Overhaul of elite special forces being considered ahead of findings from war crimes inquiry

Sweeping changes to Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) are being considered as elite soldiers brace for the findings of a long-awaited inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.

Since 2016 the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) has been conducting a secretive examination of the conduct of special forces in Afghanistan.

The investigation led by New South Wales Justice Paul Brereton has uncovered numerous allegations of unlawful killings committed by SAS members and their commando colleagues during the lengthy conflict.

Justice Brereton’s soon to be completed report is expected to highlight deep cultural problems and successive leadership failures, particularly within the elite Perth-based SAS.

In March an investigation by the ABC’s Four Corners program detailed new allegations that unarmed civilians were unlawfully killed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.

Ahead of its release, the ABC can reveal the selection courses for Australia’s two elite fighting units, the SAS Regiment and 2nd Commando Regiment (2 CDO), will be merged from next year in a move Defence claims is aimed at improving “efficiency”.

SAS and 2 CDO conducted most of the operational work in Afghanistan, and in Australia they also respond in counter-terror operations.

“As part of Army’s Training Transformation, Special Operations Command continues to explore the opportunity for efficiency improvements in conducting a common entry process,” a Defence spokesperson told the ABC.

“In part, COVID-19 restrictions have slowed progress on this task, and so options are still being developed with the approach for special forces selection yet to be confirmed.”

Defence insiders believe the initiative is instead aimed at helping to break down a “tribal” and “isolated” culture within the SAS, by bringing the soldiers closer to their special forces rivals in the commandos.

As part of these efforts, the ABC has been told 20 members of the SAS will also be temporarily transferred to the 2nd Commando Regiment in next year’s first deployment rotation, although Defence has declined to confirm the plan.

“Army’s approach to career management involves employing our people in various parts of Army as a way of sharing their experience, broadening their skills, and preparing them for future employment and rank progression,” a Defence spokesperson said.

Neil James from the Australia Defence Association welcomed the move but said more radical ideas may be needed to help Special Forces Command deal with the fallout of the war crimes inquiry.

“Broadening the through-career professional interaction of special forces personnel with the rest of the ADF is the best way to fix institutional culture problems,” he said.

“Common training of diggers from different types of SF (special forces) units needs to be far more than the shared initial entry-standards testing tried previously.”

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GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING: Special Air Service (SAS) operator shoots an unarmed Afghan man

Senior Defence figures say other more radical options such as disbanding or rebranding the SAS have been discussed, although the department insists the idea is not being considered.

“Army is not planning any restructure or renaming of the Special Air Service Regiment,” a Defence spokesman said.

Mr James said while disbanding the SAS would not be a sensible move, there were other administrative changes that could be made.

“If disbanding whole units is off the table, disbanding disgraced sub-units might still help in sending the strong message needed,” he said.

Last month the ABC revealed Australian special forces would for the first time be led by an officer who had not been a member of the famed SAS, in what defence insiders consider an important “cultural shift” for elite soldiers.