With the war in Afghanistan and operational tempo set to increase with the Australian government’s recommitment, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Smethurst of the Special Air Service Regiment understood that this model was simply outdated and needed to change. Under his guidance, courses such as ACQB were subsequently integrated into the Commando Reinforcement Training Cycle (CRTC), which meant that every soldier who passed the Commando Selection and Training Course (CSTC) and subsequent CRTC would enter the unit at a much higher standard than those previously.
This increased level of individual proficiencies meant that the unit was now able to introduce a rotation system where companies could rotate on- and off-team without having to deal with any kind of soldier training deficits. It also meant that the entire unit could get busy building its offensive strike and direct action (DA) role, which would ultimately prove to be one of the Regiment’s most superlative capabilities. Under this contemporary arrangement, every operator was set to gain an exceptional amount of experience across the operational continuum and through the diverse responsibilities that the unit was now tasked with.
These changes saw Bravo Commando Company, with whom I deployed in 2007, become the first to send over a full ACQB-qualified company of operators. This allowed for the paradigm to shift from primarily vehicle-based patrols and QRF operations to a more offensive deliberate action (DA) strike role. Our targeting during this transitional phase was predominantly historical in context. However, it set the foundation for the more time-sensitive missions to come.
The lack of air assets meant that our historical targeting was a byproduct of our limitations, as our FE operated exclusively as a ground assault force (GAF). Essentially, we would drive our convoy into areas known to be infested with insurgents in order to generate some kind of a response, and then generate a counter response. For those insurgents unbalanced enough to want to stir up the 40-vehicle deep hornet’s nest bristling with Australian operators itching for a gunfight, they were certainly not disappointed.
For other Taliban commanders who had left a trail of intelligence regarding the villages and compounds that they frequented, the company, ready to put their new skills to good use, would implement the obligatory 2 a.m. “hard knock,” keeping Afghan door and hinge makers in business all over Uruzgan Province.
Although we always made the best of our operating environment despite our limitations, historical targeting almost always provided nothing more than ACQB practice for the company. Even though intelligence would dictate that, say, a medium-value individual (MVI) had been frequenting an area or particular compound over a period of time, this obviously held no guarantee that they were going to be there when the company chose to plan for a deliberate action (DA).
Even on subsequent deployments where time-sensitive targeting indicated that a MVI was actually in a specific compound when we launched in UH-60s, it still in no way guaranteed that they were going to be there when we were wheels-down on target. Just like helicopters, which not only have a noise signature and spotters watching their every move from Tarin Kot Airfield, the dust and noise signature that a SOTG GAF would generate was unmistakable.
Anyone who has had the pleasure of driving through the Afghan countryside on unsealed roads would be extremely familiar with the telltale signs that a military convoy produces. Similarly, the spotter network through Uruzgan and neighbouring provinces meant that the insurgent network within our intended target area was well informed of our approach in the days leading up to our arrival.
The MO of driving by day and DA’ing by night was ultimately limited by the loss of one of the key tenets of special forces operations—the element of surprise. Infils would be from a vehicle drop-off (VDO) location, which was almost always outside of audible range from the target. This meant 15+ km (9.3+ miles) infils over incredibly unforgiving terrain night after night, week after week, month after month. Even though we would insert by foot a considerable distance from our VDO, hitting dry holes became a common and frustrating occurrence.
The only thing that this limitation affected, however, was the targeting process of specific individuals. Our unit was involved in countless gunfights and battles that lasted from hours to days. We achieved enormous amounts of tactical and strategic success throughout our areas of operation (AO). Members of the unit who were deployed on these earlier rotations have been awarded a large number of gallantry and distinguished service medals based on the performance and rigour that these early conditions demanded.
The achievements of the Regiment and its personnel during these early stages earned domestic and international acclaim, which ultimately saw us go from strength to strength. During this time, we also had the pleasure of working either as an entire FE or through individual exchanges with the Green Berets, SEALs, CSOR, JTF2, Viper, 1NZSAS, Rangers, DEVGRU, British SAS and SBS, USMC, USAF, United States Army, and a number of other SF and non-SF units from around the world in a variety of different contexts.
As our SOTG rotations continued, the Netherlands withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 2010. The U.S. filled this gap, which brought with it an incredible transformation, including an increase in air assets based permanently out of Tarin Kot. The lack of dedicated helicopters for our FE had long been recognized as our most significant limitation, but with the U.S. taking over the Dutch responsibility in Uruzgan Province and Multi-National Base Tarin Kot (MNB-TK), this was shaping up to be a game changer for us.
(All images courtesy of the Australian Defence Force unless otherwise stated.)