also dismissive of the Dibb Doctrine. Speaking in his office at the Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies at the ANU, he argues that our strategy should not continue to be determined by geography, but should be global in outlook.

"'The sea-air gap is a moat around fortress Australia, so long as we defend that moat, we’re going to be safe.’
Patently that’s not the case any more "

Alan Dupont: In other words we shouldn’t just say, ‘Well here’s the moat, the sea-air gap is a moat around fortress Australia, so long as we defend that moat, we’re going to be safe.’ Patently that’s not the case any more because these threats are global in nature and they require the ADF to be deployed globally, within limits. We’re not talking about massive deployments, but we’re talking about small, highly capable forces that can be deployed sometimes a long way away from Australia.

Gerald Tooth: Until that happens though, Alan Dupont says the Australian Defence Force really isn’t capable of playing an effective role in the war against terror.

Alan Dupont: They’re not really up to it, through no fault of their own, because they are still largely configured for the threats of the 20th century rather than the threats of the 21st century. And it takes a long time to turn the ship around. I mean this is a very complex organisation in terms of resources and personnel. To actually change direction requires first of all an attitudinal change, not just by policy makers, but by senior military officers, and secondly, once those attitudes have taken hold and been embedded, then you need to think through what that means for the structure of the force, the sort of equipment it has, and that’s quite a big undertaking. I think what we’re at is the very beginnings of that process.

Gerald Tooth: An example of just how preparing for the wrong war can have serious implications in the field, is provided by Jim Wallace.

He says during the war in Afghanistan it became apparent our soldiers needed a hand-held weapon capable of stopping a tank advancing on them in the battlefield. The answer was shoulder rocket launchers that could pierce armoured vehicles.

Defence Minister Robert Hill recently promised the weapons would be bought as a priority. But the SAS has gone off to the latest war without them.

Jim Wallace says it’s a disturbing example of how the Army has been let down by current defence policy.

Jim Wallace: Now those are very necessary. I mean they were proven to be necessary in Afghanistan, and the reality is though, that our defence policy had been such that we were always told ‘Well the Army won’t be fighting against armour, it’ll only be fighting against this dribble of people which would get over the sea-air gap.’ So now we have to try and buy those. Now you can’t just buy them, say I’m going to buy them today and they’re here tomorrow. They aren’t, and I believe that certainly the figure that was given at one stage there was they won’t be in till 2007. Now by the time 2007 comes, the strategic scenario will have changed. So we’ve got to get our Defence bureaucracy to start thinking in terms of the reality that we’re going to face, not some fantasy that suits the budget for planning purposes, but in terms of reality. And the reality is that most of the things we’re likely to be involved in in the region, involve large numbers of troops, and will involve again the use of special forces. And so we have to maintain our special forces to do those specialised operations. We have to make sure that we have people to repeat a Timor-type operation in terms of our infantry forces, and not just for the initial push, but also to be able to rotate them, which is what we were not able to do; we’ve had a lot of trouble, running very close to the line in the Timor operation.

Gerald Tooth: In other words, the requirement in East Timor was for boots on the ground, but the boots were in sore need of repair. In fact that wasn’t all the Army was short of. They had to borrow camouflage suits, night vision goggles and water purification plants from the Americans. As well as that, there were serious problems with transporting what was around half our combat force to the island.

Jim Wallace says to properly conduct such an exercise the Army must be enlarged, from 26,000 to 32,000 troops. He says a bigger army would also create a bigger pool from which to draw special forces, something that would lessen the load of the SAS.

But in this new and uncertain defence policy environment, there’s competing interests. The Navy for instance is worried that a refocusing of our defence priorities will mean a reduction of the size of its war chest.

Navy Chief, Admiral Chris Ritchie voiced his concerns and made a sales pitch for a new ‘destroyer’ during a recent Parliamentary Committee hearing in Canberra.

Chris Ritchie: Australia’s contribution to the war on terror utilises existing capabilities originally acquired for defending Australia. I have a particular concern that there is a growing perception that the war on terror means that the ADF and the RAN in particular, no longer requires high technology capabilities for either the defence of Australia or to contribute to that war on terror.

Gerald Tooth: What he’s saying is he doesn’t want to see the Navy’s expensive shopping list, that was provided for in the last Defence White Paper just two years ago, to now be pruned back, depriving them of a new air warfare destroyer.

Chris Ritchie: Importantly, and most importantly, it will provide air defence to an ADF task group deploying from Australian shores in establishing itself in some other place. It will provide inter-operability, particularly in the area of command and control, a key issue for any activities in the region and as part of a coalition, any coalition.

Gerald Tooth: The Air Force has an even more expensive shopping list that includes a new fleet of fighter planes. Clearly, if there is to be a move away from the ‘defend Australia first’ doctrine, it’s going to be a hard fought change in philosophy.

The government was expected to light a beacon signalling a new direction late last month when it released its much-anticipated Strategic Defence Review. Instead though, the Minister has provided a policy statement that sits firmly on the fence between two competing theories.

The difficulty for Senator Hill is that the political imperatives of signing up with George W. Bush to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, are at odds with both the geographic and strategic imperatives of our current defence policy.

So his Strategic Defence Review speaks of the need for the capability to deal with the new global threats and in virtually the same breath, refuses to abandon the Dibb Doctrine of the Defence of Australia.

Some are criticising the paper as a hasty cover-all policy to take account of our deployment to the Gulf.

Senator Hill is certainly sending mixed messages. He’s now saying that the threat of Australia being invaded is virtually zero, a statement that tears apart the whole basis of the Dibb Doctrine.

Robert Hill: It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in this globalised era, where communications have changed so rapidly, travel, everything’s changed. I don’t see us best protecting our interests through a range of different force capabilities designed to reach out to different geographical distances. That doesn’t protect you against terrorists in any way, it doesn’t protect in relation to threats of weapons of mass destruction; it doesn’t help us in relation to dealing with regional issues.

Gerald Tooth: But having dismissed the basic premise that underlies the Dibb Doctrine, he’s not about to abandon it.

"It would be a very brave Defence Minister to abandon the sort of the ultimate capability of defending Australia. I wouldn’t take that risk."

Robert Hill: It’s also been said that it would be a very brave Defence Minister to abandon the sort of the ultimate capability of defending Australia. I wouldn’t take that risk, but what I do think is that whilst you’ve got to provide those ultimate safeguards, you’ve also got to have a force that has the capabilities that are designed to meet contemporary threats and contemporary challenges.

Gerald Tooth: The reality is that the Dibb Doctrine locks up our current defence budget in the Defence of Australia. Yet we are trying to take our place on the world stage in both the war against terror and peace-keeping actions.

Alan Dupont argues that we need to prioritise what we should be doing because ‘we can’t do all this’. He says there needs to be a debate over how the Australian Defence Force, operating within its budget, does the old job of defending our shores and the new job of fighting terrorism on both the global and domestic front.

But that discussion about this unresolved tension was buried by an incendiary debate about Australia committing to be part of America’s missile defence shield program.

As it is, we spend just over $14-billion on defence. But $14-billion can’t, it seems, buy the Army enough bullets to train with.

So while his Minister was arguing for a missile defence shield, Army Chief, Lieutenant General Peter Leahy was faced with explaining this embarrassing situation to the Parliamentary Committee. The Army boss did his best to hide the real facts behind a lot of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo.

Peter Leahy: It is clear that we have been under-consuming our ammunition chronically, and we now have the very solid basis on which to go forward and to clearly identify our requirements. I give a word of caution though: we are not looking for immediate results. Ammunition does take some time to acquire, it’s generally long-lead time offshore and we need to get it into the country, we need to do what we call an S3 on it, which is safety and suitability for service, that does take some time and our prime requirement is that this stuff is safe to train with.

Gerald Tooth: Lieutenant-General Peter Leahy.

Not surprisingly, a Defence Minister that wants a missile defence shield, and needs more bullets, is calling for a massive increase in the defence budget.

Just two years ago the Defence White Paper gave the military a significant 3% rise in funding every year for the next 10 years. Robert Hill is now saying that’s not enough.

Robert Hill: Is it going to be sufficient in this rapidly changing world and rapidly changing military technologies? I think that there will be pressure on it; I think there’s already a view that our force does extraordinarily well within the funding envelope that it has, and that in the years ahead, to keep up, let alone keep ahead, particularly in a regional sense, might require some increase in expenditure in terms of a percentage of GDP.

Gerald Tooth: Well with that in mind do you believe that we can maintain our current level of commitment overseas, particularly in Iraq, and what happens if a war in Iraq was to drag on for months?

Robert Hill: I’m not expecting a war in Iraq to be long-term, and we have shown that when we believe that our forces have done their job, they will be returned. So we brought the Special Forces back from Afghanistan. But each of these operations is costing a lot of money, and that’s why we’ve had to seek supplementation over and above the guaranteed increases in funds that were put in place a couple of years ago.

Gerald Tooth: Back at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, Professor Ross Babidge says if the Minister does manage to secure such a budget increase it would mean more flexibility. He says we could restructure the ADF to be capable of both defending Australia and taking on a more active role overseas.

"I would say it’s analogous to QANTAS saying it needs an extra 20 747 pilots, so in order to do that we’ll go and hire 250 Cessna pilots."

Ross Babidge: If you want to raise extra special force units, and want to have more SAS and Commando units, I’d also say that it’s worth looking very, very hard indeed about recruiting some of these personnel in non-traditional ways, seeing whether in fact it is possible to recruit people off the street, spend a lot more time in selecting them, and a lot more money in selecting them and in training them. And seeing what sort of product you can get that way. Frankly, if you were to suggest to me that it’s necessary to raise 2 or 3 new battalions, infantry battalions, in order to raise an extra SAS regiment by recruiting people out of those battalions, I would say it’s analogous to QANTAS saying it needs an extra 20 747 pilots, so in order to do that we’ll go and hire 250 Cessna pilots.

Gerald Tooth: Ross Babidge is in fact suggesting a radical restructure of the whole Defence Force. He says it should be modelled on the SAS regiment, where small groups of highly skilled personnel are trained to take on multiple tasks.

The result would be an Australian defence Force that’s ready to deal with the way wars will be fought in the future.

Ross Babidge: We’ll see the Army configure itself to routinely operating in much smaller units than it has in the past, with much higher levels of training, and operational and tactical autonomy. And some of these units are going to be really quite formidable, but effectively they will be rather more like Special Force units. The standard SAS patrol perhaps now is about five people. I think some of these units may be as small as that. Others may be as small as maybe a platoon size, or 15 or 30 people. That’s revolutionary. So in many operational views we may be talking about not deploying a brigade, and a brigade may be 3500, 4,000, 5,000 people, depending on how it’s configured. We may in some theatres in 20 years time be talking about deploying three or four small units, each of which may be no more than 30, depending on the nature of the operations.

Gerald Tooth: In the meantime though, the Australian Defence Force is left to pick through the tea leaves of what the new Strategic Defence Review actually means for their future.

As for the SAS, they and their families, will have to continue to bear the brunt of our commitment to be part of the ‘Coalition of the Willing in the War on Terror, wherever that may lead them.

The only definite thing is that they will have to continue doing their extremely stressful work with certainty and precision, while the defence policy that guides their lives is anything but certain or precise.

Having said that though, there are some that think our defence policy that has tied us so closely to the United States, can be summed up in one word.

John Clarke and Brian Dawe from ABC Television’s 7:30 Report.

Brian Dawe: Senator Hill, thanks for your time.

John Clarke: Good evening Brian, very nice to see you.

Brian Dawe: I wonder if you could explain Australia’s defence policy to me.

John Clarke: Yes, certainly.

Brian Dawe: Right. I mean briefly, obviously.

John Clarke: Yep. In a word?

Brian Dawe: Yes. I just want to understand exactly what our position is with regard to US foreign policy.

John Clarke: Yes, sure.

Brian Dawe: I mean, you know, let’s suggest that there’s some sort of incident happens.

John Clarke: An international incident of some significance which is deemed to be a threat to national security?

Brian Dawe: Yes, and say we get a call from America.

John Clarke: Yes.

Brian Dawe: Right. So what –

John Clarke: You want to know what we’d say?

Brian Dawe: Yes.

John Clarke: The official position of the Australian government?

Brian Dawe: Yes. I mean, you know, I don’t want you to go into detail obviously for national security reasons, but, you know.

John Clarke: No, no, it would be inappropriate and in fact unconscionable Brian, in my position for me to go into unnecessary detail. I’m speaking to you in broad outline.

Brian Dawe: Sure, I just wondered what our position was.

John Clarke: Generally speaking.

Brian Dawe: Yes, generally speaking, yes.

John Clarke: In broad outline. Yep

Brian Dawe: Yes. Right, OK, so you’re OK to start? Yes?

John Clarke: Start what, Brian?

Brian Dawe: Well I want you to explain what our defence policy is.

John Clarke: What, again? We’ve just done that.

Brian Dawe: No, no, but I want you to explain –

John Clarke: Let’s move on, let’s do some other areas –

Brian Dawe: No, no, I want you to explain what our defence policy actually is.

John Clarke: Yep.

Brian Dawe: Sorry, are you saying that our defence policy is – Yep?

John Clarke: No, our defence policy is Yup. Our foreign policy is Yep.

Brian Dawe: Right. OK.

John Clarke: Write them down, Brian, if you can’t remember them, write them down, that’s what I did.

Gerald Tooth: Background Briefing’s Co-ordinating Producer is Linda McGinnis; Research, Paul Bolger and Matt Brown in Canberra; Technical production, John Jacobs; Executive Producer is Kirsten Garrett; I’m Gerald Tooth, and you’re listening to ABC Radio National.

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