'Posse Comitatus': Giving ADF domestic security role a massive mistake

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"We must always ensure we never politicise the ADF." (Image screenshot YouTube)

The ADF is neither equipped nor trained to adopt a domestic anti-terrorism role and giving it a call-out function further blurs the nation's civilian-military divide, writes security expert Dr Allan Orr.

WITHOUT A RIPPLE from the media or public, the Australian Government has recently capped off years of soft lead-in announcements regarding military "call-out" powers in domestic security crises to cause a seminal policy shift following the Sydney Siege Inquiry. It is one intended to bypass state and federal law enforcement tactical units and go straight to the "military option". And in doing so, one of the world's most militant proselytisers of democracy has chosen to unburden itself of foundational democratic principles in favor of assumed security by seeding an inherently flawed counter-terrorism policyscape.

The myopia of the Turnbull Government's policy initiative, intended to drastically cut "red-tape" inhibiting military deployments on sovereign soil, left Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin pointlessly fighting for relevancy in what little counter-terrorism policy space the Australian military has not been able to subsume through it's quiet yet very hostile takeover:

"Of course they are in a better position to deal with some situations than us. But the concept that we aren't trained or capable to deal with the domestic terrorism situations that we see, I think, needs to be challenged."

Bucking the international trend of nations with far more experience in counter-terrorism – especially Europe – and taking the easy fiscal and political out, the Australian Federal Government is determined to not just cling to but rebrand and reinvigorate an outdated, dangerously naive military as lead agency approach to domestic counter-terrorism. This strategy loses "long-game" ground for quick political profit and tactical expediency. The problem with the Lindt operation was not the NSW Tactical Operations Unit (TOU), it was the competitive and jealous quarantining of tactical skills, resources and budget entitlements by the ADF that left the frontline TOU without the training and equipment it needed to do its job properly. Using the NSW TOU as scapegoats, the Federal Government and military have used the tragedy to tie off an agenda set in motion on 11 September, 2001.

Shadow Defence Minister Richard Marles was right to raise eyebrows to the blatant politicisation of the ADF during the official policy announcement in July:

"As public officials in this space, we must always ensure we never politicise the ADF."

But it's not like the ADF were pushed. Our Defence Forces have a long history of willingly being used as political pawns, backdrops and performers in staged, propagandised music video style "demonstrations", as long as it protects their dominance of the counter-terrorism budget and gets their foot in the door of the "home-game". Special Operations command generals have gone as far as to give press briefings in soft civilian attire (illegal under military law while on duty) time and again espousing the "superior capability" of the ADF and that "other" arms of government complement their counter-terrorism capability

The police "contain and negotiate" strategy was absolutely the right call in an assumed personally-borne IED (improvised explosive device) environment. It was the Federal Government who failed to put together a team from ASIO, ASIS, AFP, ADF, Border Force etc to quantify the bomb threat, which underscored everything. To be fair, the TOU were not so much out of their depth as they were the victims of Federal incompetence and budgetary/training neglect. They did not have electronic noise cancelling hearing protection, night vision goggles with auto-shut off for excessive, sudden light burst scenarios (say for instances of friendly-fire flash-bangs), they did not have large calibre sniper rifles capable of penetrating multiple panes of glass or even semi-automatic sniper rifles. They did not have explosive breaching training, nor fully automatic weapons (although they did use the wrong calibre weapon set), they lacked working communications headsets while only some possessed laser aimers on their weapons. All items ADF Tactical Assault Group (TAG) teams – the least likely, last to arrive and most difficult to deploy (for now) – possess as standard issue. Perhaps the best point to frame is this: TOU assaulters were issued with 20 year old Gen 2 laser aimers on their weapons the day of the assault. TAG teams were issued in the same year Gen 15 laser-aimers. Counter-terrorism is horrendously expensive and that expense is a Federal level concern, extending to state tactical teams with counter-terrorism remits.

For decades, the ADF took its counter-terrorism role so seriously it positioned its sole counter-terrorism team on the by far least populated seaboard of the country, about 8 hours flight time from East Coast Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, the urban heart of Australia. It has only been just over a decade since the ADF established a second team, with its own uniquely flashy website, on the East Coast, raised from its "tier two" Commando regiment. Its "tier one" Special Forces unit, the Special Air Service Regiment, to this day remains geographically dislocated from the most likely "battlegrounds" on the East Coast. Indeed, SAS units from New Zealand would theoretically get to Melbourne and Sydney almost twice as fast as the Australian SASR, who have been retained in Perth, the sole large city on the West Coast.The reason for its location there is, absurdly, to guard against the abduction of off-shore oil rigs and tankers in the Indian Ocean by what could only be practically non-existent Communist politico throwbacks looking to make an economic-political point. Indeed SASR spent outrageously more time training Indonesia's human rights nightmare Kopassus in the years before Lindt than it did homeland law enforcement agencies.

The TAG West Offshore Assault Team thus maintain incredibly expensive counter-terrorism training facilities, including 747s, to maintain their prime responsibility of offshore "seizure" (not rescue) operations in the gas fields of the Indian Ocean. In the words of the ADF press release concerning the 2013 exercise "Iron Moon" (illustrative of the consistent focus on incredibly complex and expensive "counter-terrorism" exercises usually conducted, tellingly, on civilian oil-tankers as opposed to civil cruise-liners), basing the SASR in Western Australia and focusing it on "maritime counter-terrorism" is essential to protecting Australia's "offshore resource interests". The first and only time the TAG West Offshore Assault Team was officially deployed operationally was during a drug-interdiction mission, which seized without resistance the North-Korean flagged Pong Su and occurred on the East Coast off Sydney. Deeming the prime population tracts of the East coast as worthy of their second best Special Forces unit, the tier two operators of the 2nd Commando Regiment, the ADF has shown its true hand, determined to invade the domestic security space, while at once leaving fully half – and indeed its very best operators – realistically out of the fight on the other side of the country.

The ADF justifies its previously abducted and now looming official lead agency status in domestic counter-terrorism on the grounds that certain operations are "beyond the capabilities" of law enforcement agencies in Australia. Even if true, capabilities can be transferred and built. There is further no, as the ADF puts it, "capability overmatch" regarding state and federal tactical teams. The TOU, for instance, used the exact same weapons to storm the Lindt Cafe that Australian Special Forces use on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Syria/Iraq. The "capability" argument is shallow, self-serving and an entirely political move on an issue that is merely a function of cash. Counter-terrorism is not grand scale warfare. It is, at best, very low level warfare and something our very best, very professional police forces are more than capable of "combatting".

Realistically, there is no "overmatch" threat to paramilitary law enforcement units by non-state terrorists today and no scenario "beyond the scope" of state and federal police forces who have invested the requisite time and money developing these capabilities. However, the ADF, with its comparative limited geographical coverage and limited access to experience in these roles and therefore no relevant reason to maintain the outdated military domestic "counter-terrorism" capability, drawn entirely from a force that has doctrinally focussed on "kill-or-capture" missions since September 11 — a template that has been blamed for the loss of an entire war (Afghanistan). What they do lack is assets — helicopters, parachutes, scuba-gear, explosive shape charges and so on.

The ADF naively, selfishly and dangerously has pushed itself via a subtle but devastatingly effective psychological operation that has co-opted the Federal Government and public alike, using its co-dependent relationship with certain strategic often ignorant national media partners (namely The Australian), to prosecute a more effectuating "psyop" at home than it ever ran in Afghanistan and certainly Iraq/Syria. The net sum of the offensive has pushed the ADF, in contrast to most other Western nations, into the front running in the lead agency debate in order to maintain a capability it treats foremost as a feather in its beret and recruiting tool. As a nation, we expensively and redundantly train institutionally for the same scenarios three times over (state, federal and military counter-terrorism / hostage rescue units), which are distinguishable only by their resource allocation. In the ADF case, this allocation is in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year and entirely transferable to the state tactical teams and, especially, the Australian Federal Police’s Specialist Response Group within the Federal budget.

On projections, some half a billion dollars have been spent since 2001/2002 maintaining a first-rate capability in the last to be deployed teams. A military capability that is, in reality, near unemployable for legal (subject to change) and practical reasons (only two teams in two cities and a continent apart). They will continue to be unemployable unless the Government cedes the military an official, permanent, persistent law-enforcement function, in turn continuing to leave the actual first responders – state and federal law enforcement – bereft of the real resources and assets they need to conduct the same operations in a far more timely and, more importantly, legitimate fashion.

The subliminal political slide has actually been taking place quietly for years. The ADF being tasked not to simply participate, but actually conduct, unilateral law-enforcement/counter-narcotic operations in tactical terms has become routine. The same paradigm has slowly degraded civil authority in New Zealand, where NZDF personnel have been called in on "active shooter" incidents. Realistically, the ADF need have no multi-layered role in contemporary modern society with an eye to domestic hostage rescue or active shooter contingencies. If true then neither does the ADF need 747s for instance or even specialised smaller calibre weapons etc, because the realpolitik chances of a foreign government allowing the SASR to conduct complex hostage rescue operations is next to zero. Further, whenever hostage rescue operations have been conducted on foreign battlefields they have invariably been "snatch and grabs" of one-two people, as opposed to complex hostage rescue operations against "dug-in" adversaries. Conversely, sending Federal Police units overseas to conduct hostage rescue operations, overtly or covertly, is a far more amenable action of statecraft rather than using military forces, especially covertly, which is technically an act of war.

Strategically, employing military assets in contravention of our ideals and liberties is a no-win scenario. Tactically, there is no guarantee that ADF units would perform better on the day. Nonetheless, we are about to hand off prime responsibility for domestic security to a force whose "warrior culture" has grown so out of hand that it provoked a rare internal investigation last year. Allegations of severed Taliban hand collections for "tactical data analysis", of repeated civilian murders and prisoner execution and of sexually assaulting attached "flirty" female ASIS members with loaded weapons when romantic approaches were rejected also put the policy shift in question. It has even been reported that the two units who will now be assuming primary practical responsibility for domestic counter-terrorism operations are all but at each other’s throats over petty internal rivalries.

Rather than forge Special Operations Command, the stress of real-world operations seems instead to have torn it apart. And it is to this broken, visceral department the country now turns. But even were superior performance guaranteed we would still be trading short term battlefield success for long term war policy failure, an irregular warfare space the ADF has co-existed in since Vietnam, no more than America able to break out of in Afghanistan as it were in kind. It should also be remembered that the ADF is protected from real oversight to the extent it does not even have to inform Parliament of the mere existence of particular Special Forces units and is permitted to investigate itself first at all times. Any democratically open Lindt style inquiry following any botched or questionable ADF counter-terrorism operation on home soil will thus never be permitted to happen.

Stepping farther back to see the big picture, the aim of 9/11 was not physical destruction. The mass-casualties of the day were never going to destroy America or win the war the terrorists were fighting in one blow. The aim was to bring the war home to U.S./Western soil. Contemporary affiliated and unaffiliated terrorism alike continues to above all aim to bring "the war" onto Western streets in a battle of psychological attrition — terrorism's key strategic weapon.

Terrorists seek legitimisation of their cause and actions as soldiers and desire above all to die as combatants for that cause. Ranging the military, besides eroding civil political frameworks that have for centuries stood the test of time, also rewards terrorism by allowing them get "at" the very forces they hold responsible for taking the war to "their" cities and villages for approaching two decades now.

As negotiating with terrorists spurred a wave of international terrorism in the 1970s, over-reacting with military force to deploy soldiers at home against small numbers of terrorists is self-defeating and will only feed modern terrorism. Deploying the military domestically overstates both public and government fear, the precise metric terror seeks to degrade, in reigning the most lethal apparatus of state against "them" and concurrently amongst "us". It legitimises them as soldiers and brings the war home in vivid digital detail, thereby merely boosting terrorist morale and determination. In effect, a downward strategic spiral driven by ignorant policy engineering.

In Europe, the German Federal Police’s GSG9, philosophically driven and politically supported by the nation’s experiences of the 1930s and 40s, is that country's lead agency for domestic and international counter-terrorism/hostage-rescue operations and is funded and trained to the level that it is more highly regarded and capable than the country's Special Forces in this area and is indeed internationally regarded as perhaps the best hostage rescue unit in the world. Then there is militarised Israel, perhaps the most painfully experienced nation globally in counter-terrorism praxis, who developed as far back as the 1970s its national level Special Police Unit out of its unlikely Border Police organisation. The Yamam came to lead domestic counter-terrorism efforts thereafter and has recently been green-lit to conduct overseas operations.

Scotland Yard, following the long standing French model of Federal Police GIGN as lead agency to contemporary shooting massacres and hostage taking events, has evolved the para-military CTSFO unit significantly in the past 5 years. Both countries have though stumbled on the principle of military exclusion in homeland affairs during their most recent trials. In the midst of the Westminster vehicle and knife attack, SAS teams were deployed from their military base in Hereford in civilian clothing and non-militarised helicopters. Meanwhile, two years ago now the French Republic "temporarily" deputised and deployed its military onto French streets in an "emergency" counter-terrorism capacity. This year, the policy saw a soldier utilise a high powered assault rifle to shoot and kill a lone-wolf attacker armed with a knife at the Louvre.

To avoid the ugly, self-effacing para-legalisation of the military in domestic security, America’s FBI Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) has inversely been paramilitarised to the level that its law-enforcement members are trained to parachute, scuba dive and rappel from helicopters. It has been repeatedly deployed to overseas battlegrounds, including working side by side with U.S. Special Forces on "cross-deployments" in recent conflicts to sharpen its skill sets to military levels. HRT "operators" were responsible for renditioning out of Libya suspects involved in the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his staff during the 2012 Benghazi attack.

The FBI HRT conducts operations overseas wherever possible with the U.S. military, while domestically it has been responsible for conducting some of the most complex, dangerous hostage rescue missions in the annals of the art. A case in point was the delicate operation to free a 5-year-old boy abducted and held hostage in an explosively boobytrapped spider hole in Alabama in 2013, where two HRT operators received the civilian equivalent of the Victoria Cross for their selfless bravery when shielding the hostage with their own bodies from explosions during the final assault.

The American intra-security matrix, in which the FBI adapted itself through Herculean transformational efforts from a primarily crime-fighting organisation to a dual counter-terrorism agency, is here actually inverted to the proposed super-sizing of the Australian counter-terrorism model. The FBI has expanded into the military’s traditional realm to lead overseas missions and conduct arrests during Special Forces raids rather than the FBI handing off internal counter-terrorism responsibilities to the military. The outcome of adhering to the foundational doctrine of posse comitatus no matter the fiscal or political cost.

Unleashing the military with blind faith it is the best option simply does not hold up to analysis. The British SAS set the hostage rescue bar during Princes Gate with an incredible, calibrated hostage rescue operation in the 1980s. In the same year, the U.S. Delta Force set the other end of the metric with the spectacularly embarrassing "Desert One" fiasco. Today, U.S. and UK Special Forces’ success rates during hostage rescue operations in Iraq/Syria, Afghanistan and North-Africa remain sketchy at best. In short, the differential between expectation and execution in Special Operations history has bitten many statesmen and women over the years.

If the Federal Government is to intelligently respond to the lessons of the Lindt Siege, the counter-terrorism budget, assets and responsibilities of the ADF need to be transferred to the AFP’s Specialist Response Group as quickly as possible, so as to adapt to modern terrorism as fast, efficiently and politically responsibly as Israel, Germany, France, the U.K. and the US. and indeed the rest of the civilised world. Nor are the military "our best", to be brutally honest, in a foundation stone level debate (one does not require a high school certificate to enlist in the military, nor a university degree to serve as an officer). The NSW Police requires University diplomas and the AFP requires university degrees to apply, while female applicants are taken by all tactical parties to the debate now, ADF included (neutering the "tougher" argument usually espoused by Defence, if it were ever so). We must also remember that the TOU operators who stormed the Cafe were fully expecting to die in a mini-Beslan and went in anyway. Reductive logic frames the matter as one of simple resource allocation — of trading budget streams over core values.

Minus a legislative framework to govern and oversee clandestine operations, and already suffering some of the "harshest, most sweeping" anti-terror laws instituted in the Western world since 9/11, we nonetheless find ourselves at the precipice of being one of the few Western nations to cede its military more political power at the domestic policy table. Moreover, the military is given a controlling, lead role in internal security, going even further than the highly controversial U.S. policy of assassinating suspected citizen terrorists fighting overseas to indeed permit the military to engage its own citizens on its very own streets, warranted or not. By evolving a policy matrix that pressures, if not compels, even federal law enforcement units to faster "hand-off" to the Australian military domestic counter-terrorism contingencies crafts an unprecedented political landscape — ironically (or perhaps not) as imposed by an originally unelected, real life House Of Cards Prime Minister.

The ADF as lead agency in high-level domestic security concerns appears to be a fait accompli. Whether or not and to what extent the imminently severe blurring of the country’s civilian-military divide erodes further will, lamentably, not be up to the Australian public but rather our terrorist attackers. This helps these terrorists achieve their strategic aim, in a roundabout way, of changing us politically rather than us changing them.

Dr Allan Orr is an international security specialist whose publications revolve around the topics of terrorism and insurgency. 

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