There has been a lot of conjecture as to why the Tactical Assault Group – East (TAG-E) were not used as the resolution force for this attack. Before I explore this notion further, I will provide a brief history of TAG-E as well as a summary of the organisation’s primary roles and responsibilities.
On the 13 February, 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, however it 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 counter-terrorist 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 realised 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 4,000 kilometres (2,500 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 centred around being able to effectively respond to chemical, biological, radiological, and explosive threats, as well as 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 organisations still hold a short notice for domestic response, however each also have specific responsibilities within the DCT role which mostly eliminates a duplication of effort. TAG-W retains a number of critical offshore resolution options while TAG-E has primacy for the ‘last-resort option’ within Australia. This is essentially the Australian government’s last club in the proverbial golf bag to resolve terrorist or hostage incidences that are outside the scope and capabilities of state and territory law-enforcement agencies.
TAG-E is the Australian government’s most elite counter-terrorism capability and is Australia’s most highly and diversely trained counter-terrorism resolution force. TAG-E is mandated to provide services to the Australian government under the Defence Force Aid to Civil Authorities (DFAC-A) legislation in the event that a terrorist incident occurs that is beyond the capability of the state and territory law-enforcement agencies to resolve. TAG-E is trained to deal with extremely dangerous and complex scenarios, and provides one of the most critical and highly demanding elements to Australia’s national security policy.
So, based on the threat that Australia was faced with when Man Haron Monis took hostages in the Lindt Café, why wasn’t TAG-E called in as the primary resolution force element?
Simple. We were not needed.
If you look at the siege objectively, it was carried out by one hostage taker armed with a shotgun. Even though the police were unsure about what Monis had in his backpack, it was still only ever going to be one individual with a shotgun and possible IED. The Tactical Assault Group are considered the Australian government’s force of last resort, meaning that we would be utilised in the event that an incident was considered beyond the capability of the state and territory law-enforcement agencies to resolve. We are trained to resolve scenarios well beyond what this incident presented, and in no way was this going to be considered outside of the state police’s ability to handle.
The police Tactical Operations Unit (TOU) deal with circumstances not too dissimilar to this quite regularly. Their roles and responsibilities pertain specifically to the safe resolution of high-risk situations, without loss of life, injury to persons, or damage to property. They maintain an around-the-clock capability across New South Wales, and provide extraordinary assistance to operational police in high-risk incidents such as resolving siege and hostage situations, as well as armed offender situations.
The Tactical Assault Group – East’s mission is to recover a location, facility, means of transport, or other object; prevent or end acts of violence; and/or protect persons from acts of violence in order to resolve a terrorist incident. There are slight overlaps in objectives, however our individual roles and responsibilities are distinctly different. The main effort of the police is to facilitate a safe outcome through careful negotiation—and rightly so—whereas ours is primarily to resolve the incident with force once all else fails. Despite the fact that the armed hostage scenarios that the TOU are used to dealing with usually involve domestic disputes, dealing with an armed suspect holding people against their will at gunpoint is not uncommon for them.
Even though we operate different tactically from the TOU, I would never question the way in which they conducted their emergency action (EA). The police did an outstanding job of resolving the incident and should be praised for their actions. No one has the right to question or war game how they would have done things differently unless they were actually there on the ground and part of the assault itself.
From an observational point of view and purely focusing on what I saw leading up to the assault, there were a few things which I would like to discuss. This is not me choreographing what happened or what should have happened from the peanut gallery, but rather opening a dialogue based simply on what I saw. For instance, operators throwing distraction grenades from outside the doorway after the initial assault team had made entry is not something I am familiar with; once we are committed to a deliberate action (DA or EA), we have always saturated a target with operators. Myself and my colleagues would have stepped over our own mothers to not only have been inside that cafe, but to have been the first inside that cafe.
Ballistic shields are not something we commonly use either. Shields were never once used on any DA operation in Afghanistan, and we were faced with a much more heavily armed and battle-hardened insurgency than a lone parasite with a shotgun. By nature of our employment, we have long ago accepted the high probability of being shot, injured, or killed in the course of our duties, and we certainly would not be in this type of employment if we didn’t feel comfortable operating with these known risks.
Once a person acknowledges and accepts this stoically, then their self preservation no longer becomes the priority. This acceptance ultimately frees the mind to focus entirely on the task at hand. There can be no underestimation of just how proportionate an operator’s effectiveness is to their habituation of being shot at. Afghanistan has provided a battleground which has allowed the operators from the 2nd Commando Regiment to earn a reputation as being some of the most capable and lethal in the world.
This reputation has not come without a heavy cost, but the indoctrination of combat and accustomedness to the potential for injury and death are an essential factor to our exceptional performance under such hazardous conditions. Shields can be viewed as a cumbersome self-preservation tool which invariably hinders the surprise, speed, and aggression required for effective hostage rescue assaults.
Manual tools were also seen being used, and are almost always an alternate method of entry (MOE) for us based on the lack of speed and surprise that they offer. Our explosive method of entry (EMOE) capability is world class, and I am confident that we would have utilised some form of EMOE to facilitate both a shock of action, as well as a fluid and unimpeded entry from multiple entry points.
The TOU’s choice of weapon was also an interesting point. In nearly every image (apart from those of snipers), TOU operators were seen using M4A1 carbines. On team, we have a number of different weapons systems available to us; we specifically tailor our choice of weapons to the task at hand. As a force element whose focus is specifically on resolving incidences through the use of force rather than negotiation, it is our duty to understand what weapons are suited to what environments.
The reason this is so crucial: If we are called out to resolve an incident, then it is all but guaranteed that we are going to actually use our weapons to resolve it. We are advanced weapons specialists, and knowing the characteristics of weapons, ammunition, and explosives is an integral part of our trade. The siege was isolated to the confines of the Lindt Café, which had me wondering why a weapon system such as an M4A1 was favoured over, say, the H&K MP5 or variants of that model (MP5A2, MP5A3, MP5SD, etc.). I could understand the choice to go M4A1 heavy if the event was, say, an active shooter, or there was the potential for a weapons overmatch (such as in France where the terrorists used Kalashnikovs), but it was a hostage scenario with one individual armed with a shotgun within a confined space.
One thing I also noticed as part of my initial stronghold assessment was the fact that the Lindt Café was made entirely out of marble. Ballistics would dictate the dangerous effects that 5.56mm rounds would have in such a dense and enclosed environment. Special operations units around the world who specialise in domestic counter-terrorism (DCT) and hostage rescue have favoured specific weapon systems (such as the H&K MP5) in order to mitigate the damaging effects that higher-powered rifles and their ammunition can generate.
The MP5 is a lightweight, air-cooled, selective-fire, delayed-blowback operated weapon with a roller-delayed bolt. The weapon fires 9x19mm rounds from a closed bolt and has been designed for exclusive use within roles such as close personal protection and hostage recovery. The recoil management and accuracy of this weapon at close ranges is nothing short of spectacular. At ranges of 25 metres (164 feet) and closer—such as those which are presented in close-quarter combat (CQB) scenarios like this hostage rescue—this weapon is an absolute game changer.
We use this weapon exclusively within DCT CQB environments such as building, aircraft, and ship resolutions because that is what it is has been designed for. Depending on the task, we may allocate a sniper pair to utilise M4A1’s as approach shooters, but the assault teams will always be using an MP5 variant.
Regardless of how the siege resolution unfolded, the TOU’s triggers were met, the EA was enacted, and the incident was resolved. I would never question or scrutinise anything that they did on the ground. It was their incident and they managed it accordingly. I have merely raised observations based purely on what I saw broadcasted leading up to the assault, and compared them with my professional background and knowledge.
We are all on the same side, and it would deleterious of me to criticise. I am extremely familiar with the destructive nature that scrutiny of action can have. The police did an outstanding job and should be commended for their efforts. At the time of writing, the media are reporting that it was a police ricochet that killed Katrina Dawson. It is still a highly sensitive topic, and in no way do I wish to add to the debate in any negative or prejudicial manner.
Some media outlets, however, have continued to question the police’s decision to exclude TAG-E from this situation. I discussed this with a number of close friends and colleagues and have provided their input on the matter below.
Sergeant ‘B’ is a career soldier who has served over 19 years in the Australian Army, with the last 11 years as a qualified and serving member of the 2nd Commando Regiment. Sergeant ‘B’ has deployed twice to East Timor, has completed three Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) deployments to Afghanistan, has completed seven personal security detachment (PSD) deployments to Afghanistan protecting Australian generals and politicians, and has been involved in multiple domestic counter-terrorism (DCT) operations, including the 2005 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
More recently, his three Special Operations Task Group rotations and seven PSD deployments to Afghanistan have seen him deployed as both a team commander and as a platoon sergeant. These positions meant that Sergeant ‘B’ was part of the lead planning team for large-scale offensive operations incorporating strategic assets for both his platoon and company in extremely hostile environments.
When I asked Sergeant ‘B’ to provide his opinion on whether or not he thought TAG-E should have been used in some capacity, he wrote:
First, I think we need to understand the vernacular that the government and security forces are using in order to really understand the requirements that both defence and security forces are legally bound and respond to.
I have been out of the country for an extensive period of time, however I have been closely following the change in climate within Australia. In particular, the government’s change in verbiage towards certain acts and individuals both here and abroad. I believe this has happened for two reasons. First, to protect and dispel citizen-based criticism and acts towards minority groups i.e. to not tar all with the same brush. Secondly, it helps to define and warrant acts from both police and Defence.
Although there have been clear circumstances and guidelines outlining the roles, response, and responsibilities for both organisations for some time now, I believe in this heightened level of threat that the country is experiencing, the government needs to refine and appropriate to the “public” a clear delineation between the circumstances in which they will be employed. Now, this will not be broadcast in detail over the news, but more by the use of subtle vernacular over time by the head of the country.
For example, have you noticed Tony Abbot never refers to ISIL or any of its members as “terrorists?” He refers to them as a “death cult.” Further, he never refers to them as “Muslims.” This subtly encompasses the ability for people to be protected and opens up circumstances in which to target them in and out of our country. So if we now look at the Sydney siege and the facts surrounding that event, we should be able to obtain what the government’s intent was with its response. I will then supplement with my opinion after that.
So we had an individual that was well known to our government intelligence and security agencies who decided he would take hostage a number of civilians at gun point in Martin Place. Now, regardless of what the media was calling it (they consistently take on verbiage that is either not correct, sanctioned, or given from the security/government agencies that hold the situation, for the sake of ratings/viewings) this occurrence consisted of a single gunman and a number of hostages.
Although there were many information gaps initially (weapon type, possibility of explosives, other members working with him, multiple targets, and so on) the situation seemed quite contained in that area by that individual. Of course, initial response was by beat police in the area which then escalated to the Tactical Operations Unit (TOU) and emergency services.
This is where the response ended from the government, as they deemed this suitable for the circumstances. There were many reports on the news asking why Special Forces weren’t conducting the operation, and at one point, a news reporter by the name of Simon Bouda even incorrectly reported that there were members from the ‘Perth-based Special Forces unit’ there at the scene.
My opinion on the matter is, I think the government responded appropriately to the threat at hand. When you break it down, this was no different to a domestic violence, high-risk siege. A member barricaded or holding family members in a home against their will with a firearm. Would I have liked for our unit to conduct it? Of course, but it was well within the responsibilities and skills of the TOU. You could argue that the Special Forces have had more combat experience and have been under fire in close combat for the past 12 years, thus inoculating them to the overwhelming sensory overload in a scenario like this. But you could also argue that using them (Special Forces) could be overkill as well as overstepping the police in a more than achievable role/response to the situation.
Should TAG-E have been called out to act if the situation developed past the means and capabilities of the police in multiple locations? Yes they should have. Having the appropriate mechanisms and personnel in place for planning, advice, and a rapid response would have undoubtedly been advantageous for the government. However, I think the correct tool was used for the right job.
Remembering that there are appropriate triggers required for military action on home soil, ultimately Special Forces is “the force of last resort.” I don’t think “the force of last resort” was required for this incident. I bring you back to the vernacular topic I raised at the start of my comments. At no time did Tony Abbott refer to the situation as a terrorist attack (despite what we as individuals might think), so why would he choose to employ the “Special Forces Counter-Terrorist Group” in response?
Lieutenant ‘S’ has served 20 years in the Royal Australian Navy as a clearance diving sailor, and now as a mine clearance diving officer. Lieutenant ‘S’ deployed once to Iraq, twice to the MEAO to conduct VBSS and counter-piracy operations, and served seven years with the Tactical Assault Group – East.
When I asked Lieutenant ‘S’ to provide his opinion on whether or not he thought TAG-E should have been used in some capacity, he wrote:
As a general observation, and I have witnessed it for years whilst at TAG, I think state policing units are extremely reluctant to release any role, task, or job, just as we are, and unfortunately, I think in this case potentially at the detriment of some innocent people. They obviously see it as a valuable opportunity capitalize on a number of micro and macro facets of their organization, including funding, experience, image, votes, promotions, and even recruitment. We continually witness this griping process in the ADF and it is no more evident than within 2nd Command Regiment when competing with Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) over certain roles and tasks (or at least it was).
The general context of the situation was essentially a single gunmen with a desperate and uneducated affiliation with the ISIS or ISIL cause. My point is, I find it somewhat difficult to comprehend the state and federal government’s decision not to recall the TAG-E to at least have them consolidated and postured in the event of a series of attacks. Having the TAG-E on standby would have ultimately contributed to the infrastructure and supporting assets of the NSW police in the event of multiple strongholds or incidences beyond the Lindt Café, should they have arisen.
As we know, although military, the TAG-E is a specialist counter-terrorism and recovery unit that bases its whole existence around saving the lives of the hostages, whether it is a single gunmen or a multi-dimensional threat. The TOU police are designed and train as a specialist policing unit that exists with their primary objective being the safe resolution of high-risk policing situations, without loss of life, injury to persons, or damage to property.
I think there is, and needs to be, a clear delineation between high-risk policing situations and counter-terrorism and special recovery. I want to make clear that I am not talking about the operator and the associated bravado bullshit that we consistently witness (although the techniques that were captured by media were somewhat questionable), but more-so the enablers that are associated with a world-class (and it needs to be) counter-terrorism unit.
I am talking about the following: the intelligence and their associated network access, the picture compilation provided from multiple federal agencies, the ability to predict second- and third-order effects and the associated timelines, the force projection assets, the ability to counter and/or deter multi-layered and multiple threats simultaneously (including CBRNE), the internal specialist and niche assets, and the ability to compile all of this information to develop a robust plan for a successful outcome.
I understand there was debate on whether this was an act of terrorism or a simple policing matter; however, I think the state policing units should have incorporated TAG-E, as this could have very easily gone either way. The TOU were lucky that the incident was isolated, and I also question the precedence it has now set for other state police units.
I discussed this with my wife whilst this was all unfolding. I told her, ‘I really hope these hostages receive the best chance of recovery that they deserve’ and that, in my opinion, it should be a full time CT and recovery force. Don’t get me wrong, I think the AFP should be providing all domestic CT and recovery but, as always, the bottom line has the last say, and it makes fiscal sense to leverage what the ADF has to offer. Unfortunately, the whole world was watching that situation unfold, and the people inside that café deserved the best that Australia could provide, which, in my opinion, was the TAG-E. Some of what I witnessed of the conduct of the assault was questionable, and I look forward to hopefully reading the outcome of a full investigation into this unfortunate situation.
Private ‘N’ served 12 years in the Australian Army with the last six years served as a special forces soldier. Private ‘N’ deployed once to East Timor, three times to Afghanistan, and served with the Tactical Assault Group – East before discharging at the rank of private in 2014.
When I asked Private ‘N’ to provide his opinion on whether or not he thought TAG-E should have been used in some capacity, he wrote:
The initial rumours that were circulating throughout the media indicated that the situation was complex and there were potentially multiple “bombs” placed around the city. The opera house was evacuated based on these threats—a suspicious package found. At that stage, and based on the information that was being fed via media, I assumed TAG-E would have been officially stood up in the event the media rumours became true.
It turns out the situation was one guy with a shotgun. In short, one guy with a shotgun is well within the scope and capability of police (or should be). Police deal with sieges at least a few times a year; usually it’s a junkie or disgruntled husband in a housing commission area. The difference being the intent and place the siege took place and, of course, the extremist Islamic ideology of the perpetrator.
So Adam the ultimate expert’s (insert sarcasm) opinion is that the police are currently not trained to be aggressive enough in a situation like this. The police pussy footed around trying to “resolve the situation peacefully” when they should have snuck a niche team-equivalent in and killed that guy once they had ascertained it was one guy with a shotgun and the opportunity presented.
The only other threat could have been a suspected IED worn on his back. Block all phone signals to protect from an off site command initiation and kill the guy inside. Anyone that has strapped an IED onto themselves and walked into a cafe is intent on becoming a martyr, so either way there’s no talking him down. So your options are to either call his bluff and go in heavy, or sneak in with a few guys and pop him before he or someone else detonates or shoots hostages. The only win here is to save the lives of the hostages and kill the extremist.
Overall I think the whole thing is a loss for the police and Australia. The media should not have been allowed to be close enough to film the drills conducted by the team that made entry during the EA, nor should it have been allowed to show the extremist and provide free advertisement. If I were a little jihadist sitting at home, I’d feel confident in pushing forward with a plan to fuck Australia up.
I believe this type of incident is only the beginning of what’s to come in the future. Australia needs to wake up and smell reality, ditch political correctness or find politicians that will, and train the police to be more aggressive when a situation calls for it. Australia is weak in the way we deal with extremists and anti-Australian ideology; it needs to change, otherwise it will hurt the country as a whole in the long run.
These opinions serve to highlight the way in which some of the individuals within the unit feel about TAG-E not being utilised during the siege. While every single operator is always eagerly standing by to be called out to resolve any and all DCT operations it is asked to, none are harbouring any discontent as if we somehow missed our chance with this. We are the government’s force of last resort and will be let off the leash when an incident is beyond the capability of state and territory law-enforcement agencies to resolve. We are trained to deal with extremely dangerous and complex scenarios and provide one of the most critical and highly demanding elements to Australia’s national security policy.
Put simply, our training and experience are beyond what this siege had to offer. Whilst we certainly would not have said no to resolving it if asked to, the TOU had this covered. They train for high-risk situations such as siege and hostage scenarios, as well as armed-offender situations, and this fell well within their scope of operations.
What I do believe we will see at some stage, though, is a far more complex attack such as what recently happened in France. France mobilised 80,000 police and military personnel to focus on protecting the country and to find those responsible. A future attack in Australia may not necessarily be beyond the scope of police to resolve, but may be beyond their means to. Then, the world can sit back and watch the battle-hardened SOF operators who fill the ranks of the Tactical Assault Group – East put 12 years of continuous war to good use in a domestic setting.
All images courtesy of the Australian Defence Force.