The Special Air Service Regiment, officially known as the SASR and commonly referred to as the SAS, is a special forces unit of the Australian Army. While it is modelled on the British SAS, with which it shares the motto "Who Dares Wins", the regiment also draws on the experience of World War II Australian special reconnaissance and commando units, particularly Z Special Unit (Z Force/SRD). It is based at Campbell Barracks, in Swanbourne, a suburb of Perth, Western Australia. The SASR is widely regarded as an elite unit.
The SASR currently has three sabre squadrons, known as 1 Squadron, 2 Squadron and 3 Squadron. These squadrons rotate in turn through the two roles performed by the SASR. One squadron maintains the counter terrorism role, and the remaining two squadrons maintain the surveillance and reconnaissance role. On operations each squadron is supported by a troop from 152 Signal Squadron.
In the reconnaissance role the SASR typically operates in small patrols which has the task of infiltrating enemy-held territory and providing intelligence on troop movements. In this role the SASR generally seeks to avoid directly engaging enemy units, though SASR soldiers will call in air and other support to destroy enemy units whenever possible. SASR reconnaissance patrols can be inserted by air, land or sea (including by submarine) and have proven capable of covering large distances in jungle and desert terrain.
Counter terrorism and Special Recovery
In the counter terrorism and special recovery roles the SASR specialises in tasks such as direct action and hostage rescue, including boarding moving ships (ship underway). In contrast with the SASR's reconnaissance role, when operating in the counter terrorism role SASR units are only tasked with the mission statement "to rescue the hostages". The SASR provides Tactical Assault Group (West), while the 2nd Commando Regiment provides Tactical Assault Group (East).
The Australian Special Air Service was established on 25 July 1957 as the 1st Special Air Service Company. Then in 1960 the company became part of the Royal Australian Regiment and was given the responsibility for commando and special forces operations in the Australian Army. The SASR was expanded to three 'sabre squadrons and gained Regimental status on 20 August 1964 when the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) was established.
The SASR first saw action in 1965 as part of the British Commonwealth force stationed in north Borneo during the Indonesian Confrontation. The Australian SASR troopers operated alongside their British and New Zealand counterparts in operations aimed at stopping Indonesian infiltration into Malaysia, taking part in Operation Claret. Despite often being deployed in the reconnaissance role, SASR units inflicted at least 20 kills on Indonesian forces in a series of ambushes and contacts, on both sides of the border. Three SASR soldiers were killed during these operations, one gored by an elephant and the other two drowned during a river crossing.
The SASR's participation in the Vietnam War began when 3 Squadron deployed as part of the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) in April 1966. The SASR's role in Vietnam was to act as the 'eyes and the ears' of the Australian Task Force through conducting reconnaissance patrols throughout 1 ATF's area of responsibility. As in Borneo the SASR operated closely with the New Zealand SAS, with a New Zealand SAS troop being attached to each Australian Squadron.
SASR Squadrons rotated through Vietnam on one year long deployments until the last Squadron was withdrawn in October 1971. During its time in Vietnam the Regiment was extremely successful in the reconnaissance role. To their enemies members of the regiment were known as the 'phantoms of the jungle' due to their fieldcraft.
The Australian and New Zealand SAS killed at least 492 and as many as 598 and losing only two men killed in action and three fatalities from friendly fire. The remains of the last Australian soldier who went missing in action in 1969 after falling into the jungle during a suspended rope extraction was found in August, 2008.
Australia's SASR also worked with U.S. SEAL Teams and U.S. Army Special Forces, and provided instructors to the LRRP School. Some members also served with the highly secret MACV-SOG Units.
The Australian withdrawal from Vietnam brought to an end the doctrine of 'forward defence' through involvement in South East Asian wars. Instead, the Australian military's new focus was on the defence of continental Australia against external attack. In line with this change, the SASR took the lead in developing the Australian Army's capability to conduct patrol operations in Northern Australia. This role is now filled by the Army's three Regional Force Surveillance Units.
Following the Sydney Hilton bombing in February 1978 the SASR was given responsibility for providing Australia's military counter-terrorism response force. In addition to being able to respond to terrorist attacks in Australian cities, the SASR counter-terrorism unit was also required to be capable of boarding ships and oil platforms.
The SASR has been at the forefront of numerous peacekeeping missions in recent years. The first SASR units to deploy on active service after the Vietnam War did so as part of Australian peacekeeping deployments. The first major deployment of SASR troops occurred when a squadron sized group deployed as part of the Commonwealth Monitoring Force in Rhodesia during the 1980 changeover to Zimbabwe. Small SASR units were attached to Australian forces in Somalia to provide an elite response and VIP protection and security. Contrary to some reports, SASR did not provide a security team for service in Cambodia although a number of SAS qualified signallers from 152 Signal Squadron were deployed as part of the Australian military contribution to the United Nations Advance Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC) and FCU UNTAC. SASR Patrol Medics were also deployed as part of the contribution to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, some of whom were present during the Kibeho Massacre. The current SOCOM RSM earned a Medal for Gallantry in Rwanda. There is a dedicated Security Sergeant's position within the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) allocated to SASR and several SAS qualified Signals Sergeants have also been deployed to MFO in Sinai. In addition, individual members of the SASR have been attached to a wide range of Australian peacekeeping deployments where their high levels of technical skills have proven invaluable.
The Blackhawk tragedy
Deaths during training accidents make up the majority of the SASR's fatalities. The worst accident in the Regiment's history occurred on 12 June 1996 when two UH-60 Blackhawks from the 5th Aviation Regiment carrying SASR troopers collided during a live fire counter-terrorism/special recovery operation exercise at Fire Support Base Barbara in the High Range Training Area at Townsville, Queensland.
This activity was part of Exercise DAY ROTOR 96 and took place on the second day of the exercise sometime after 6:30pm in the evening requiring the pilots to use night vision goggles. Thirty seconds from the Landing Zone (LZ) one of the helicopters veered to the right, clipping the tail rotor of a second aircraft.
Both aircraft caught fire, with one Black Hawk crashing immediately while the other was able to make a crash landing. The moments that followed were marked by outstanding heroism as crash survivors and soldiers from the other helicopters risked the flames and exploding ammunition to rescue their comrades and retrieve the bodies of the dead.
Fifteen members of the SASR and three members of the 5th Aviation Regiment lost their lives in the accident while 14 personnel were given official recognition for their part in the rescue and evacuation operations.
In 1998 the SASR's made its first squadron strength deployment since Vietnam when 1 Squadron, with an attached New Zealand SAS troop, was deployed to Kuwait as part of the American-led Operation Desert Thunder. While this crisis was resolved peacefully, if military action had been taken the SASR's role would have been that of rescuing the crews of aircraft shot down by Iraqi air defences (CSAR).
The SASR played a key role in the Australian-led international peacekeeping force in East Timor between September 1999 and February 2000. 3 Squadron spearheaded most operations conducted by the international force during the early days of the intervention in East Timor and, as in Vietnam, served as the eyes and ears of the force. 1 Squadron replaced 3 Squadron in December 1999 and was subsequently replaced by 2 Squadron. During operations in East Timor the SASR was involved in a number of significant contacts with pro-Indonesian militia, including at Aidabasalala on 16 October 1999.
Domestic security and controversy
The SASR formed a key element of the security force in place for the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. During the Games two SASR squadrons were available for Counter-Terrorist operations. The SASR's Counter-Terrorist role has increased in prominence since the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the SASR has since formed part of the security force for events such as the 2003 Rugby World Cup. The SASR currently provides one of Australia's two elite Tactical Assault Groups (designated TAG (West)), with the other TAG being provided by the 2nd Commando Regiment (formerly the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment).
In August 2001, the SASR was involved in the Tampa affair when the then Counter-Terrorist squadron was ordered to Christmas Island and to board the MV Tampa once it illegally entered Australian waters. While the members of the SASR involved did what they could to improve conditions on the Tampa, the use of an elite military unit to prevent illegal immigrants landing in Australia was not supported by all members of the Regiment and remains controversial. Less controversial, however, was the SASR's involvement in the boarding of the North Korean freighter MV Pong Su in 2003.
Afghanistan and Iraq
In October 2001 the Australian government announced that it was sending a Special Forces Task Group built around a SASR Squadron to participate in the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan (designated Operation Slipper). After staging through Kuwait, 1 Squadron arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001 with the other SASR squadrons rotating in at approximately 6 monthly intervals. The SASR's main role in Afghanistan was to conduct surveillance of al Qaeda and Taliban positions, though SASR Troopers also conducted a number of offensive operations. The SASR initially operated in southern Afghanistan with the US Marines before moving to eastern Afghanistan where it played an important role in Operation Anaconda. The SASR withdrew from Afghanistan in November 2002 after all three SASR squadrons had served in the country. One member of the SASR, Sergeant Andrew Russell, was killed during this deployment when the vehicle he was travelling in hit a land mine.
The SASR provided the majority of the ground force element of the Australian contribution to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, moving in quickly and successfully, thus enhancing Australia's standing amongst its allies. The Australian Special Forces Task Group was built around 1 Squadron, with a platoon from the 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and a troop from the Incident Response Regiment available to support the SASR. 1 Squadron operated in western Iraq where it was successful in securing its area of operations, including the huge Al Asad air base. 1 Squadron was withdrawn from Iraq without replacement shortly after the end of the war, though media reports have claimed that elements of the SASR have subsequently conducted counter-insurgency and training operations in Iraq.
The SASR was re-deployed to Afghanistan in August or September 2005. The Australian Special Forces Task Group in Afghanistan consisted of elements from the SASR, 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), the Incident Response Regiment and logistic support personnel. This task group was withdrawn in September 2006. A Special Operations Task Group, including SASR, was redeployed to Afghanistan in April 2007. On 16 January 2009, it was announced that Trooper Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia, the highest award for gallantry in the Australian Honours system, for gallant acts performed.
A SASR Troop was deployed to Timor Leste in May 2006 as part of Operation Astute. In March 2007 SASR personnel took part in the Battle of Same. It was reported in October 2006 that a force of 20 SASR soldiers was operating in the southern Philippines supporting Filipino operations against the Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah terrorist groups but this was denied by the Department of Defence.
The regiment is currently organised as follows:
Uniform and equipment
The general uniform of the regiment was the Australian issue camouflage (Disruptive Pattern Combat Uniform, or DPCU), however the new Multicam design camouflage is used in Afghanistan by all Special Forces troops, and is now being introduced to all other Australian Army personnel in Afghanistan aswell. Qualified SASR members wear a sand-coloured beret with metal gold and silver winged dagger badge on a black shield. This differs from the British 22 SAS, who have a woven cap badge of the same design. SAS 'Ibis' style parachute wings (rounded at the bottom and straight on top) are worn on the right shoulder only on formal Summer, Winter or Mess dress. SASR qualified Parachute Jump Instructors (PJI) on posting to the Parachute Training School wear the SAS hat badge on an airborne maroon beret and may wear a locally purchased DPCU parachute badge on their Para Smock. In Iraq and Afghanistan, SASR operators were generally distinguished by their long hair and beards, as shaving is not usually carried out whilst on patrol.
Basic patrol weapons are the M4 Carbine (designated M4A5 in Australia) with M203A1 40mm grenade launcher and F89 Minimi Para light machine gun. Another popular patrol weapon is the 7.62mm SR-25 rifle. The main pistol used in the CT role is the Heckler & Koch USP, in wartime roles however it is usually the ADF's standard issue defence sidearm, the Browning Hi-Power that operators will carry. Many other weapon systems are used as the mission dictates. Up to a third of SASR operators are qualified snipers. Operators are multi-skilled and all are parachute-qualified, but they specialise in either Air, Water or Vehicle-mounted insertion methods.
The Regiment is organised into three 'sabre' squadrons, each of up to 100 'beret qualified' operators, and an embedded signal squadron (152 Signal squadron), logistic support squadron, and Operational Support Squadron, which conducts the selection and training courses. Only a small percentage of the Regiment are 'beret qualified' operators. The majority of the regiment personnel are highly trained specialist staff who are posted to the unit to provide support for all operations. These include signallers, mechanics and technicians, medical staff, storemen, and various specialists.
'Beret qualified' SASR members are known as 'Operators' and support staff are affectionately known as 'Blackhats', due to the dark blue berets they wear. Infantry soldiers who are posted to the unit as storemen, drivers, clerks etc. wear the dark 'rifle' green Infantry Corps beret. There are also a number of support personnel who are qualified to wear the sandy beret but have chosen or been directed to remain serving in their particular specialist field. There are also beret qualified members who have been injured and subsequently moved into a support related area.
Signals Corps personnel undertake the same selection and reinforcement cycle training as the rest of the Army, but are rarely released for Corps transfer to Infantry due to the requirement to provide SAS qualified Corps signallers to the Regiment. Personnel from 152 Signal Squadron are encouraged to attempt selection, but as a rule, if successful they remain in the signal squadron and do not transfer into a 'Sabre' squadron. However, in being 'Beret' qualified, they receive a significant pay rise and increased posting longevity to SASR. Members of 152 Signal Squadron are affectionately known as 'Chooks' and are often fully integrated into the 5 man SASR patrols. One member of 152 Signal Squadron was awarded an Infantry Combat Badge during service with the "Gerbils" in Somalia. This was made on the basis that he held an Infantry Employment Code Number (ECN 353 SASR Trooper)and was deployed as part of an SASR team.
Selection and training
Selection is open to all serving Australian military personnel and involves a 3 week selection course which assesses both individual attributes and the ability to work effectively in a small team.
Prior to selection SASR candidates will face a paper board convened by the Special Forces Training Centre (SFTC) to check records and see which part of the service they are vying for. Candidates then have to pass the SFTC Special Forces Psych Test and a Special Forces Medical Board to assess their psychological and medical suitability for the SASR.
80% will meet the standard and continue to the Special Forces Entry Test that tests their physical fitness and includes push-ups, endurance marches and swimming; 64% of applicants will pass the Special Forces Entry Test and continue on to the three week SASR selection course, and 16% of applicants will pass the SASR selection course.
Following selection candidates must complete up to 18 months of further courses before they join a squadron as a junior trooper or troop commander (Captain). A wide array of training and courses are also conducted throughout a SASR soldier's career to allow the regiment to have the most highly-qualified soldiers in the Australian Defence Force.
Officers only complete the necessary basic courses to qualify them for service in the unit, as their expertise is in planning and administration. In general, they do not get the opportunity to complete all the specialist courses required of the ORs.
A new troop commander is carefully mentored by both troop sergeant and patrol commanders. Generally, a troop commander will only serve in the unit for two or three years but may come back as a Major if they have performed well. Soldiers may serve in the Regiment for their entire career, but this will usually include one or more two year external postings to instructional positions on the east coast.
Promotion for soldiers is quite slow in the unit. On receiving their coveted sand-coloured SAS beret, all soldiers are given the rank of Trooper, which may involve a reduction from their previous rank. They usually also change corps if they are not already members of the Infantry Corps.
Despite a possible reduction in rank, SASR soldiers receive significant allowances, which make them among the highest paid soldiers in the Australian Defence Force. With specialist allowances an SASR Trooper earns about $100,000 per annum.
Since their beginnings in 1964, the SASR has lost more men in training than in combat due to the nature of their training regime