|Cameron Stewart | January 27, 2009
Article from: The Australian
THE Australian Defence Force has refused to fast-track the purchase of a rocket defence system that might have saved the life of an Australian soldier killed this month in Afghanistan.
The ADF has known since 2005 that it needs a capability to shoot down incoming Taliban rockets and mortars to protect its troops in the field, but does not plan to get such a system until 2018.
Australian Commando Greg Sher was killed in a Taliban rocket attack early this month and ADF Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston has admitted his troops are coming under frequent attack from Taliban rockets.
When asked by The Australian whether, in the wake of Private Sher's death, there were plans to fast-track the acquisition of a rocket defence system, the ADF said the schedule for such a capability was still "an entry into service date of 2018".
"There are many threats in Afghanistan which are being addressed by major and minor capability protects," a spokesman said. "The priority of the projects within the context of current and future possible operations is being reviewed on a regular basis."
The defence system, known as Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM), protects troops by detecting incoming rockets and then firing a burst of ammunition to destroy them in mid-flight.
The technology for the C-RAM systems is still evolving, but the US and Britain have already deployed C-RAM systems to Afghanistan.
Canada is urgently looking to acquire such a capability to protect its troops there.
In August 2005, the Australian Army's Capability Management Committee endorsed the requirement for a C-RAM and in 2006 an ADF officer was sent to the US, Iraq and Afghanistan to investigate the options.
In 2007, the officer wrote a report recommending acquiring C-RAM, saying it would significantly improve the protection of troops in the field.
Defence insiders have privately expressed dismay that this capability has been given so little priority. They say more urgent action is needed, given Private Sher's death and the growing threat of Taliban rocket attacks in Oruzgan province, where Australian troops are based.
The issue is likely to be the subject of heated debate as defence planners prepare the defence white paper due for release later this year.
The controversy comes at a time when the federal Government is believed to be preparing to announce an additional commitment of troops to Afghanistan in response to an expected request from the new administration of US President Barack Obama.
Private Sher became the eighth Australian soldier to die in Afghanistan when he was killed by a Taliban rocket attack on January 4 in an insurgent hotspot northeast of the provincial capital Tarin Kowt.
"Over the last five years or so, our people in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been subject to frequent attacks by indirect fire -- usually 107 millimetre or 122 millimetre rockets," Air Chief Marshal Houston said when announcing Private Sher's death.
"These are rockets that are fairly inaccurate, but they're fired at coalition facilities. And over the last five years we've been extremely lucky. We've had some people who have been wounded, but I regret that on this occasion our luck ran out (with Private Sher)."
A Defence spokesman said that in the absence of a C-RAM system, troops in Afghanistan protected themselves from rocket attacks through "active patrolling and surveillance, including the use of unmanned aerial vehicles".
"Protection measures include individual protective equipment, highly resilient working and living quarters, and early warning systems which alert personnel to the incoming threat and allow them to take cover in purpose-build bunkers," the spokesman said.