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Strike swiftly: A history of Australian Special Forces (Part Two)

Special forces units are some of the most storied in not just the Australian Defence Force, but around the globe. Defence Connect will take a look back on the history of these units and the role they’ve played in our military past.

Special forces units are some of the most storied in not just the Australian Defence Force, but around the globe. Defence Connect will take a look back on the history of these units and the role they’ve played in our military past.

For part one, please click here.


Navy Clearance Divers

The RAN had experience using divers for nearly two decades before the outbreak of World War II, however it wouldn't be until that outbreak that clearance diving operations became an important task for the Navy.

Working alongside Royal Navy divers, the success of the RAN clearance divers in Europe and the south Pacific made it clear that this capability was a necessity for the RAN, after the surrender of the Japanese.



In 1951, the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board established the first clearance diving branch within the RAN, with personnel initially attached to HMAS Rushcutter's Underwater Research and Development Unit.

Five years later, in 1956, they were organised into a separate Mobile Clearance Diving Team, which lasted for a decade before further reorganisation saw the splitting of the divers into two teams, Clearance Diving Team 1 (CDT 1), which was responsible for mine clearance and reconnaissance missions throughout Australia Station, and CDT 2, which was focused on mine warfare in the Sydney area only, with no clearance for operations outside of Sydney.

Following the breakout of the Vietnam War, CDT 3 was established specifically for deployment to the conflict to assist with the US Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal Units. 

No.4 Squadron RAAF

The Royal Australian Air Force is the only foreign air force outside of the US to receive Joint Terminal Attack Controller accreditation from the US Joint Forces Command, with the JTAC's considered as the RAAF's special forces units.

No.4 Squadron RAAF runs the training for JTAC's, and then seeks to provide the trained JTAC's to other units, with its main role being the support of the Special Operations Command.

The Squadron was re-formed in 2009 in order to begin the JTAC training. 

 SAS activities post-Vietnam War

It wouldn't be until 1991 for the SAS to be deployed again in active service, so for the years between the end of the Vietnam War and rising tensions in Iraq in 1991, the regiment worked at developing the capabilities of the Australian Army in protecting the nation's shores.

This shift in focus was in line of the end of 'forward defence' for Australia, with attention now placed on defending the continent of Australia against external attacks.

This led to the formation of the Regional Force Surveillance Units for the Army in the early 1980s, which would be trained by the SAS.

The SAS was also given responsibility for responding to terrorist attacks in Australian cities following the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney, which meant the regiment required assistance from the RAN's Clearance Diving Branch to develop a capability of ship boarding and off-shore oil platforms.

In the months leading up to the first Gulf War, the SAS was deployed to participate in Operation Habitat in Turkey and northern Iraq to provide medical assistance to Kurdish refugees, with 75 personnel sent over by Australia.

SAS units were also provided to the UN Special Commission that was overseeing the destruction of Iraq's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, over a nine-year period from 1991 to 2000.

This would be the start of several peacekeeping missions that the SAS would participate in, including Cambodia, Bougainville, Kuwait, East Timor and Somalia.

The SAS was also used closer to home, most notably for boarding missions on the MV Tampa and MV Pong Su.

In October 2001, the Australian government announced its intention of sending a special force task group, primarily made up of an SAS squadron, to assist with overthrowing the Taliban in Afghanistan and hunt down al-Qaeda cells, codenamed Operation Slipper.

The squadron arrived in Afghanistan two months later, beginning the first of half-yearly rotations for the SAS, with its main focus on conducting reconnaissance and surveillance missions to identify al-Qaeda and Taliban activities and capabilities.

The squadron started off with long-range vehicle mounted patrols with US Marines in southern Afghanistan, and suffered their first casualty three months in when Sergeant Andrew Russell was killed by a land mine on 16 February 2002, with two other personnel injured in the incident.

A month later, the SAS shifted its focus to eastern Afghanistan and Operation Anaconda, which was the first large-scale battle in the country since the Battle of Tora Bora the year before.

During the operation, SAS teams provided on-location and in-depth intelligence and reconnaissance after infiltrating the Shah-i-Kot valley leading up to the mission.

SAS units were also on hand to rescue over 20 soldiers of the US 75th Ranger Regiment, who had their helicopter shot down.

The squadron provided overwatch and co-ordination of air strikes to quell the advance of enemy forces attempting to overrun the American task force, with over 300 al-Qaeda fighters estimated killed as a result of their ordered air strikes.

The Australian force was also able to identify a potential escape route for al-Qaeda leadership from the valley, and a patrol later spotted the escape of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then second in command (and now in command) of al-Qaeda.

They called in an airstrike against the small group that was fleeing, however it was unsuccessful.

Two SAS soldiers, Mark Donaldson (2008) and Ben Roberts-Smith (2010), would receive Victoria Cross for Australia medals in Afghanistan, with Cameron Baird of the 2nd Commando Regiment also receiving the honour posthumously in 2013.

Daniel Keighran from the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, is the only other recipient of a Victoria Cross for Australia medal in Afghanistan.

During the same time period, the SAS was providing the majority of the ground forces for Australia in their contribution to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, under the banner of the Australian Special Forces Task Group, which was built around 1 Squadron, supplied by a platoon from the 4RAR Commandos.

This task group was involved in one of the first actions of the war after entering Iraq from Jordan, and provided months of fighting to help overthrow Saddam Hussein, including capturing the Al Asad Airbase, 200 kilometres from Baghdad, which led to the capture of over 50 fighter jets and helicopters, and then repairing the damaged runway.

While 1 Squadron was withdrawn from Iraq after the conclusion of the war, elements of the SAS remained to provide a number of capabilities, most often training the Iraqi Security Forces.

Strike swiftly: A history of Australian Special Forces (Part Two)
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