The role of the Australian Defence Forces (ADFs) Special Forces (SF), such as the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), has transformed over the past 70 years; from defeating the Axis forces in WWII, to facing down the Soviet Union, to their current preoccupation of fighting the global war against terrorism.
The Australian Government has reorganised its special operations forces into the Special Operations Command to assist ‘the long war’, as it is sometimes called, in a move that signals a willingness to engage in the asymmetric warfare of the 21st century. Governments, around the world, are putting more stock in the need for SF: small, well trained and supported units operating on battlefields where the battle lines are poorly defined with enemies mixed amongst friends.
SF are sometimes referred to as ‘force multipliers’ – a recognition that these small teams of operators can achieve results comparable with much larger forces; whether by being integrated with their own military or by training and operating alongside foreign forces.
In Afghanistan, in 2001, USSF worked closely with Northern Alliance troops, coordinating attacks and calling in coalition air strikes. By employing SF in this way, the coalition was able to oust the Taliban with the minimum of ground troops whilst fostering a positive relationship with the indigenous friendly forces.
This article will provide the reader with an outline of the SF within the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth of Australia, commonly referred to as the Special Operations Command (SOCOMD), and the supporting units which provide a variety of functions, such as transport and administration.
2.0 Method of Entry
Although a non-direct entry role, selection for the SASR is open to all serving ADF personnel.
The only method of Direct Enlistment as a Commando in the Australian Army is through the Special Forces Direct Recruitment Scheme (Defence Jobs, 2014). Aspirants will be enlisted in the Infantry Corps. If a candidate is successful as a Special Forces Direct Recruitment Scheme General Entry Commando they will graduate from their Basic Military training, Infantry Initial Employment Training and Commando Initial Employment Training at the rank of Private.
In order for trained ADF personnel to be eligible to apply for Commando training they must be qualified up to 343–2 rifleman standard; applicants will not be allowed to undertake the Commando Selection and Training Course until they are qualified Infantrymen. Once the candidate has begun to undertake training, if they fail any part of the selection course they will be subject to return to unit (RTU) procedure or if from outside of the Royal Australian Infantry transferred to one of the battalions of the Royal Australian Regiment (provided Infantry Initial Employment Training has been completed). Reservists will return to their Reserve Units.
3.0 Special Operations Command
The ADFs Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) is one of three commands within the Australian Army and is led by the Special Operations Commander Australia based in Canberra. SOCOMD was established in May 2003 and united all of the ADFs special operations units into one command.
SOCOMD raises, trains, sustains (RTS) and commands special operations capability, integrating this into both Army and ADF joint operations command and control (C&C). Due to the integrated nature of the ADF the C&C arrangements for Australia’s special operations is fairly straight forward (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Australian special operations C&C arrangements (Source: Davies et al., 2014, p.13)
Special operations forces within the ADF consists of a number of elements including the well-known but secretive SASR (Figure 2) and consists of approximately 2,200 personnel (Davies et al., 2014).
With its origins in the Directorate Special Action Forces – Army in 1979, and later Headquarters Special Forces – in 2003 the Australian Government directed the establishment of a Special Operations Command. The command would be equal in status to Maritime, Land and Air Commands, in order to enhance Australia’s ability to use non-conventional war fighting means to respond to the asymmetric threat of terrorism.
The motto of SOCOMD is ‘Acies Acuta’, which is Latin for ‘The Cutting Edge’.
3.1 Special Operations Commander Australia
The Special Operations Commander Australia (SOCAUST), a Brigadier (OF-6), is the title of the professional head of the Australian special operations forces. From 2002 to 2013 the rank of SOCAUST was that of Major General (OF-7).
4.0 Organisation of SOCOMD
The organisation of SOCOMD and supporting units is outlined in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Organisation of SOCOMD and supporting units (August 2020)
A fuller description of the individual SF and supporting units can be accessed by clicking on their headings.
The Special Air Service Regiment is the first of three combat capable units within SOCOMD and is a special missions unit with unique capabilities within the ADF.
The 1st Commando Regiment is the second of three combat capable units within SOCOMD and is an integrated unit composed of regular, ex-regular and reserve soldiers. The 1st Commando Regiment’s primary function is to provide individual commando reinforcements to the Army’s full-time Commando unit, the 2nd Commando Regiment. The 1st Commando Regiment also provides specialist command and control capabilities for SOCOMD.
The 2nd Commando Regiment is the third of three combat capable units within SOCOMD. The 2nd Commando Regiment was established on 19 June 2009 when it was renamed from the 4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment (Commando).
The Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER) is a highly capable SOCOMD incidence response unit providing leading edge mobility, survivability and specialist counter Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or Explosive (CBRNE) capabilities in support of Special Operations.
The Special Operations Logistic Squadron (SOLS) provides close and general logistic support to all units within SOCOMD.
The 171st Aviation Squadron of the 6th Aviation Regiment is tasked in direct support of SOCOMD providing utility and battlefield lift capabilities. 6th Aviation Regiment remains an element of 16th Aviation Brigade.
The Australian Defence Force School of Special Operations (ADFSSO) role is to conduct individual (both Commando and SASR) SF recruitment, selection, training and education to meet force generation, trade and professional development requirements for SOCOMD.
The Australian Defence Force Parachuting School (ADFPS) is located in Nowra, NSW, at HMAS Albatross. PTS provides the ADF with training all areas of personnel parachuting.
Established on 19 November 2019, the Defence Special Operations Training and Education Centre (DSOTEC) unifies SOCOMD’s individual training and educations system under one organisation.
It is composed of the:
- ADF School of Special Operations;
- ADF Parachuting School.
Special Operations Military Working Dogs (SOMWDs) provide SOCOMD with specialist sensory, detection and protection capabilities to counter numerous threats across a range of environments – both domestically and overseas.
5.0 Roles and Tasks
The role of SOCOMD is to provide ready and relevant forces to conduct special operations across the operational continuum in a joint, combined or interagency environment.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Davies et al., 2014) suggests that SOCOMD facilities this role through a number of potential missions which can be classed as either a direct approach or an indirect approach (simplistically combat focussed and support focussed respectively). As such, SOCOMD assets undertake a number of roles, with a degree of interaction and interoperability:
- Unconventional Warfare;
- Covert reconnaissance and special reconnaissance (SR) operations;
- Precision strike (PS) and direct action (DA) operations;
- Special recovery operations (SRO);
- Close protection;
- Counter-revolutionary warfare (proxy and guerrilla warfare);
- Offensive operations in the deep battlespace;
- Battlespacepreparation in transition to war;
- Infrastructure disruption;
- Capture of subjects of interest;
- Human intelligence (HUMINT) collection;
- Defence diplomacy;
- Specialist support (other units of ADF, non-military agencies or coalition forces); and
- Special shaping missions (e.g. training of other nations’ armed forces).
6.0 Tier 1 and Tier 2 Special Forces
The SASR and Australian Commandos are sometimes referred to as ‘Tier 1’ SF units because they are the units usually tasked with direct action. Other special operations forces are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units as they, usually, fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units.
7.0 Women and Special Operations
Prior to the early 2010’s, to be eligible for service as a Commando or SASR, aspirants had to be male. All Commando and SASR positions are direct combat positions and then Australian Government policy precluded women from being employed in these positions.
However, frontline roles (e.g. infantry) were opened to women from 2013 and Commando and SASR roles were opened from October 2015 (moved forward from January 2016).
8.0 Useful Links
- Special Operations Command: http://www.army.gov.au/Who-we-are/Divisions-and-Brigades/Special-Operations-Command
- Commando Welfare Trust: http://www.commandotrust.com/units.php
Davies, A., Jennings, P. & Schreer, B. (2014) A Versatile Force: The Future of Australia’s Special Operations Capability. Barton ACT, Australia: Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Defence Jobs (2014) Commando Entry: Other Ranks (Non Technical). Available from World Wide Web: http://www.defencejobs.gov.au/army/jobs/Commando/Entry/. [Accessed: 25 September, 2014].