February 26, 2008

Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS): Strengthening the Alliance

"When the U.S. decided to take action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Canberra’s response was to send in the cream of Australia’s military, the SAS. Modeled on the British SAS and feared by potential enemies, little was known of Australia’s Special Forces, the Australian Government has been secretive of there operations..."

For nearly 100 years, Australia has committed its armed services in every major conflict fought by the United States. Its foreign policy makers and its people have mostly accepted that the U.S. is a force for good; a force that historically we have wanted to be associated with. Beginning in 1908 when Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin successfully invited Teddy Roosevelt to send his fleet to visit our shores through to the fighting in WW1. From when John Curtin turned our military operations over to U.S. General Douglas Macarthur during WWII, through to Vietnam and presently, Afghanistan and Iraq - some 50,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam.

Under the Anzus Treaty, Americans are committed to respond to an attack on Australia and vice versa. Following 9/11, the Howard Government invoked Anzus under clause iv which states,

“Each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”
It is interesting that the attacks in NYC, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania were outside the Pacific forum however, the wording of Anzus made little difference, there was universal intent for the two allies to assist each other. Hence, Anzus which begun as a regional pact has evolved to a global one.

When the U.S. decided to take action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Canberra’s response was to send in the cream of Australia’s military, the SAS. Modeled on the British SAS and feared by potential enemies, little was known of Australia’s Special Forces, the Australian Government has been secretive of there operations, the personal and intensive training methods; something that proved valuable in operations.

In relation to matters technology and skill levels, the U.S. views many of its allies as being somewhat backward, the exception being the U.K thus for Australia, the Afghanistan operation, known as Anaconda provided an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of its own special forces, which were up to worlds best practice, highest state of readiness, in possession of there own equipment and superbly trained. Anaconda proved just how enormously capable the Australian SAS is, and represented another defining moment in the history of the U.S. – Australia alliance; in that single operation the SAS saved the U.S. a significant loss of troops. Former U.S. Secretary of State and Special Forces officer himself, Richard Armitage and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a decorated former soldier noted that the regiment is as good as any such formations the world, said Armitage,

“The Australian SAS are shit-hot and our people love to work with them.”
Added Lieutenant-General Frank Hagenbeck in a television interview “The Australian SAS are shit-hot and our people love to work with them.” Added Lieutenant-General Frank Hagenbeck in a television interview,
The Australian SAS displayed those kinds of things that make them elite, in my view, of small-unit infantrymen throughout the world … that’s autonomy, independence, tenacity that they will never be defeated.”
The Australian SAS is a somewhat diverse soldier to that of a U.S. Special Forces unit member. Being trained for a more traditional role of patrol and long-range reconnaissance with an emphasis on independence and endurance together with core tasks including recovery, counterterrorism, and offensive operations making them highly capable when infiltrating behind enemy lines and/or to undertake covert operations for extended periods. The typical Australian SAS is a leaner mass than his American equal and is trained to endure on little for very long periods. The other notable difference relates to technology. Whilst the Australians both possess and value both Hi-tech tools and support systems, the focus is more so on the soldier, not the gear – as we shall see, this factor weighed heavily during Anaconda. It is not suggested that this makes them better, just different.

The operation took place in February 2002 and involved some two-thousand coalition soldiers. It was designed to crush the enemy, (in this case Taliban elements and al-Qaeda fighters) between converging coalition forces in Shahikot Valley. At one stage, it went horribly wrong, in order to illustrate the role of the SAS, the following description represents the basic sum and substance of the operation.

From the onset the enemy area was pounded from the air by U.S. jets, but unknown to coalition forces at the time, this proved largely ineffective due to the many tunnels and caves for the fighters to shelter in. When U.S. helicopter borne troops arrived there was some intense skirmishes, those not killed would escape through the many tracks leading to where Australian troops were waiting. The Afghan vehicles broke down and a convoy became separated, soon the enemy, being more capable and larger than expected attacked hard. A U.S. helicopter sent in to assist had to back off due to intense enemy fire and in doing so; a U.S. soldier fell from it and was immediately shot. More U.S. helicopters arrived on the scene but two were shot down resulting in the deaths of six troops and dozens wounded. A rescue mission was called off as 36 U.S. soldiers found themselves isolated, surrounded and under attack by a powerful Taliban force that greatly outnumbered them. It would not be till nightfall that a new rescue mission would be mounted.

This is where the Australian SAS mission became critical. High in the mountains above, in extremely harsh environmental conditions; conditions that we humans are not supposed to survive in, with frozen water bottles and suffering altitude sickness, the SAS patrols had entrenched themselves long before to gain an overview of the battle. With there instrumentation they could not only see the Americans in the valley, but also the enemy, who were now quickly advancing in for the kill. From there mountaintop hideaway the SAS team reported a looming disaster to the coalition command tent. Fortunately, throughout the many hours that followed the SAS called in very precise and successful American air strikes to engage the enemy thus frustrating their attempts to approach the trapped U.S. soldiers.

The operation demonstrated that technology had limitations, the hostile conditions made it difficult for U.S. spy planes to see the enemy sufficiently well to guide the bombers and the dense fog in the Shah-i-Kot valley rendered the Predator surveillance drones ineffective. That meant an SAS observation team was to play a crucial role in saving a platoon of US Rangers. The incredibly fit and highly trained SAS unit did a remarkable job, accurately directing U.S. firepower and in doing so, a human tragedy was averted.

Indeed, there were other very significant contributions. At the onset of the Iraqi invasion, with there speed, weaponry, mobility, they swept across the desert, identifying targets for the Americans and destroying Saddam’s command and control structure. Significantly, they seized the huge Al Asad airfield, the second largest airbase in Iraq and with it discovered and grounded Fifty-five Soviet built Migs and seized eight million kilogram of explosives. President Bush expressed gratitude to our leaders, as it was learned that the SAS removed the threat of Iraqi strikes on Israel having also knocked out Scud missile launchers in the desert. It is perhaps to this that former Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak referred to when commenting on the Australian SAS’s successes.

The remarkable feats may have also influenced U.S. defense policy in relation to their own special forces. Said Greg Sheridan,
“The decision announced in the 2006 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review to vastly increase U.S. Special Forces almost certainly owes something to the example of the Australians, for whom the Americans come to have the highest regard. In terms of the alliance, Iraq drew the Australian and U.S. militaries very much closer together.”
The SAS involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has fundamentally altered the relationship between the two militaries; today American commanders give the Australian contingent great operational priority. As U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General James Mattis wrote,
“We Marines would happily storm hell itself with your troops on our right flank.”
Finally, for those who see the praise as nothing short of apple-polishing, let’s envision the following act. Once again, Greg Sheridan:
“It’s a peaceful image from Afghanistan just after Anaconda. The battle is over … the dead are being mourned. A large group of U.S. soldiers is lined up at the mess for food. It’s a fairly sound rule in life not to get between a soldier and his food but this day some very strange happens. A few Australian SAS men arrive and join the food queue. Suddenly the marines recognize them and the food line breaks up, the Australians are applauded and ushered to the front of the food queue to be served first. In its way, this is as eloquent a testimony as ever you could find.”
The total current Australian commitment in Afghanistan is approximately 1000 personnel.

Reference: Sheridan Greg. 2006, 'The Partnership: The inside story of the U.S.-Australian Alliance under Bush and Howard', University of NSW Press Ltd, Sydney, pp. 40-56

Feel free to comment

31 comments:

The Liberal Lie The Conservative Truth said...

Excellent post. Thanks many times over for the strong alliance that you and your fellow Aussies have given the US over the years.'

The SAS is a great force that has prevailed in many a conflict and situation where a force of lesser abilities would have failed.

Great to have them and you on the side of the good guys!

Karen said...

Ditto to what liberal lie/conservative truth said. We love the Aussies here. Australia is a steadfast friend and are owed our thanks.

My husband, an engineer in the oil drilling biz, has worked all over the world and he has always said the same thing about working with Aussies - they are strong and tough. Most importantly, they are good people.

GrEaT sAtAn'S gIrLfRiEnD said...

It is very sweet to know that the spiritual sons of Gallipoli and El Alamein are in it to win.

Thank you is not a big enough word.

Paul Champagne said...

It's nice to see that Australia actually upholds its' treaty obligations. It is almost a joke to the NATO and SEATO countries. They just want US help if they are in trouble ... recipricosity is beyond their comprehension.

heidiannej said...

great post and i compound the sentiments of those who have posted before me. if only we had more like australia and the u.s. in the world...

WomanHonorThyself said...

what a stunning post Otto!..loved learning bout this...what honorable men!..Goooooooooooooo SAS!

American Interests.blog said...

Lib Lie Conserv Truth: On the right side yea ... my pleasure.

Karen: It terms of the alliance I see no problems in spite of our change of Government; steadfast friends we shall remain.

American Interests.blog said...

Heidianne: http://biggirlpants.typepad.com/
Hiya and how you going? Hope ya feelin lot better...Be over to check ya latest post soon...
Thanks for coming around...

Angel: Thanks for reading and thanks also for your much needed post about Sderot.

TRUTH-PAIN said...

Otto,
Other than the days after your country (Alan Bond) snatched the America's Cup out from under Dennis Conner's keel (1983 to those of you unfamiliar with THAT magnificent event),... other than that hateful, forgettable day,.... I've always been an Aussie at heart. What a great post and summary of your fighting forces.
You guys ever consider being our 51st state? :-)

American Interests.blog said...

Great Satans Girl: ..."spiritual sons of Gallipoli and El Alamein..." petitioning legends of our glorious past, thanks.

Paul Chanpagne:
http://blogwayboys.blogspot.com/

You raise NATO, I am considering a post on there current failings .. thanks for coming by...

American Interests.blog said...

TP: Hey who can forget John (winged keel) Bertrand, Australia II crossing the line ahead of, Dennis (Mr Americas Cup) Conners Liberty...we were all glued to our cathode ray tubes...Thanks for the comments

Aurora said...

Otto, great post. You're right. We don't hear much about what the military are doing. I'm proud to be half Australian and half American and I think the two countries have so much in common. I just hope the current government keeps up that link as John Howard did.

American Interests.blog said...

aurora: John Howard was a 100% ally, my prediction is that Rudd will be a 80% ally at best, we shall see...

Jenn of the Jungle said...

Fantastic post.

MK said...

What every one else said Otto, well done and thanks.

It's sad that we will never get to hear what they have done on the battle field but their reputation speaks for itself i think.

SAS had a well earned reputation around the world, i remember reading a long time ago that when the enemy learned that the SAS were coming for them, they were all but ready to raise the white flag.

The way i see our role in fighting alongside the Americans is like this, against the enemy their combined strength is like a juggernaut of solid steel, while the SAS is like a razor sharp scalpel that can snick deep into the enemy and cut his vital arteries.

Last word on our SAS, thank the Lord they're on our side.

Tapline said...

Otto, Another outstannding post. I hadn't realized the number of troops Australia hadin Afgan.....But they are a tribute to your great Country.....stay well....

Jeff said...

Very nice read, Otto. Australia needs to accept that a much bigger military is in the cards for their future. The Arch of Instability combined with Australia's obligations to assist with worldwide stability operations, is not going to allow such a small force to be effective for very much longer.

With that said, God bless the Australians! A true ally.

American Interests.blog said...

Jeff: Correct, it remains to be seen if our present Gov't will adequately commit to defense spending. A larger force seems necessary..

American Interests.blog said...

mk and tap: Thanks for making your views known.

Brian, aka Nanoc, aka Norski said...

Thanks for detailing the SAS's contributions to the War on Terror. Americans, and American leaders, can be an arrogant bunch at time.

However, this American is profoundly glad to have had Australia's brains and brawn with us, along with a few dozen other nations, when America was "going it alone" a few years ago.

American Interests.blog said...

Thank you Brian...

aussie..bloke said...

Our force grows every year, the australian government are among the biggest spenders..in fact i think youll find..if you research, we are the biggest funded military "per capita", and the returned soldiers, in my opinion, are very well accomadated. A thank you should be sent to the people helping fund such a military, you the tax payer.

AI said...

aussie...bloke: Thanks for coming by...

Liam said...

were glad to help youse cause we know u would do the same for us great post

AUzza said...

AN ANZAC Day interview on Australian 60 minutes with SAS members and US commanders discussing Operation Anaconda and Iraq:
A story of unsung heroes. A dangerous mission behind enemy lines; Australian SAS troops under fire. These operations are usually kept secret — the SAS is, by its very nature, a covert force.

Transcript

ROSS COULTHART: Afghanistan 2002, six months after September 11.And Australia is very much a part of the coalition of the willing. Was there ever a moment where you went, "What in God's name am I doing here?"

MARTIN WALLACE, SAS SIGNALMAN: Ah, no, no, you certainly realise you're there for love, not money. But I wouldn't have wished it on anyone else, put it that way.

ROSS COULTHART: This is a rare insight into the SAS. Its commanders have let us meet Martin Wallace and to hear his story of one of the most hard-fought battles in Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda. It was a defining battle?

MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, it was the first time we took it to the hardline al-Qa'ida, who weren't prepared to flee or run and hide in Pakistan. These guys were definitely committed and they were there to fight to the death, and we accommodated them, yeah.

LT COL ROWAN TINK, SAS COMMANDER: We learnt two or three days into Operation Anaconda that the al-Qa'ida had moved their families and children out of the valley to safer areas towards the Pakistan boarder.

ROSS COULTHART: So they were getting ready for a fight.

ROWAN TINK: There was no doubt that they were prepared to fight.

ROSS COULTHART: And to fight hard. Anaconda was meant to be a two-day operation to take out a major al-Qa'ida stronghold. But very quickly, it went very wrong. Rowan Tink was the SAS commander in Afghanistan.

ROWAN TINK: They were engaged by mortars, RPGs, heavy machine-guns, light machine-guns — basically everything that was available in the armoury. We later learnt that they'd actually landed and moved into the vicinity of the al-Qa'ida command post.

MARTIN WALLACE: We landed in the middle of a valley and then, off to my right shoulder, I noticed a flash and I recognised it as danger, so we started running for cover. There was an RPG round that was fired at us ...

ROSS COULTHART: That's a rocket-propelled grenade ...

MARTIN WALLACE: Correct, yeah, from about 300m away. The round hit the ground and slid through the mud, basically, chasing us up the hill as we ran from it. It just lay there steaming in the ground as we scrambled for cover.

ROSS COULTHART: Wallace and another Australian were part of an 82-man team that was ambushed.

MARTIN WALLACE: I was just lying there watching, them out of the corner of my eye, and about five or six of them disappeared in a puff of grey smoke. It was basically a direct hit on the American mortar from the al-Qa'ida mortar.

ROSS COULTHART: How badly injured were those men?

MARTIN WALLACE: We had guys with chest injuries, there was open fractures, basically fragmentation wounds, some of them over, you know, their entire bodies.

ROWAN TINK: He saw that there was a need there to go out and pull some of these guys to safety and dress their wounds and he put himself in harm's way. Under fire, moved out, collected some of these wounded and dragged them back into safety in this ditch that they were in.

AUzza said...

cont'd:

ROSS COULTHART: In the panic of the opening firefight, the American soldiers had dropped their backpacks. The Australians had kept theirs.

MARTIN WALLACE: We didn't have as far to go for cover, so I didn't bother dropping my pack, just ran for cover. As a result, I maintained my communications capability.

ROSS COULTHART: If you hadn't been able to call in air support, what would have happened?

MARTIN WALLACE: I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you today.

ROSS COULTHART: Tell me about that conversation you had when you first got the radio up and working?

MARTIN WALLACE: I asked Clint if he wanted me to establish communications. He said yep, so I ripped out my antenna. First call, I got back into our headquarters at Bagram and told them we were in a bit of a shit-fight. I was later told by the young fellow who was on the radio one of the other officers behind was asking what I meant by a 'shit-fight'.

ROSS COULTHART: With 30 Americans injured, Wallace called in an air strike on the al-Qa'ida position. A B-52 bomber was brought in.

MARTIN WALLACE: I was lying on my back, watching the B-52 come overhead, and you could see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs as they started to fall. You're just hoping that they're going to be on target and not on your position. When you're dropping things from 30,000 feet and they're not laser-guided then, yeah, there's definitely a recipe for disaster.

ROSS COULTHART: And what happened when they did hit?

MARTIN WALLACE: When they hit, you get the initial shock wave, which moves both you and the earth, and then you get the noise that follows and then all the shrapnel comes sniffling in overhead.

ROSS COULTHART: But even after that, were there still al-Qa'ida fighting? Were there still people shooting at you?

MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, certainly. I think it took them a little bit to regroup, maybe 15 or 20 minutes, but then they started putting more mortar rounds and small arms fire down into us. I was just thinking of how I'm going to get out of here and how I'm not going to bloody die in this valley.

ROSS COULTHART: Did you have your doubts?

MARTIN WALLACE: Yeah, certainly. I thought we were done for on many occasions during the day, yeah.

AUzza said...

cont'd 2:
ROSS COULTHART: Apache attack helicopters were called in to try and save the men on the ground.

MARTIN WALLACE: The entire hillside basically opened up with small arms fire and that was the last we saw of the Apaches.

ROSS COULTHART: Finally, 18 hours after the battle began, help arrived. Guided by Wallace, the Americans sent in an AC-130 gun ship, allowing helicopters to rescue the men and return them to their base. But Operation Anaconda was far from over.

TROOPER JOHN, SAS: Quite a few of us are Queenslanders and had never seen snow before until we went to Afghanistan. And the novelty wore off after about five minutes.

ROSS COULTHART: On day two, fog left predator surveillance planes all but useless. On a rugged Afghani mountainside, a platoon of US troops were trapped and under attack after their chopper had crashed. From a neighbouring ridge, an SAS squad watched the disaster unfold.

LT GENERAL FRANK HAGENBECK, COALITION COMMANDER: You had to have someone there on the ground that could see and hear and smell and pick up the sense of the battlefield, of what was going on, and we were very much dependent upon the Aussies, certainly in that part of the battlefield.

ROSS COULTHART: Lieutenant General Hagenbeck commanded the coalition forces in Afghanistan.

FRANK HAGENBECK: I would tell you, I would not have wanted to do that operation without the Australian SAS folks on that ridge slide. I mean, they made it happen that day.

ROSS COULTHART: The Australians coordinated the coalition attack and the eventual rescue operation. Seven Americans lost their lives, but the rest were in no doubt why they got out alive.

TROOPER JOHN: It was almost embarrassing to the point where the Americans were, you know, so glad of our help. You know, may go to a meal line at a mess — there might be 100 people in front of you, all Americans — and all of a sudden they'd step aside, maybe even applaud, push you to the front of the line. I think we were taken a bit aback by it and a bit embarrassed.

AUzza said...

cont'd 3
ROSS COULTHART: The Australian SAS earned the admiration of the Americans in Afghanistan, but it was in Iraq where their role would be pivotal. With the bulk of the coalition forces advancing from the south, it fell upon the SAS to accept the difficult and dangerous task of helping to secure the west of the country. Iraq's western desert and the SAS have infiltrated the country. As soon as the order to invade was given, these elite Australian troops were among the first to answer the call.

MAJOR PAUL: It came from the PM and also in conjunction with the President of the US. I indicated to the boss that we were ready to go and he said, "You have a green light", and off we went. I replied, "No worries, boss, who dares wins, we'll see you when it's all over."

ROSS COULTHART: We know him only as Major Paul, the man who led 80 SAS troops on their mission to secure key strategic sites in the deserts of western Iraq.

MAJOR PAUL: We were invading a country which hadn't been done since Gallipoli for Australia, and, you know, the adrenaline was very high.

ROSS COULTHART: Within an hour, the SAS were under enemy fire.

CAPTAIN QUENTIN, SAS: They were operating in sports utility vehicles with large machine-guns mounted in the rear tray, and on observing our location, they deployed dismounts, 8-10 in each vehicle, to the left or right of the vehicles and began engaging us with heavy machine-gun fire, small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

ROSS COULTHART: One soldier would later earn a bravery medal using shoulder-launched missiles to destroy Iraqi vehicles.

CAPTAIN QUENTIN: Both sides in this particular instance actually stopped shooting to watch this rocket, this javelin cruise through the air, and that actually engaged a moving vehicle at high speeds, moving away from us and I think that changed the battlefield.

TROOPER JOHN: It was a little bit daunting seeing so many enemy coming towards us, but when we saw how effective our weapons systems were in neutralising their vehicles, and you could actually physically see the shock on the enemy's faces.

AUzza said...

cont'd 4:\
ROSS COULTHART: One of the first tasks for the SAS was securing this heavily guarded cement factory, vital for rebuilding Iraq. Mindful of the civilian casualties that would result from an all-out attack, the Australians came up with a simple but ingenious plan.

MAJOR PAUL: We requested that an aircraft, an F-14, come and do a low fly in order to break the sound barrier. The effect of this was a sonic boom, a massive explosion. We actually thought it had detonated other munitions inside the facility. It wasn't the case. It had broken several windows. And the result was that people came running out with their arms up.

ROSS COULTHART: Where did you get that idea from?

MAJOR PAUL: I remember, I think before I joined the army, with the Australian Air Force broke the sound barrier by mistake and broke a lot of greenhouses in SA.

ROSS COULTHART: The SAS would then go on to take the Al Asad Military Air Base, capturing 57 warplanes and finding nearly eight million kilograms of explosives. Within days of crossing the border, the SAS and their coalition counterparts had secured the entire western desert.

FRANK HAGENBECK: The Australian SAS displayed those kinds of things that make them the elite, in my view, of small-unit infantrymen throughout the world. And that's an autonomy, independence, tenacity that they will never ever be defeated.

ROSS COULTHART: Is it a concern in your mind that, because of Australia's high-profile role in essentially an invasion of a Middle Eastern country to topple Saddam Hussein — have we exposed ourself more to the possibilities of terrorism on Australian soil, or against Australian citizens overseas?

LT COL RICK, SAS: I'm not in a position to comment on that, but some intelligence person might.

ROSS COULTHART: I suppose it matters to the extent that you're the commanding officer of the regiment that would have to deal with it in the event of a terrorist attack. Is that something that factors into your thinking?

LT COL RICK: We remain prepared to respond to a wide range of scenarios that might threaten Australia's national security and that's our business, that's what we're here to do. We remain highly trained and ready to do that.

ROSS COULTHART: The SAS was victorious in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the war against terror continues and inevitably, our elite Australian troops will face more battles, more battles like Operation Anaconda. The obvious question is — who won?

MARTIN WALLACE: Well, with this particular battle, we won. It took us a little bit longer than expected, but in the larger overall global war against terror, I'd say it's still inconclusive and there's a lot of work yet to be done, a lot of unfinished business.

Otto Marasco American Interests said...

Thanks for the input AUzza ... Do you blog? How did you come acroos this post? Otto

Anonymous said...

As much as I love SASR and admire the guys that I have worked with in the past from SASR dont forget that they are not the only Australian Special Forces serving in Afghanistan now and to have served in Iraq. 4RAR served in Iraq alongside (and occassionally ahead of) SASR and its successor 2 Commando continues to serve in Afghanistan.

Regards