Our special forces and the next white paper
17 Oct 2013|

Australian Special Forces soldiers and Afghan National Police Special Response Team members board an American Chinook helicopter at the airfield in Tarin Kot.

To look at recent defence white papers you wouldn’t know that Australia’s special forces (SF) had been deeply involved in the 9/11 wars and have suffered half the killed in action losses. Indeed, looking across the 1994, 2000, 2009 and 2013 white papers, the post-Cold War era seemingly continues as far as our SF are concerned. The reality is starkly different. The SF have become a highly valued, well-resourced and sizeable part of the ADF force structure. For this to continue—and the strategic threat environment suggests it should—the next white paper needs to include a considered discussion of the role and future shape of our SF.

Today’s SF force structure is a response to the non-state actor, violent extremist network threat. Before the 9/11 attacks, the SF was a boutique arm, typically intended to undertake long range, long duration surveillance and reconnaissance tasks. But the demands of combat operations during the last decade have transformed the way SF are now used operationally, especially in three areas: working with friendly airpower to win wars, the tight integration of operations and intelligence and the return to favour of combat advisers.

These changes have moved the SF from being a tactical-level force to a strategic one. No longer simply undertaking tasks that complement the main land force effort, SF can now operate independently or can themselves be the main effort, supported by the conventional ‘big Army’. Crucially, while SF units are expensive to raise, train and sustain they are relatively low cost to deploy on combat operations. A government committing to conventional ‘big’ Army operations is committing to a large-scale, long-term involvement in a conflict that can be expensive in terms of blood and treasure. Using SF can be much simpler and with fewer risks, although a different strategy from that of major land force operations is needed.

Reflecting this new importance—and combat experience—in May 2003 the Government announced that the Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) would be established as a joint command, headed by a Major General and with a command status equivalent to the long-established Maritime, Land and Air Commands. SOCOMD centralised Australia’s special forces under a single headquarters, creating virtually a fourth arm of the ADF, and a second land force.

This innovation remains appropriate, as across the last decade SF rather than other land force units have generally been employed—though not without some chagrin in some quarters (PDF). No other Australian land forces were involved in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq or in Afghanistan again from September 2005 until the combat engineer-led Reconstruction Taskforce was deployed there in late-2006. In April 2007, SF returned to Afghanistan to support the Reconstruction Taskforce and have been deployed there ever since. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, our SF have been heavily engaged operationally for some ten years.

Australia’s SF are now large and operationally highly capable but to be sustained, appropriately funded and further developed to meet national needs, some high-level thinking would be helpful. This becomes even more important given that SF appears likely to be the land force element of choice in the next decade, just as it was in the last. While Australian national circumstances remain benign and major conflict unlikely, the strategic environment elsewhere, in which future SF deployments might occur, remains dynamic. Afghanistan is to some extent winding down but problems flowing from violent extremist networks have emerged elsewhere. The Defence Minister, Senator Johnston, sees the region from Pakistan to Syria as unstable and there’s both deepening concern and growing Australian interest in Africa.

Our ally is also active; America is progressively placing more emphasis on its special operations forces (SOF), using them for more roles in more places than ever before. There’s work underway planning a future global SOF network, a potentially 100,000 strong force that could include Australia. The NATO Secretary General recently spoke of deepening cooperation between our SF and NATO SOF units.

Taken together, these factors suggest that the next white paper needs to actively integrate our ‘new’ SF deeply into our defence strategy rather than simply ignoring them. In some respects it could be argued that being included in our defence strategy is unnecessary, as for the last decade the SF have demonstrably been well-guided by being part of the larger American strategy! This might have been expedient while they were considered a tactical-level asset, but our SF have grown past that now. Beyond strategy, the future relationship—in all senses—between the SF, our national defence posture and the rest of the ADF, particularly with the ‘other’ land force, also needs thinking about. Our White paper deliberations might gain from considering how NZ has made good strategic use of their rather smaller SF. In some respects—and for some similar reasons to us now—they’ve already gone down this path. It’s time to bring our SF in from the shadows and into the next White Paper.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.