With the departure of former defence minister Linda Reynolds comes perhaps one last chance to objectively examine the fate of the Special Air Service Regiment, as a now infamous rather than famous tool of the state.
"Strongman" Peter Dutton's ascension to the Defence portfolio is a status quo move from a status quo government to be sure, yet he nonetheless inherits a Defence Department with a myriad of structural problems. At the top of the list of issues to address are China and allegations of war crimes against Australian personnel.
We as a nation during the last few months have proven terrifyingly incapable of introspection. Even Samantha Crompvoets, the sociologist whose work led to the Brereton inquiry, has voiced her incredulity at the backlash to the proposal to strip the Meritorious Unit Citation from special forces who served in Afghanistan, saying it would be naive to write the affair off as a case of "a few bad apples".
What to do with the SAS remains, due to the army's obstinacy and subjective notions of dishonour, one of the greatest strategic dilemmas faced by the new Defence Minister. Australia is patently past individual sanction. We are most assuredly at the point of collective negative reinforcement. In 1995 Canada disbanded its elite Airborne Regiment after a single war crime - the "Somalia Affair". When it was time for General Angus Campbell to lead, he opted for the minimalist model of surgical disbandment, recently employed in Germany. The German KSK unit in question there, however, never actually did anything. It was simply politically compromised.
In contrast, the SAS is now past the scalpel and at chemotherapy - undeployable by its own hand, both domestically and globally. The Special Air Service is hence now the Zombie Air Service - a dead regiment marching.
Arguably the father of modern Western military thought, Carl von Clausewitz, penned the truism "war is the continuation of politics by other means". He also noted the political held primacy. The Iraqi parliament, for instance, could explode if its government asked Australian special forces to help counter any ISIS-like contingency in future. Our largest allies, especially the Biden administration, will be extremely hesitant to ask Australia for ground troops while the SAS brand remains in play, fearing a replay of the staggering collateral damage it inflicted on their last war effort, which means we won't be able to service our strategic insurance premiums or gain vital combat experience.
Domestically, future governments will be hesitant when the time comes to deploy the regiment at home in kind, for should any Lindt Cafe-style complications ensue the public will no longer give them the benefit of the doubt. Not to mention the dynamic of the SASR creating its own "workspace" in terms of domestic terrorism henceforth, gestating terrorists by their mere continued existence like the snake eating its own tail. The Chinese meme warfare was just the first prod at a crippling political vulnerability we have been gifted by SOCOMD's Lord of the Flies-like Afghan war effort.
The reasoning from the Australian government and General Campbell as to why 2 Squadron SASR was singled out for disbandment alone, rather than the entire regiment, was simplified in such a way as to make sense only to a government with an agenda. Following "serious" consideration, 2 Squadron was chosen "not because it was the only squadron involved in these issues, but because it was at a time one of the squadrons involved in the allegations made". Apparently squadron COs chose straws.
And as though to prove the case of irredeemability, in protest at the prospect of even a single squadron's accountability through disbandment, recently some 65 troopers threatened to quit. Along with the 13 already removed administratively, this forms almost an entire squadron lost at once. This decision to put unit patch before flag patch was just one more example of why the regiment to this day is unaccountable, unreliable and has to go.
The problem remains deeply cultural, and shows yet again why the SAS's sense of "special" entitlement won't be mollified or redeemed. The constant stream of racial iconcography alone would have been enough in any other country to call time; the swastika and Confederate flags flying high and proud in deployments years apart, the Iron Cross on the now infamous "Das Boot" drinking pictures, should have been the last straw. But of course it wasn't even the last drink for the untouchable SAS, which suffered only the disbandment of an arbitrarily selected squadron, one already disbanded once before in its history simply because the Vietnam War ended.
The attempt at political triage, partial disbandment and citation redaction has now, as we see, largely hit a dead end. The official disbandment of 2 Squadron has been delayed pending Campbell's statement of intent on implementing the Brereton recommendations. One or two high-ranking officers falling on their sword won't do, either. The Army must rather commit to the Japanese practice of "Yubitsume", where typically Yakuza members sever their little finger as a grand gesture to make amends for a grand failure and/or grand betrayal. The army has to, for the very same reasons, cut off one of its fingers to atone. So far all it's done is trim a hangnail.
Were the SAS a unit of any other NATO or affiliate country, the regiment would have been rescinded before the report was redacted. There is no practical political way that the SAS can now remain operational with Meritorious Unit Citations for Afghanistan and its own war-crimes wing at the Australian War Memorial for widespread misconduct in that very war. From here the only play that achieves the goals accepted by the army of collective responsibility is disbandment of the entire Special Air Service Regiment.
Somehow though, last Friday, in focusing on the issue of morale in the ranks as a priori policy and assuring the ADF that the government had its back (like no one else seemed to), professional politician Dutton flipped the script, masterfully turning the army into the victim - rather than the perpetrators. The cycle of subsidising failure and betrayal with patriotism thus seems set to continue ad infinitum.
- Dr Allan Orr is a counter-terrorism and insurgency expert.