The SAS, its role and its place within the NZDF – or who controls the chicken stranglers?

We seek the indulgence of readers of a delicate disposition to bear with us for a moment as we dip into what some call crude soldiery and examine some important aspects revealed in the Arnold-Palmer report into Operation Burnham. We know this concerned the NZ Special Air Service in actions in Afghanistan and drew the attention of writers Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager.

In certain parts of the Army, the Special Air Service is known as the “chicken stranglers”. Some believe there is a connection with SAS training .  Others maintain this is simply vulgar and far from the refined reality of the service.

In their deliberations on issues raised in the Stephenson-Hager book, Sir Terence and Sir Geoffrey considered the role of the SAS and where it sat within the New Zealand Defence Force hierarchy and its accountability.

This raises a bigger question: the role of the SAS and how its persuasive proponents over the years have persuaded successive ministers.

There’s nothing like a brisk exercise at SAS HQ when the gallant warriors break into a mock hostage confinement and spring the witnesses to safety in an impressive son et lumiere performance. More funding for special facilities? No problem.

Sir Geoffrey and Sir Arnold pointed to a structural problem which played some part in the way that the Operation Burnham saga unfolded. This was the place of the SAS within the NZDF organisational setup.

The Directorate of Special Operations was located in NZDF Headquarters rather than with the Joint Forces Command at Trentham, and operated to a large extent within a silo.

“It appears that the Director of Special Operations regularly briefed the Minister of Defence directly (rather than through the Chief of Defence Force) and, as a practical matter, seems to have had direct access to the Prime Minister and other ministers, particularly the Minister of Foreign Affairs, when he thought it necessary.”

The report records an exchange between Kristy McDonald QC, counsel assisting the inquiry, and former Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General (Retired) Tim Keating, who was asked:

 And you were then Chief of Staff to the CDF when the Operation Burnham unfolded, so you knew about the Operation presumably at the time?

He replied:

 “Not necessarily in my role, Chief of Staff to the CDF was more administrative. So various operations throughout that time were compartmentalised for security reasons and matters, operations of that nature were sometimes need to know and only certain people in the Defence Force were included in the briefings.”

Then vice chief of defence force, Air Marshal Kevin Short, made a similar point. Matters involving the NZSAS were held tightly by CDF, the Directorate of Special Operations, and the Commanding Officer of the NZSAS. That closed command structure was well entrenched, having been in place for decades, he said.

“These observations reflect a culture of exclusivity and secrecy associated with the NZSAS as an elite special operations force. This culture resulted in NZDF overly compartmenting information.”

Operational command was delegated to the Commander Joint Forces New Zealand. That was a stronger command authority and responsibility than the technical control assigned to the Director of Special Operations.

“Yet it is apparent that information about NZSAS operations in Afghanistan went through the Director of Special Operations, and that he had effective decision-making responsibility.

“The performance of the Directorate of Special Operations was one of the problems highlighted by Dr Jonathan Coleman (former defence minister) in June/July 2014, when the Incident Assessment Team Executive Summary came to light and the Minister expressed his displeasure at NZDF’s record-keeping failures.”

In further evidence, Lt Gen Keating said he changed the existing organisational structure in an effort to address the problems that had emerged. He moved all special forces operations to the control of the Commander Joint Forces, who was located at Trentham rather than at NZDF Headquarters.

He considered that running such operations out of NZDF Headquarters was inappropriate because there were no systems there to handle the wealth of documentation that came in.

On occasion, the NZSAS are called on to carry out dangerous operations in hostile conflict areas. Being too open about their activities may place them in danger. Much of what they do depends on the element of surprise and the conditions in which they operate are challenging, with the constant prospect of casualties, Sir Geoffrey and Sir Terence wrote.

Despite the need for some security constraints, however, it seems possible that a policy of greater openness with regard to information about NZDF’s activities could be adopted, including as to the activities of the NZSAS.

“The special tactics, techniques and procedures that provide the NZSAS with an operational edge must be protected. Yet when they are deployed in New Zealand’s name because of policy choices made by the Government, there must be some transparency concerning their actions.

“The NZSAS are the forces of New Zealand. What they do engages New Zealand’s cultural, legal and reputational interests and will be relevant to all New Zealanders. The tasks they perform must accord with New Zealand public opinion as to what is appropriate for our forces operating abroad.”

So, it appears that the NZSAS is coming under closer operational scrutiny from within the overall joint command structure, although Sir Terence and Sir Geoffrey agree it will be the task of the current minister to ensure this happens.




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