Having spent the last six years of my career serving with the 2nd Commando Regiment, I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed and been a part of some of the unit’s most important transformations over its relatively short history. The unit has evolved at an incredible pace, which is undoubtedly and inextricably linked to our involvement in Afghanistan.
Our operational requirements have driven the unit’s capability developments and transformed Australia’s newest special forces unit into one of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) most experienced. It has seen the unit evolve from what was traditionally a support role of the long-established Special Air Service Regiment to the ADF’s primary offensive-strike and direct-action organization.
The 2nd Commando Regiment, formerly known as the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), or 4RAR (Cdo), was re-tasked as a special forces unit on the first of February, 1997. This designation came after the unlinking of the 2nd/4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which left both the 2nd and 4th Battalions as individual regular infantry units.
At the time of the retasking, soldiers who were already members of the 4th Battalion were given the choice to either undergo commando training or elect to be posted to a regular infantry unit. From there, the unit got busy creating its internal structure, its rapid acquisition and capability-development programs, and began refining its recruitment and selection process for individuals suitable for commando training. Bravo Company and Charlie Company were the first Commando Company Groups (CCG) to be raised in 1998 and 1999, respectively, which came just in time for the unit’s first operational deployment to East Timor in 1999.
Despite the early operational experience, the deployment to East Timor as part of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) was something of a disruption to the unit’s development of its newly acquired special forces status. Due to the operational requirements in East Timor, 4RAR (Cdo) was retasked as a light infantry battalion, which saw Bravo and Charlie Companies retain their commando-qualified status, but saw an additional two companies, Alpha and Delta, raised and filled with regular infantry soldiers.
After the battalion’s deployment to East Timor was over, it returned to Australia where it resumed its previous structure as a commando battalion. This saw the dissolution of the regular infantry soldiers from the hastily raised Alpha and Delta Companies, and the focus was thus returned to developing the unit’s special-operations capabilities, backed by four full-time strike companies.
The unit deployed to East Timor again in May of 2006 after a breakdown in relations between the East Timorese Government and their military forces, but this time as a full CCG. During the 2006 crisis, 4RAR (Cdo) and the Special Air Service Regiment were most notably involved in the Battle of Same. Both units were tasked with the apprehension of Alfredo Alves Reinado, a Timor Leste Defence Force (F-FDTL) defector and Petitioner rebel leader.
Despite a number of rebels being killed and captured during the raid, Reinado escaped the cordon, and operators on the ground were ordered to stand down shortly after the assault began at the request of the East Timorese Government. Reinado was later killed on 11 February, 2008 during coordinated attempts to assassinate East Timor’s prime minister and president.
Tactical Assault Group – East
On February 13, 1978, a bomb exploded outside of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting (CHOGRM). The bomb was placed in a rubbish bin, but did not detonate until the bin was emptied into a garbage truck—killing two garbage collectors and a police officer standing guard out front of the hotel. This incident would prove to be the catalyst for the Australian Government’s commitment to the raising of an elite counterterrorist force element within the Australian Army. The Special Air Service Regiment was initially tasked with this responsibility under the designation of the Tactical Assault Group, or TAG, which became fully operational in 1980.
After the September 11 attacks, the Australian Government realized that the geographical isolation of TAG in Western Australia (WA) could prove problematic if a terrorist incident were to unfold on the east coast of Australia. History supports the assessment that the east coast of Australia is a more likely terrorist target, and with a distance of just under 4000 kilometres (2500 miles) from WA, the response time to a critical incident is certainly less than ideal. This ultimately brought about a second TAG raised as part of 4RAR (Cdo) who are based at Holsworthy Barracks on Australia’s east coast.
In the May federal budget of 2002, the Australian Government allocated $219.4 million for the development of TAG-E, as well as a further $121 million for the raising of the Incident Response Regiment (IRR). IRR was the precursor to the Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), whose capability is centered around being able to effectively respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive threats and other hazardous situations.
The TAG designation was now split between TAG-E (east) and TAG-W (west) to denote the unit and geographical differences between the two. Both TAG organizations still hold a short notice for domestic response, however each also have specific responsibilities within the DCT role, which eliminates a duplication of effort. TAG-W retains a number of critical offshore resolution options whilst TAG-E has the primacy for the ‘last-resort option’ within Australia. This is essentially the Australian Government’s last club in the proverbial golf bag to resolve a terrorist or hostage incident that falls outside the scope and capabilities of state and territory law-enforcement agencies.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq again saw 4RAR (Cdo) deployed to the region primarily as a quick-reaction force for the SASR. The battalion also completed a number of other tasks during its deployment, such as the protection of Australian diplomats in Baghdad and the securing of the Al Asad Airbase, however these tasks were again mainly in support of SASR-led operations. This did leave a number of unit members who had deployed to Iraq slightly dispirited, as they were not involved in as much of the war fighting as they had wanted to be. This feeling would soon be forgotten, however, as their initial commitment to Afghanistan and what would prove to be the watershed of the unit’s maturation was less than two years away.
4RAR (Cdo) was first deployed to Afghanistan in August 2005 under Australia’s renewed military commitment to the region. The 2005 commitment lasted for 12 months, and during this initial deployment, 4RAR (Cdo) was again primarily tasked with a QRF role for the SASR. Operation Perth, which took place in July of 2006, could be considered one of the major tipping points for the unit, as well as a clear indication of what was to come.
Two members of the unit received gallantry awards (Star of Gallantry and the Medal for Gallantry) for their involvement in the operation, the unit was awarded a unit citation for gallantry, and the task group as a whole received the Meritorious Unit Citation. The last commando contribution to the Special Forces Task Group (SFTG) returned to Australia in November of 2006. This was only for a short period of time as the security situation in Afghanistan began to deteriorate rapidly, which again saw the Australian government recommit their special-operations forces to the region.
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 for a minimum two-year mission. The two-year mission quickly turned into a six-year commitment, and from May 2007 until December 2013, 4RAR (Cdo, renamed the 2nd Commando Regiment during this period on 19 June, 2009) was unrelenting in its contribution to the NATO mission by providing a full Commando Company Group (CCG) for each of its back-to-back SOTG rotations.
The importance that the War in Afghanistan played for the force modernization of the 2nd Regiment can not be understated. Afghanistan catapulted the regiment from what was a relatively new unit under Australia’s Special Operations Command to one of the world’s most elite and capable special-operations forces. It allowed the unit to disengage from the supporting roles that their relative infancy under SOCOMD’s order of battle had previously dictated. It also allowed them to forge a reputation of excellence that simply went from strength to strength and was reaffirmed on a near daily basis on the battlefields of Afghanistan.
The unit’s unprecedented growth was also meticulously guided from within its ranks, and over the 2006-2007 posting cycle, 4RAR (Cdo) welcomed the most progressive, forward-thinking commanding officer 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 arguably most significant battles it had encountered at that stage—the Battle of Same in East Timor, and Operation Perth in Afghanistan.
Smethurst brought an 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 prior to posting into Charlie Company. Operators would trickle in and out of TAG-E and the company but, generally speaking, most of the individuals on-team had spent a number of consecutive years within the DCT role.
With the War in Afghanistan and operational tempo increasing, Smethurst 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.
From 2007 on, the unit had an entire CCG deployed at any one time to Afghanistan, with the only respite being for a brief period during the winter months. This provided the operators and officers from each of the four commando strike companies an exceptional amount of war-fighting and DA experience. During this renewed commitment, the 2nd Commando Regiment maintained one of the highest operational tempos of any unit in the ADF. By the time the SOTG’s commitment as part of Operation Slipper ceased at the end of 2013, individuals who had completed four or five rotations, or the equivalent of over two years in-country, was not uncommon amongst their ranks.
Over this same period, operators from the unit were also awarded an unmatched number of gallantry and distinguished-service awards for their efforts. Four Stars of Gallantry, along with an exceptionally large number of Medals for Gallantry, Commendations for Gallantry, Distinguished Services Crosses, and Distinguished Service Medals have been awarded to members of the 2nd Commando Regiment since we first stepped foot into Afghanistan in 2005.
In 2014, Corporal Cameron Baird VC MG was posthumously awarded the 100th Victoria Cross for Australia and the NATO Meritorious Service Medal. The performance of the regiment and its personnel have also earned international acclaim and accolades, with a number of members being awarded United States gallantry and meritorious service medals.
Without a doubt, Afghanistan provided a battleground which has allowed the 2nd Commando Regiment to earn a reputation as being one of the most capable and lethal special-operations forces in the world. The back-to-back rotations for six straight years allowed for the regiment and its operators to mature in a period of time that would have most likely taken three-fold under peacetime conditions. The unit has refined its flexibility to evolve to any kinetic situation on the ground, both domestically and offshore, and in doing so, has allowed them to entirely separate from a perceived subordinate position within SOCOMD to one of shared superiority.
Now that Afghanistan has wound up, Australia’s special-operations forces have shifted to their next theatre of operation, in Iraq, fighting the Islamic State. This remarkable maturation of the unit and this current commitment has now seen, for the first time, the balance shift with the 2nd Commando Regiment placed as the lead element in the battle against IS.