It is a little-known fact of the history of World War II that several of the Allied amphibious landings from the Mediterranean to the coast of Normandy were preceded by exploratory missions in the hands of the British Special Boat Service.
Comprehensive reports on the proposed landing beaches were compiled, including details of garrisons, defences and mines. The tides were registered in terms of their dimensions. When the Allied infantry landed, they knew about as much of the conditions on the beaches as was possible to deduce.
In this and many other senses, the Special Boat Service demonstrated its value, as it did later in the campaigns in Southeast Asia.
It is now time for Australia to embrace the formation of our own special boat service, and the forthcoming strategic review of our military capabilities offers an ideal opportunity.
The opportunity is also ideal for refreshing the sense of purpose in the existing Special Air Service Regiment and rebuilding a reputation that has been damaged at the margins by claims against a comparative handful among the justifiably elite and honoured unit. There needs to be a recognition that, after all the turmoil that has engulfed the SAS recently, just asserting a return to business as usual will not carry the day.
There needs to be change at the regiment and the best form of change is to add to the Australian Defence Force’s depth, reach and impact by forging a parallel maritime service.
Understandably, the strategic review has been focused mostly on capability for the ADF.
Creating a special boat service would add a dimension of capability to our security outreach, building closer relations with respective militaries from Sumatra to Suva.
There would be no clearer signal to the island archipelagos to our north that they matter in terms of co-operative Australian perspectives, guaranteeing sovereignty, and confirming that democratic values will prevail in the free and open region.
In democracies, symbols and gestures matter. The creation of a special boat service is an acknowledgment of our history during times of conflict and our future, deterring the adventurism of dictators elsewhere.
The British SBS was born of adversity in the perilous period of 1940. Founded by Lieutenant Roger “Jumbo” Courtney, who was all of 38 years old, the SBS pre-dated the formation of the now famed Special Air Service by about a year. The two services shared a lack of conventionality and a preparedness to experiment with war-fighting skills.
The SBS was designed to challenge the Axis powers – Germany and Italy – in the most cost-effective manner possible through interventions in enemy territory from reconnaissance to raids.
It kindled the imagination of the wartime Allies through its exploits, including the famous mission to destroy enemy shipping in Bordeaux that came to be described as the “Cockleshell Heroes”. The raid on Bordeaux was brilliantly successful, but most of the raiders paid for that success with their lives. Under the terms of Adolf Hitler’s notorious Commando Order of 1942, the Geneva Conventions did not apply to them as captives. They were executed by Nazi firing squads.
The British SBS continues to serve as a model for Western special forces everywhere. From inception, the service has been disciplined and focused.
In the opening to his magnificent SBS: Silent Warriors – The Authorised Wartime History of the Special Boat Service, British military historian Saul David outlines its modus vivendi: “It preferred the subtle approach: arriving silently at night, on or below the sea, to gather intelligence, ferry agents or equipment, destroy enemy infrastructure or ships, and support advancing troops.”
The ADF already possesses the skills and experience in some of its units of those capacities that are contained in the British SBS. But there is a pressing need to create a new unit, based in the north of the country, perhaps in both Cairns and Darwin, that enables a modest Australian power projection with allies and partners.
When potentially adversarial powers are aiming to create bases of all description, from ports to airfields, the presence of an Australian special boat service in the waters of the region lends a sharp demonstration of Australian engagement. This will constitute a very clear indication that Australian defence policy is being reoriented from expeditionary preparedness and the Middle East to our Oceanic waters.
It also offers various police services, including the Australian Federal Police, a greater authority in confronting international criminals involved in smuggling of all kinds, especially drug smuggling. Again, there is enormous benefit in Australian leadership being manifested in maritime security to complement programs such as the delivery of Guardian-class patrol boats to 12 neighbouring island nations, including Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Fiji and East Timor.
The opportunity to work with other democracies – the US, Japan, France and New Zealand – speaks eloquently for itself. In particular, the ability to train with the security forces of Pacific Islands nations will be invaluable. This will serve to further stabilise our region and instil co-operation in meeting challenges, both from foreign actors and transnational criminals.
The current Australian government has demonstrated considerable energy in both our policy and presence in the Pacific. The recent bipartisan delegation led by Foreign Minister Penny Wong to Vanuatu, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau has achieved much in terms of interlocking security. The Chinese diplomatic entreaties to date have stalled. They will return, but robust Australian diplomacy, endorsed by the Australian parliament, has been highly effective.
Adding an Australian special boat service to our diplomatic toolkit both renews and reinforces our strategic ability to act co-operatively in our region and conveys an unmistakeable commitment.
Small troops of warriors operating out of Cairns and Darwin afford the ADF the option of both bilateral and multilateral partnerships being extended. Binding collaborative security objectives with both the people and nations of the neighbourhood can mean only a strengthening of our ability to guarantee the democratic future of the region. Our shared democratic future can be confirmed only by effective deterrence and such deterrence must not simply rest on the major capabilities that are being considered in Canberra for all three services of the ADF.
Such capabilities are, of course, important in the lethality of Australian contributions to stability in the Indo-Pacific. But the presence of elite forces, such as an Australian special boat service combined with well-trained local personnel, must cause the foolhardy among foreign powers to think carefully before encroaching within our waters and those of our neighbours.
Like its early British counterparts, an Australian SBS could be highly cost effective. Its presence in the island states can mean a greater Australian contribution to the common destinies of our neighbours. Our allies and partners will welcome this. Others will take notice.