Enforcers at the sharp end
- From: The Australian
- October 11, 2010
UNDER a night sky, assault boats packed with black-clad commandos slip into the wake of the "hijacked" bulk carrier off the NSW south coast.
The nimble 11m rigid-hull inflatable boats have been shadowing the 80,000 tonne vessel for hours but now close in fast. Night-vision goggles activated, a commando hoists a telescoping pole to attach a wire ladder to the ship's deck rail.
Weighed down by weapons, protective armour and specialised equipment including bolt cutters and hi-tech cutting torches, the special forces soldiers scramble from the boats, quickly ascending the ship's side.Within minutes the ship is secured.
The soldiers from the 2nd Commando Regiment, the Australian Defence Force's largest special forces unit, have prevented a potentially devastating terrorist attack - and a radioactive dirty bomb has been rendered safe for removal. After the surviving "terrorists" are handed over to police, the commandos head back to base: mission accomplished.
"Just another day at the office," says petty officer and clearance diver J, a member of the commando team.
The storming of the bulk carrier was an exercise. The Australian was given a rare glimpse into the secret world of the nation's special forces commandos. For operational security reasons I am unable to describe methods and tactics used to seize the ship, except that it involved overwhelming surprise and crushing force.
As with all commando training, it is designed to be as realistic as possible, so soldiers do get hurt.
Less well known than the Special Air Service Regiment, 2nd Commando Regiment, based at Holsworthy, southwest of Sydney, represents the enforcement end of Australia's special operations command.
"This unit solves complex problems," is how the regiment's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel I, describes his unit's role. Like all special forces personnel, he has protected identity status and cannot be named. Aged 35, he represents a new generation of ADF officer cadre. He also holds two MBAs and a BA, and was top of the class as a student at the US Marine Corps War College.
Along with the SAS, 2 Commando serves as the nation's first responders in times of a national security crisis involving a terrorist threat. As a rough rule, SAS operators provide the key intelligence capability while 2 Commando provide enforcement.
"Our role is to provide a resolution capability that would be required in circumstances where the state jurisdiction can't resolve the crisis with its own assets.
"It's a no-fail mission set for this unit. We're absolutely bound to achieving that task and on any given time we've got that response option as one of the highest priorities in the unit," says "I".
The ship exercise capped a busy day and night for the regiment's commanding officer. Before overseeing the night-time boarding of the ore carrier - observed from a command helicopter - he was at a jungle training centre in northern Queensland.
As the commando regiment prepares to meet terrorist threats to Australia, Defence's role in Afghanistan is coming under increased scrutiny. For example, three special forces soldiers face a court martial over an incident in which six Afghan civilians were killed, including five children.
That tragic event stands in contrast to the widespread success achieved in Afghanistan since 2005 by the Special Operations Task Group involving some of the ADF's most highly trained soldiers.
Details of missions remain classified but The Australian can reveal a key element of the work of SOTG has been dismantling the Taliban's command and control networks, including killing senior insurgent leaders.
It has been successful, US chief of naval operations Admiral Gary Roughead said on a recent visit to Canberra.
"There is no question our special operations forces are a significant part of the [counterinsurgency] efforts there. It's a key part of the total strategy we have in play. I would say the effects our [special] forces have had on the insurgent leadership have been quite successful," Roughead says.
In Oruzgan, commando-led special operations have had a "devastating and dramatic impact" on the insurgents' command and control networks".
"They have limited the insurgents' ability to co-ordinate operations locally, as well as having an impact on their ability to recruit local fighters to their cause," Lt Col I says.
Described as neutralisation, targeted killings of insurgent leaders represent the most demanding, challenging and controversial aspect of commando operations. The operations, all officially and legally sanctioned, have had a devastating impact on Taliban command networks and underline the grim realities of counterinsurgency operations.
Unlike the commandos, the Taliban are not signatories to the Geneva Conventions and routinely execute prisoners, whether pro-government Afghans, aid workers, journalists or soldiers.
Equally important for special forces is the need to develop strong community links with tribal leaders through village-level consultations (shura) or helping with medical services.
Developing and maintaining a relationship with ordinary Afghans is crucial to securing the peace in Oruzgan, and core business for 2nd Commando Regiment. And then there are the patrols. Using tactics that hark back to their World War II predecessors, long-range patrols range far outside the security of the main military base at Tarin Kowt.
"We're very much focused on patrolling and dominating an area for an indeterminable period, then moving on.
"Our methods see us deployed outside the wire for a very, very, long duration," Lt Col I says.
This minimises the risk of encountering roadside bombs, responsible for the majority of battlefield casualties among the NATO-led coalition troops.
"If you are going in and out of your patrol base all the time, you are more vulnerable to IEDs [improvised explosive devices], so how do you defeat that?
"Instead of going in and out 15 times a month, go out once and reduce the risk threshold by a factor of 14," he says.
Patrols are hard on the soldiers but harder on vehicles.
During his deployment to Afghanistan as commander of a reinforced commando company, 14 gearboxes were replaced among the fleet of commando Land Rovers.
"The gearboxes and instruction manuals would arrive by helicopter and we'd fix them right then and there in the field," he says.
That can-do attitude highlights another commando trait increasingly common in the civilian workforce: multi-skilling.
The 2nd Commando Regiment's ranks are filled with a range of professionals, including blue-collar tradesmen, professional athletes, a biochemist, medical doctors and commercial pilots.
"We've got a couple of pilots, one who used to fly for Qantas who is a corporal now.
"From the big end of town we've got a lawyer who is a corporal, television personalities and some former first-grade National Rugby League players," Lt Col I says.
The regiment also benefits from the language skills of first-generation migrants, ranging from native Russian-speakers from the Baltic states to fluent Mandarin speakers.
Language and cultural familiarisation are a compulsory part of the training for the soldiers, whose ages range from the mid-20s to the early 40s.
"My tax is done by one of my soldiers - he's an accountant and I haven't been arrested yet, so I figure he's doing a good job.
"The vast pool of talented people we attract continues to surprise me," Lt Col I says.
Commando training is intense and the tempo does not stop once a soldier earns the Sherwood green beret. He will undergo a further two years of repetitive and gruelling counter-terrorism exercises and drills such as storming ships at sea.
On completion of the selection course, candidates must pass a host of advanced specialist training courses ranging from heavy weapons, close personal protection and parachuting to close-quarter fighting and urban operations.
Since 2001 the 2nd Commando Regiment is the only special forces unit in the world that can deploy by sea or air 150 soldiers - a reinforced self-supporting company - ready to fight.
Most other special forces units, including the SAS, operate at no more than platoon strength.
With a dropout rate averaging 60 to 70 per cent, training is designed to ensure only the fittest and most motivated soldiers make it.
It is training that pays off.
Since 2001, soldiers from 2 Commando Regiment have been awarded 32 battlefield honours for their work in Afghanistan, more than any other unit in the Australian Army.
That includes six Distinguished Service Crosses, 11 Distinguished Service Medals, seven Medals of Gallantry, and two Stars of Gallantry.
But operations come at a high cost: six commandos killed in action since 2007, one killed during pre-deployment training and more than 40 wounded in action.
"Unfortunately in this business, there is a risk and the realisation that people can, and indeed do, get killed.
"Service and sacrifice, the commitment to continue to serve through adversity is what we look for in these guys. Tragedies only increase our resolve," Lt Col I says.
But the regiment is careful to support its wounded.
"It's not uncommon to see on our courses a guy out there giving instructions while in a wheelchair, or he's got crutches.
"The focus is always getting these guys back to recovery and as close to 100 per cent as possible," he says.
Since 2003, about 95 per cent of the regiment's soldiers wounded in action have returned to work, and that includes amputees.
"We're morally obliged to do that and they can stay here as long as they like - they've paid a big price and we've asked them to do these things."
Commandos have earned respect from their Taliban enemy.
"It's fair to say now he has a more than healthy respect for this unit - and specific to this unit there is an understanding by the Taliban that if they get involved in a contest, they will come out the worse for wear," Lt-Col I says.