21 May SAS still a place for the best of the best
Senator James Paterson – The Australian – Friday 21 May 2021
The geopolitical climate we confront, identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, will demand as least as much, if not more, of our special forces as the past decade has.
The update identified the rising risk of state-on-state conflict in our region, the Indo-Pacific, and the increasing use of greyzone tactics that occur below the threshold of war but still threaten our national interests, such as cyber attacks, covert influence and economic coercion.
The 2020 Force Structure Plan observed that special forces capability will be essential to meet these challenges.
This week I spent a few days in Perth visiting the Special Air Services Regiment with Assistant Defence Minister and former SASR captain Andrew Hastie. We met current command at Campbell Barracks in Swanbourne and observed candidates in the final hours of the selection course at their training facility in Bindoon.
The purpose of the visit was to see first hand the most important component of building special forces capacity — recruitment and selection — and to hear direct from those in the field about the change process under way at the regiment.
It is not difficult to envisage the tasks the SAS will be asked to perform in responding to regional instability, countering below-thethreshold coercion and interference from foreign state actors and navigating operationally sensitive and increasingly complex environments. The SASR has a long history of integration and co-operation with our intelligence and security agencies.
It acts as a force multiplier, enabling our key agencies to complete tasks they would be unable to do alone. With state-of-the-art facilities opened at Swanbourne in 2018, the most robust recruitment and training regime in the Australian Defence Force and a location on the Indian Ocean adjacent to and in similar time zones as key regional players, the regiment is well-placed to expand this role in the future.
The young people I observed this week aspiring to serve at the highest level would make any Australian proud. They were dedicated, professional and above all else patriotic and driven to serve their country in the most meaningful way they can.
The selection course they put themselves through to qualify to serve in the SAS can be described only as gruelling. Across 21 days they test the absolute limits of human endurance and resilience.
It is common for only 20 per cent of candidates to complete the course — from a cohort that already has served several years elsewhere in the ADF and self-selected for the most demanding role available.
It is not unusual for candidates to subject themselves to this multiple times to achieve their dream of serving in the SAS.
It was humbling to witness those few remaining candidates from this year’s selection course, worn down by days with little sustenance or sleep, haul a .50 calibre machinegun weighing more than 50kg along with their heavy packs through rough scrub under simulated mortar fire, among many other physically and mentally punishing tasks.
The candidates are mostly too young to have served in Afghanistan. In that they are like the overwhelming majority of the unit they hope to join, more than 80 per cent of whom were not deployed to Australia’s longest conflict as part of the special operations task group.
Those remaining in active service in the regiment who did serve in Afghanistan with the task group did so without sanction and have weathered years of collective criticism. That service was not just long but incredibly high-tempo for all our special forces, who were deployed more frequently than their peers from our larger allies and partners such as the US.
It is these officers and soldiers we have tasked to implement the many recommendations arising out of the reports and inquiries into alleged misconduct. We ask them to do so while also getting on with recruiting and training the next generation of operators.
There has been a lot written and said about the Special Air Services Regiment in recent years, much of it critical. Australians were shocked by the allegations in the Afghanistan inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force that war crimes might have been committed by our special forces. We are entitled to expect that when our men and women in uniform are deployed in our name overseas that they will conduct themselves professionally, lawfully and consistent with Australian values.
It is appropriate that the government has established the Office of the Special Investigator to test whether the conduct disclosed in the report by Major General Paul Brereton meets a criminal threshold. And if they do, the alleged perpetrators of these acts will have their day in court.
We owe nothing less to the courageous members of the SAS who have come forward to call out any behaviour that they believe does not meet the high standards to which they hold themselves.
It is vitally important that as we address these issues as a nation we do not lose sight of two crucial points. First, that the vast majority of the 3000 task group operators who served in Afghanistan did so honourably. And, second, that the SAS has an indispensably important role to play in protecting Australia’s sovereignty, democracy and freedom in this age of rising authoritarianism.
Australians can have confidence their SAS, despite the criticism levelled at it, will be ready the next time it is called on, as it has been so many times since it was founded in 1957.
Senator James Paterson is chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.