An inquiry has found credible evidence of murder and wilful cover-up of war crimes in Afghanistan by Australian special forces personnel, frequently with complicity of their patrol commanders.
One of the Special Air Service subunits involved will be disbanded by the Chief of Army. A new unit, with a new name and command structure will be formed later.
The Brereton report, released on Thursday, absolves Defence's hierarchy as largely unaware of the crimes until years after the events because contemporary internal investigations were too close to the personnel or did not have the necessary skills to identify the crimes.
Major General Paul Brereton, the Assistant Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force, despaired at what his team uncovered: "We are all diminished by it."
He found 25 special forces personnel killed 39 individuals in practices known as "throwdowns" - where concealable weapons were placed on the bodies of those killed in order to photograph evidence to justify the killings.
The practice also facilitated the "blooding" of new members, an initiation exercise in which they take their first kill. The investigation also found a further two people were cruelly treated.
The investigation also found a further two people were cruelly treated.
Non-combatants were among the victims, as well as individuals classified "hors-de-combat", meaning wounded and under control prior to the murder. Some of the victims were a misidentified target, with at least one unofficial payoff made in compensation but kept off official records.
The timeline of the killings dated from 2006 to 2013. Brereton identified several reasons why it took so long for the reports to come to light. The commanders trusted their subordinates in the field and were protective of them during investigations. This was exploited by patrols to keep information to themselves. The troops complied because their patrol commanders were "demi-gods" who can make or break their careers, and the prospect of being a "lemon" was a devastating one.
The "ethical drift" also had causes ranging from inadequate or unskilled oversight to distance from Australian cultural norms, and a culture of "what happens outside the wire, stays outside the wire".
Not one person interviewed as part of the investigation was unaware or unclear that the behaviour in these incidents was unlawful.
"History teaches that the failure to comprehensively deal with allegations and indicators of breaches of Law of Armed Conflict as they begin to emerge and circulate is corrosive," Brereton wrote.
"It gives spurious allegations life, and serious allegations a degree of impunity.
"The consequences of not addressing such allegations as and when they eventually arise are measured in decades."
The inquiry was not always able to determine who was responsible for the killing, but a "code of silence" meant all present were complicit. Often superiors were explicitly identified as complicit.
Command structures were untested, inexperienced, and ill-defined in places. Three reasons were given for why Australian personnel went along with the alleged crimes.
The redacted report did not name any individuals.
Honours and awards for those involved or in command can't be revoked en masse but Brereton noted they should not in good conscience retain their distinguished service awards in respect to that command.
Australia also has obligations with respect to the war crimes as a state party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, although the individuals cannot face court in Afghanistan unless Australia agrees.
More will emerge, Brereton acknowledged, so he has recommended the establishment of a process to continue receiving reports using his inquiry's evidence and experience. He called for members of the special forces command to be recorded talking candidly and on the record about the ethical drift that took place.
Members of the special forces must have an alternative reporting line, outside their chain of command, he recommends, as well as ending the culture of using special forces as the default "force of first choice".
Special forces personnel who assisted the exposure of misconduct, or are known to have acted with propriety and probity, should be seen to prosper in their careers, he recommended, and that no action be taken against key individuals for helping bring the war crimes to light.
The chief of the defence force, Angus Campbell, said the unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners was never acceptable.
He confirmed some of the 25 people found to have acted unlawfully were still involved in the military and their roles would be reviewed.
General Campbell also said he would write to the Governor-General asking he revoke the meritorious unit citation for special operations task group who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. Individual soldiers could also be stripped of their honours, he said.
The second Special Air Service squadron, a subunit of the SASR, will also be struck off.
"It is my duty and event of my fellow chiefs to set things right," General Campbell said.
"Accountability rests with those who allegedly broke the law and with the chain of command responsible for the systemic failures involved which enabled alleged breaches to occur and go undetected."
General Campbell said some commanders embraced a "distorted warrior culture" with a "misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment's heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service".
"It is alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories conducted, lies told and prisoners killed. And once that rule was broken, so to, for some, was any further restraint," General Campbell said.
He praised the majority of special forces soldiers who did not choose to take "this unlawful path".
"No matter the stress and strain of battle, they remained true to our values and our laws. They are truly special. They upheld our culture of service over self," General Campbell said.
The long-running inquiry examined 55 alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict over a 10-year period.
In 2015, Canberra military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets began investigating problems within Australia's elite special forces unit.
She uncovered behaviours that were not consistent with the rules of engagement or the laws of armed conflict. Disturbingly, she found these behaviours had been "normalised".
In March 2016, the Chief of the Army referred these "rumours and allegations" to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force for investigation. NSW Justice Paul Brereton was appointed to oversee the inquiry.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced last week an Office of the Special Investigator would be set up to look at potentially criminal matters raised in the Brereton report.
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