One of the finest experiences in combat is undoubtedly conducting joint operations with partner nations. There is something both ancient and instinctually primitive behind the notion of kinspeople joining forces to battle a common enemy. It adds to the already electric and unmistakable dynamic of war through a mutual respect and reciprocal admiration of each other’s willingness to sacrifice for the same cause.
Whether formal armies or informal militias, history is littered with examples of people from all over the world coming together in order to fight for and defend something they believe is worth dying for. As Edmund Burke said: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” War has been a part of the human race for thousands of years, and the 19th and 20th centuries have certainly lived up to history’s expectation. Even the 300 years preceding the 19th only saw a staggering 30 years of peace between the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries combined. As Michael Neiberg so prudently states, “Man in his natural state was rarely, if ever, peaceful.”
Having completed three Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) rotations to Afghanistan, working with and being around foreign militaries became a commonplace occurrence. Whether it was eating in the DFAC at Camp Doha in Kuwait, utilizing the air assets of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) out of Tarin Kot, or conducting partnered operations with whichever United States Special Operations Forces (SOF) was based out of FOB Ripley, the integration and utilization of coalition forces became integral to our task group’s effectiveness and mission success.
Australian SOF and Helicopters in Afghanistan: Joint Operations
One of the most enduring and successful partnerships that I had the privilege of being a part of began during my third SOTG deployment to Afghanistan. It was when the 2nd Commando Regiment officially partnered with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Foreign-Deployed Advisory Support Team (DEA FAST) to conduct joint counter-narcotics operations throughout southern Afghanistan. This relationship was developed in 2011 and was sustained until our unit’s last SOTG rotation at the end of 2013. It drove us to a level of maturation that was inextricably linked to both their level of expertise as well as the dedicated air assets that the Department of State (DoS) contractors and the DEA brought to the table.
Their Mil Mi-17 Russian-built helicopters fully enabled our force element (FE) and allowed us to conduct the types of operations befitting a world-class special operations unit. This realization was not unexpected, as the lack of dedicated air assets had long been recognized as our FE’s most critical shortfall. Our unit’s continual rotation cycle to Afghanistan allowed us to witness the SOTG’s modus operandi (MO) evolve from our earlier rotations and predominantly ground force operations to the incremental introduction of air assets and, eventually, our absolute reliance on them.
Even though Australia contributed one of the largest special operations forces of any NATO or non-NATO troop contributor to the War in Afghanistan, there were certain limitations which detracted from the overall effect that the SOTG could have achieved had these hindrances not existed. Without a doubt, our biggest drawback was a lack of dedicated airframes to support the SOTG’s counter-insurgency and counter-leadership operations.
Whilst our country’s initial CH-47 Chinook helicopter detachment, which operated out of Kandahar Air Field as Task Group 633.7, was deployed to primarily support the Special Forces Task Group (the SFTF was the predecessor to the SOTG). The detachment was retasked in 2006 to support the wider NATO effort in the war. The retasking coincided with Australia’s initial withdrawal of the SFTF, which made sense as the aircraft and crews could still provide support to the war even though the government believed that the role of our special operations forces was over.
In 2007, Afghanistan’s government faced a resurgent and focused Taliban resistance that ultimately saw Prime Minister John Howard announce that another commitment of special forces soldiers, this time under the designation of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), would be redeployed to Uruzgan Province. Even though the CH-47D and its 110 personnel from the 5th Aviation Regiment had already been retasked, the priority of the detachment was promised to be “given to Australian activities” above all else.
In all of my experience deploying to Afghanistan, however, this was far from reality. The aircraft were placed in a pool of coalition air assets which needed to be ‘bid’ on by competing task groups for mission allocation. Operations and potential effect would essentially be weighed, with air assets being allocated to those considered the most important. Even though our unit comprised the bulk of Australia’s special operations commitment to Afghanistan, I can count the number of times I boarded an Australian CH-47D over my three rotations on one hand.
My first SOTG deployment was in 2007, which was the same year that our prime minister announced that Australia was recommitting its special forces to the region. Our MO consisted predominantly of exceptionally long vehicle operations where spending four, five, and six weeks at a time patrolling through southern Afghanistan was not uncommon.
We maintained a heavy presence throughout Uruzgan Province with our vehicle convoys, sometimes reaching in excess of 40 vehicles, including Land Rover Special Reconnaissance Vehicles (SRV), Bushmaster Personal Mobility Vehicles (PMV), Polaris four- and six-wheeled all-terrain vehicles (ATV), Afghan National Army (ANA) Humvees, as well as the vehicles utilized by the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) with whom we were conducting joint operations.
The deployment in 2007 also saw the vision of our then commanding officer (CO) come into effect on the ground in Afghanistan. Over the 2006-2007 posting cycle, 4RAR (Cdo) welcomed the most progressive, forward-thinking CO that the unit had ever seen. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Mark Smethurst hailed from the Special Air Service Regiment and was the previous commander for two of the unit’s earliest and most significant battles it had encountered at that stage: the Battle of Same in East Timor and Operation Perth in Afghanistan.
Smethurst brought experience and vision that simply revolutionized the unit over his two-year posting as CO. He saw the requirement to change how the unit was operating internally to meet its ever-growing responsibilities and deliverables to the Australian government. Prior to the raising of four full-time strike companies, Charlie Company maintained the most consistent manning based on its domestic counterterrorism (DCT) responsibilities as the Tactical Assault Group – East (TAG-E/team).
Soldiers who wished to be a part of TAG-E were required to complete the Advanced Close Quarter Combat (ACQB) course as well as a number of other specialist courses, which was considered to be another selection within itself. Operators would trickle in and out of TAG-E and Charlie Company but, generally speaking, most of the individuals on team had spent a number of consecutive years within the DCT role.
(All images courtesy of the Australian Defence Force unless otherwise stated.)