Commanding Officer Special Operations Task Group - Speech to Media Roundtable, 8 July 2011
8 July 2011
Introduction by Special Operations Commander Australia, Major General Peter (Gus) Gilmore, DSC, AM
Thank you for coming today. It is great to have the opportunity to tell Special Operations Task Group’s (SOTG) story and today we do so with operational security limitations I’m sure you’ll all understand.
I’d like to introduce Lieutenant Colonel G - who was the Commanding Officer of the SOTG from December 2010 to June 2011, this was his third tour inAfghanistan, having first deployed as a junior officer in 2001 and again in 2006. Our Special Forces give us much cause for great pride. Lieutenant Colonel G is best placed to speak for them and tell SOTG’s story of the past six months.
Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel G, DSM, Special Operations Task Group
Good morning and thank you again for joining us. It’s a great opportunity for me to talk to you about the contributions of Rotations 14 and 15 of the Special Operations Task Group, or the SOTG, who are conducting operations in southernAfghanistan.
This year has been an eventful one. We have witnessed a great deal of discussion in the public forum aboutAustralia’s role inAfghanistan, the investiture of the second Australian Victoria Cross and the death of Al–Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. The purpose of this brief is to highlight the achievements and challenges faced by a task group that, due to the nature and its role and accompanying security classification challenges, normally maintains a very low profile.
During our tour the task group focused its attention primarily in Uruzgan and northernKandahar, also conducting operations in the areas that influence the security of Uruzgan such as Zabul, Daikundi and northernHelmandprovince.
During the winter in which Rotation 14 deployed, temperatures often plummeted below freezing, testing the limits of our soldiers, their vehicles, and equipment. Historically, insurgents use these colder months to rest, regroup and prepare for the fighting season. I can report that the SOTG curtailed these plans, targeting insurgent logistic nodes and command and control networks through a high operational, winter tempo. Over this winter, Rotation 14 conducted in excess of 80 operations during that 100 day period.
Rotation 15 witnessed the start of the spring fighting season from March onward, and with it, a subsequent increase in insurgent activity plus the traditional return of many insurgent leaders to Uruzgan. Like its winter counterpart, the spring campaign was highly active. Spring for Rotation 15 involved many contacts with insurgents, engagements within which our soldiers performed exceptionally well in battle.
For some perspective, the Special Operations Task Group consists of around 300 personnel, and operates primarily from the Multi-National Base in Tarin Kot. Rotation 14 – who fought during the winter – was mostly comprised of members from the 1st Commando Regiment (1Cdo Regt), with small additional force elements from the Special Air Service (SASR) and the Incident Response Regiments (IRR). This rotation was led mainly by Commando reservists, individuals possessing a vast array of experience, skills and capabilities, it is a versatile group capable of completing many of the Special Operations tasks.
In contrast, Rotation 15’s spring included soldiers from the full time 2nd Commando Regiment, SASR, IRR, plus support personnel from all three services of the Australian Defence Force.
SOTG missions often traverse formidable mountain scapes, unforgiving patches of desert and heavily fortified compounds. In conquering these difficult landscapes, we delivered effects in support of both the Combined Team – Uruzgan, (CTU) as well as the Australian Mentoring Task Force-2 (MTF2). We see these terrain and threat challenges as potential opportunities, ones capable of bringing out the very best in some ofAustralia’s finest soldiers.
As I’m sure you are aware, Australian Special Forces are selected and trained to continually deliver the level of military outcomes our nation and our allies expect. These soldiers have repeatedly proven their worth, often under extraordinarily demanding conditions. From high-risk clearances and raids, to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, providing world class training for Afghan Security Forces, working with indigenous local leaders, SOTG personnel are in vital roles, in dangerous locations, performing essential tasks. These men are tactical soldiers, very aware of how their actions create and support strategic effects.
Most importantly, we don’t operate in isolation. Since returning toAfghanistanin April 2007, the SOTG has continued to train and partner with the Afghan National Security Force to degrade the insurgency and protect the Afghan population. Tireless effort and commitment has ensured our dedicated Afghan partners, the Provincial Response Company Uruzgan (PRC-U) a part of the Afghan National Police, are now widely recognised as the benchmark across the country. When I refer to the SOTG this includes our Afghan partner force.
Moreover – and as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and its mission in Afghanistan transitions from a focus on war fighting to security, governance and development - the SOTG since 2010 has continued to pursue three key lines of operation, summarised by the verbs Shield, Build and Shape, to help provide a better and lasting future for Afghanistan.
The first and most crucial line of operation is “shielding” the population from the insurgency. This is achieved by protecting local nationals from the threats posed by the insurgency, and providing medical support to Afghan civilians wounded by insurgent fighters.
Sadly, insurgents have very little regard for innocent civilian lives. They indiscriminately emplace Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) in areas known to be commonly used by local Afghans. They also use civilians as human shields, and regularly launch attacks from heavily populated areas. As could be expected, these realities often produce very difficult situations for SOTG soldiers. They continue to display exemplary conduct and decision making when faced with these insidious, civilian-targeted techniques. Australian Rules of Engagement are designed to minimise the risk of civilian casualties.
During the past six months the Task Group has conducted more than 170 days of cumulative patrols. As you are aware from media releases made during this time, the Task Group has been in contact with hostile elements, battling proven foes armed with rifles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades.
The SOTG found and neutralised many IEDs that - in turn - made friendly villages and their surrounds safe. They also recovered approximately 50 caches containing IED making material, weapons, ammunition and communications equipment. Through these efforts, materials to build an estimated 150 IEDs have been seized. We confiscated thousands of rounds of ammunition, weapons and IED components, assets that would have otherwise been used against Afghan and coalition troops or even innocent civilians. These efforts to secure the environment for the local Afghan population have been further enhanced by the Afghan National Police and the SOTG detention operations that removed significant numbers of leaders and commanders from the province and severely disrupted insurgent operations in the rural areas. Disrupting insurgents in this manner reduces intimidation of the local population within these areas.
The SOTG also deployed skilled medics on Coalition aviation elements for Aero Medical Evacuation (AME) missions providing a short notice, expert medical capability. In doing so, we have collectively supported missions tending to wounded Afghan civilians, Afghans and Coalition forces.
As an example, on April 29, Australian Special Forces assisted in saving the lives of a woman and a child after their car struck an IED placed by insurgents in theProvinceofKandahar. Afghan National Police and the members of the SOTG were returning to base when an explosion rocked a major civilian traffic route near thevillageofTizakin northernKandahar. The partnered patrol suspended their return to base to provide immediate first aid to the casualties and coordinate the Aero Medical Evacuation (AME) by helicopter. Three wounded nationals received rapid care at the scene, and were transferred to the Forward Surgical Team at Tarin Kowt.
Unfortunately the young girl evacuated to Tarin Kowt died of her wounds the following day… but a small boy and woman survived because of the actions of SOTG soldiers and medical teams. Five other local nationals were killed in the blast, a tragic incident that only epitomises the insurgent’s indifference to local casualties. We stand defiant to this reality, and – akin to the small boy and woman we saved – will continue to protect the lives of Afghan civilians.
Since 2009, the SOTG has supported more than 300 of these missions, assisting our Coalition partners in the provision of medical care through the full spectrum of immediate trauma management, aero medical evacuation, resuscitation and surgery. This support has been a great privilege and drives home the importance of our mission to the everyday lives of Afghans.
Our second line of operation is to “build” the capacity of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, or GIRoA through the Afghan National Security Forces. The SOTG has instilled a greater confidence and expertise in the Provincial Response Company Uruzgan or PRC-U, to ready them for the role of maintaining stability and security in Uruzgan well after our eventual withdrawal.
Along with the ADF’s efforts in training the 4th ANA Brigade, the Task Group’s partner force is recognised as one of the most effective, skilled and capable forces in the province. This is a great national achievement, and a key contribution to the over arching mission and a direct reflection of our soldier’s dedication to the training and mentoring aspects of their mission. It is this type of work that will in due course facilitate a successful transition to Afghan security.
The PRC-U is part of the Afghan National Police, and all members of the partner force are qualified in the curriculum of Police Training Courses conducted by the Ministry of the Interior. Through SOTG’s combined efforts with the Australian Federal Police (AFP), we continued to develop local security forces and communities understanding of the law and the expectation of police capability, as a key element of stability.
PRC-U members are trained in first aid, vehicle driving, Counter-IED techniques, Pashtu literacy, and Counter Insurgency operations. They are also taught advanced paramilitary tactics and procedures, in a purpose-built training compound, used to practice realistic scenarios they are likely to face in the wider Afghan environment.
Every SOTG operation is partnered with members of PRC-U, who collaborate in the planning and conduct of all aspects of the operation. Together we function very much as a team, with the SOTG in a supporting role. This is a significant indicator of the success achieved through the training and mentoring provided by the SOTG during the past couple of years.
Our third and final line of operation, “shape”, is focussed on influence in the battle space, of attacking insurgent networks, and those networks that financially support the insurgency, to degrade their capacity to harm the people ofAfghanistanwhile allowing ISAF to deliver security, governance and development. By disrupting logistics, communications, command and control, morale and plans, the SOTG also significantly undermines insurgent ability to conduct operations against the CT-U and the MTF-2. Thereby – and most importantly - improving security for the local people.
A key shaping area remains in combating networks that are funding insurgent activities. The SOTG achieves this by providing enabling support to the Afghan National interdiction Unit or NIU, an element of the Afghan National Security Forces structured under the Ministry of Interior, and, a first for Australian forces. The NIU is an expanding and professional force tasked with detaining, investigating, and prosecuting individuals in line with the Afghan Government’s National Drug Control Strategy.
Recently - across May and June of this year - members of the SOTG have supported the NIU to achieve significant gains in this area. By providing enabling support, such as logistical and specialist assistance, the NIU has been able to maintain the operational lead on all missions – a promising sign as we approach transition – and fitting given the law enforcement flavour of this activity. Together, they helped sever key funding and operational links between the insurgency and the narcotics trade elements. A disproportionate amount of insurgent activity is funded by the narcotics trade in this province.
Logically, shaping the battle space is closely related to SOTG’s earlier discussed efforts to shield the population, and build GIRoA and the ANSF. These three lines of operation are both intertwined and co-dependent on each other to produce positive effects. It is important to note that the success in battle can not be achieved when civilian lives are put at risk. Likewise, security inAfghanistanwill not be achieved without developing and empowering the local institutions that underpin security to the local population.
Still – and during modern conflict - we must accept the sad reality that casualties might be suffered. As you are aware from the previous media releases, this year, SOTG 14 and 15 witnessed the deaths of two fine men, and the wounding of nine others. Also, as you know, Sgt Todd Langley from SOTG 16 was killed on Monday.
Sergeant Brett Wood was killed in an IED strike in southernAfghanistan. Brett was a highly decorated Commando, an experienced veteran awarded the Medal of Gallantry during his previous tour ofAfghanistanin 2006. He was presented the United States Meritorious Service Medal (USMSM) at his funeral for his bravery during the battle. Brett was the first Australian, in this conflict, to receive a posthumous USMSM, a military decoration presented to soldiers from theUnited Statesor a friendly foreign nation who have distinguished themselves through outstanding achievement or service in a designated combat theatre.
The battle in which Sergeant Wood was killed spanned 41 hours, the most intense combat seen by Australian troops this year. Members of the SOTG and the PRC-U were conducting clearance operations in the Kajaki district, southernAfghanistan. Two platoons entered separate villages before the first light on the 22nd of May. The first platoon conducted a cordon and search of several compounds before being engaged by insurgents with Rocket Propelled Grenades, mortar, heavy machine gun and smaller arms fire from multiple directions.
The second platoon, including Sergeant Brett Wood, was involved in an intense fire fight that spilled into the night and across the following day. Insurgents used tunnels and mouse holes to manoeuvre between compounds and keyholes to fire through. The SOTG suffered six casualties during the height of the battle, on the 23rd of May.
One soldier was wounded in an exchange of mortars, and two more received fragmentation wounds from grenades launched over compound walls. An Aero Medical Evacuation (AME) was requested for the three wounded, and as the helicopter approached, Sergeant Brett Wood and his team aggressively engaged the enemy with suppressing fire which permitted the helicopter to land and ensured his mates received a safe extraction.
It was later that afternoon, when the team of Commandos raced down an alley way to interdict a group of insurgents that Sergeant Wood was killed when an IED detonated in the alley and two other soldiers were wounded. Under waves of heavy fire, the SOTG soldiers provided immediate first aid to the three casualties and requested another aero medical evacuation by helicopter. Both platoons and a supporting Air Weapons Team, comprising of a number of Coalition helicopters, combined to clear several compounds and tunnel systems, which suppressed insurgents during the evacuation.
Despite the tragic loss of Sergeant Brett Wood, this important operation was very successful in destroying an IED factory, disrupting the insurgent safe haven in Kajaki and degrading their ability to conduct attacks against Afghan and ISAF forces.
A fortnight later, Sapper Rowan Robinson was also killed in action while providing support to his mates. He was shot in his over watch position during a battle with insurgents in Baghran,Helmand on the 6th of June. He had manoeuvred to a fire position on the front line to provide cover when struck by a round. Medics provided immediate first aid at the scene. During his extraction to Tarin Kowt, but he later died of wounds.
Hours before his death, Sapper Robinson and his team had discovered the largest cache found by Australian troops this year. Several compounds of interest were searched in two different locations and the partnered patrol found 70 anti personnel mines, 20 RPG rockets, 2000 rounds of ammunition, several grenades, pistols, mortar rounds, rifles, and a significant quantity of narcotics.
Most importantly, the cache find included IED components used to kill and maim local nationals, Coalition and Afghan forces. Over 60 electric detonators, five pressure plates, 500 metres of detonation cord and numerous devices used for remote initiation were found. The removal of these items not only proved a major setback for the insurgency in the area, it has undoubtedly saved countless lives. Akin to Brett Wood, Rowan Robinson risked and gave his life so that others may live.
SOTG 14 and 15 with its Afghan partners, yielded immense successes in degrading insurgent networks and preventing them effectively targeting Afghan and Australian troops by targeting insurgent leaders. The SOTG captured three prominent insurgent leaders over winter, and 20 more in the spring and early summer. The most significant operational success was the removal of two Taliban shadow district governors from the province across separate missions. On the 8th of April, Afghan police and the SOTG captured the senior commander for the Char Chineh district, during a compound clearance mission in the Khod valley. Daad was prolific facilitator of the insurgency throughout southernAfghanistan, held direct links to the Taliban senior leadership and supplied weapons and fighters throughout the Shahid-i-Hasas area. His absence created notable disruption inWestern Uruzganand we observed a significant reduction in attacks on coalition and local forces.
More recently, the SOTG killed the Chora district Shadow governor during a fire fight in the Karmisan valley on the 1st of June. Mullah Gul Akhund was wanted by Afghanauthorities for ordering the assassination of government officials and tribal elders and conducting multiple attacks on Coalition and Afghan forces. He also played a crucial role in the manufacture and facilitation of IED’s. His death has had a profound effect on the insurgency in central Uruzgan, disrupting the command and control network, inhibiting weapons resupply and limiting intimidation of the local community.
Removing key insurgent leaders and or disrupting their ability to coordinate attacks against coalition partners is absolutely necessary. We know these insurgent leaders are coordinating and supplying fighters with weapons, funds and the lethal IED’s that are indiscriminately killing and maiming local civilians and Coalition forces alike. Individuals like SGT Wood and Sapper Robinson gave their lives to protecting their mates and the mission, both noble in purpose and one the SOTG continues to embrace.
I’d like to now highlight the achievements of the engineers from the Incident Response Regiment. These courageous men, also known as bomb techs, comb the ground for IED’s to ensure safe passage for their colleagues. In addition to finding and neutralising explosives, the engineers recover components like detonators, pressure plates and battery packs to gain a comprehensive and evolving understanding of the insurgent’s weapon of choice. Clearance operations conducted by SOTG engineers also allows civilian traffic to traverse routes that would have otherwise been denied to them. Through their actions, the SOTG engineers help the people ofAfghanistanslowly reclaim the normalcy in their lives, freedom of action previously taken from them by insurgents.
In May, a vehicle mounted patrol traversed a dangerous pass in the Kajaki district and struck an IED. Two men were wounded in the blast and the Protected Mobility Vehicle they were travelling in had to be destroyed in place. On their subsequent return to base, four more IED’s were discovered and appropriately disposed of by the engineers. These support personnel who enable the fighting elements to go outside the wire are critical to the success of the SOTG.
SOTG 14 and 15 did not face these challenges alone. Support and cooperation of Coalition partners and liaison officers were equally responsible for SOTG military achievements during their tour in southernAfghanistan.
The SOTG’s ISAF counterparts not only provided additional resources, equipment and intelligence, but enabled a synchronisation with all other forces to achieve maximum effect. To achieve this synchronisation, liaison officers are dispersed across the country to provide assistance in the form of operational approvals, situational awareness and tactical information to assist the SOTG understanding the people, the threats, the trends and the conditions in the places we have and will operate.
It’s important to especially note the exceptional interoperability the Task Group shared with theUnited States. The US Army Aviation Task Force flew utility and attack aircraft from Tarin Kot and provided almost all of the helicopter support to SOTG operations. This support ranged from regional force projection, to re-supply, aerial fire support and also AME. Despite the dangers of poor weather and high altitude, the consistent commitment of theseUSaviation crews helped save lives of both the coalition and Afghan forces everyday.
I’d like to now talk about a topic perhaps important to most to you, that being our interaction with you -the media - and the members of the public you represent. Generating stories from SOTG operations can appear a simple task, and informing the public aboutAustralia’s efforts inAfghanistanis undeniably important, but, much of this story necessarily must remain untold in the interests of operational security. Let me clearly state that I understand and recognise that this reality is a frustration to you and the work you’re attempting to conduct. While not a consolation, we too wish we could better tell these stories to the Australian public. Still, it is of greater imperative that the SOTG - first and foremost – protects the lives of our soldiers and missions. Unfortunately, and based on what we are tasked to do on a daily basis, limitations of disclosure are a reality I would ask you to respect and honour.
In summary – and as you no doubt concluded based on what I’ve discussed thus far - the SOTG is but one part of a much larger Coalition effort. There are many other forces from numerous countries facing similar challenges, all achieving individualised successes acrossAfghanistan. To paraphrase a shared sentiment from the Defence Minister and Chief of Defence Force: ‘significant progress has been made this year.’ In partner with all our allies, we look forward to continuing our important role in achieving and maintaining peace and security for the people ofAfghanistan. This task still requires a concerted effort by the Task Group, broader ADF elements and Coalition forces deployed toAfghanistan, in order to ensure that the ANSF are well positioned to take over lead responsibility for the security by 2014.
Finally – and in closing: I want to emphasize the outstanding work being done by our soldiers in protecting the Afghan population and enabling the Afghan security forces to maintain security in Uruzgan. It is through the cumulative success of our operations and advancements that, I believe, we are seeing demonstrable progress in Uruzgan and more broadly acrossAfghanistan.
Thank you very much.