Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 03:43 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 03:43 | SYDNEY

Defence fatality reporting slows down


James Brown


30 November 2011 14:14

It's been nearly a month since three Australian soldiers were shot and killed in Afghanistan by a member of the Afghan National Army, and the public is no closer to understanding what Defence has concluded was the reason behind the attacks.

At the time, Defence committed to a full investigation of all three deaths. But Defence investigations into deaths in Afghanistan are taking longer to complete, and longer still to be publicly released. I've argued that one of the reasons for declining public support for the military presence in Afghanistan is a lack of defence transparency. An analysis of the time taken to investigate deaths in Afghanistan (see table below) shows that transparency is increasingly hard to come by.

Between 2007 and 2009 the average time taken by Inquiry Officers to complete reports was 54 days. Since 2010, an inquiry takes 144 days on average. Between 2007 and 2009 it took an average of seven months after a fatality for inquiry reports to be released to the public. Now the average is 15 months. More redaction is taking place in reporting too: the name of the Inquiry Officer is now often blacked out on released reports where previously full personal details of the report's author were left visible.

There have been 16* ADF fatalities in Afghanistan since Stephen Smith became Defence Minister yet only two inquiry reports has been released in that time. One of those reports, into the death of Private Bewes from an IED, took eight months to complete and another eight months before it was released to the public in October this year. The inquiries into the deaths of Sappers Moreland and Smith on 7 June 2010 have now taken more than 541 days to be released.

Most concerning is that nearly 16 months after the death of LCPL McKinney during the battle of Derapet in Uruzgan province, no public report has been released addressing concerns raised at the time that Australian soldiers in combat had inadequate support. LCPL McKinney was killed in the first hour of a three-hour firefight in which a company of Australia infantry and Afghan soldiers fought a large number of insurgent fighters.

An email sent by one of the soldiers involved claimed that the Army had let down soldiers in the battle by not providing enough artillery or air support, due to concerns about collateral damage. The Chief of Joint Operations at the time strongly dismissed media reporting of the incident as 'wrong and ill informed and quite frankly not helpful' and declared that a CDF inquiry would investigate. The coalition Defence spokesperson hastily responded by calling for additional troop deployments to Afghanistan. Sixteen months on and both the Opposition and Government have forgotten the matter and no investigation has been publicly released.

Defence needs to provide complete and accurate reporting so that its own personnel can improve their tactics, so that any internal problems can be fixed, and so that the families of killed soldiers have some degree of closure.

But there is also a public interest in releasing timely inquiry reports. Slow public reporting does little to reduce perceptions of some parts of the community that Defence and the Government are excessively secretive on the issue of Afghanistan casualties. There are 16 fatality inquiries yet to be released, 10 of which are for fatalities that happened more than six months ago.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

*Due to an editorial error, this figure previously read 15 casualties, rather than 16.