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Wednesday, 29 September 1971
Page: 1625


Mr BARNARD (Bass) - The submission of this matter of public importance is intended as an exercise in clarification of aspects of the disposition of the Australian Task Force in Vietnam; it is not intended as a post-mortem into the tragic encounter last week in which 5 Australian soldiers were killed and another 25 wounded, nor is it intended as a vehicle by which to canvass the broad range of issues affecting Vietnam which have preoccupied this House over the past 7 years.

This is not the time to assess what our military commitment in Vietnam has done to Australia and what impact it has had on the defence and security of this country. The final wash-up in Vietnam is beyond the capability of this country to influence in any way. No-one knows with any degree of precision what is going to happen to Vietnam. The Government spokesmen have their views on the level of security that has been achieved in South Vietnam. The Opposition may be extremely sceptical of the worth of these assessments. We will not know for another 2 years at least whether the South Vietnamese state as now constituted will survive or whether it will crumble under renewed Communist pressure.

For Australia the conflict has contracted to a narrow and rapidly diminishing focus, that is, the safe withdrawal of the remainder of the Task Force from Phuoc Tuy Province. The over-riding issue in the remaining months of the commitment should be to ensure the safe and bloodless removal of the remainder of the Australian forces from Vietnam. This is precisely the reason for raising this matter now. The Opposition has warned repeatedly that the extrication of our troops from Phuoc Tuy Province would be a very dangerous task. It has pointed out that, as the most vulnerable flag force in Vietnam during the rundown of overseas forces, the Task Force faced the peril of special attention from the North Vietnamese main force units and the Vietcong. There is no reason why the Communists in Phuoc Tuy should sit by passively and watch a dwindling antagonist withdrawing across their front. The events of the past week have reinforced these fears. Flowing from the engagement last week, subsequent statements made by the Minister for Defence (Mr Fairbairn) and the Minister for the Army (Mr Peacock), and the answers given by the Minister for Defence to questions in the Parliament yesterday, the Opposition wants to look at the disposition of Australian forces in Phuoc Tuy Province and the security of their withdrawal.

The first matter we want to look at is the present role in which Australian forces are engaged. There seems to have been no change in the role stipulated for the Australian Task Force even with the sharp contraction in its strength. Briefly summarised, the role of the Australian forces was always envisaged as an offensive one, designed actively to engage the main force regiments, winnow out the Vietcong infrastructure and secure the Province. In the past 2 years much stress has been put on the growth in strength of provincial units in Phuoc Tuy. A picture was painted of the transformation of security in the Province as these territorial units grew in strength and gradually assumed increasing responsibility for the security of the Province. This picture was exposed as an illusion by last week's engagement. In this encounter the Task Force engaged what have been identified as part of a main force Communist regiment without any support from the territorial units supposedly taking over control of the Province. The Government's repeated claims that the Task Force could be withdrawn because the Province has been secured were exposed as a myth. Just as significantly the engagement revealed that the Task Force was still engaged in an active role of hunting out the Communists and engaging them. This is the technique designated as search and destroy by the Americans.

It is true there has been some conflict of opinion between the commander of the Task Force and the Minister for the Army about just what the Army is doing in Phuoc Tuy at the moment. According to Brigadier McDonald in a story published in the 'Australian' on 24th September, the Task Force was still actively seeking out

North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces. The Brigadier was quoted as saying there had been no change in military strategy despite the Australian withdrawal. According to the Minister the Task Force was noi on a search and destroy operation when last week's battle broke out. He said the operation had occurred because of the Australian responsibility for the security of approaches to populated areas and the Australian Task Force base. The battle area had not yet been transferred to Vietnamese control. This is a completely different, emphasis from the interpretation of the operation given by the commander of the Task Force, according to Press reports. The Army's conception of its role has not changed despite the reduction in strength from 3 battalions to 2 battalions and in the next few weeks to one battalion. This was indicated by the former Task Force Commander, Brigadier Henderson, in a television interview earlier this year. The Brigadier said that despite the removal of one battalion the Task Force role was the same; in substance it was performing a 3-battalion role with 2 battalions. Quite obviously what was militarily feasible with 3 battalions is completely beyond the compass of one battalion. If the Army is to continue a role of actively seeking out enemy units and engaging them, more heavy casualties can be expected.

It seems the Government is culpable here for not insisting that our forces go wholly on the defensive. The task of withdrawal in the face of an active and far from beaten enemy is an immensely difficult one. The difficulties are only intensified if an active role of policing and patrolling the Province is superimposed on the task of withdrawal. No single battalion could perform these 2 military tasks in conjunction, that is, to secure much of the Province and make a simultaneous withdrawal. Yet on the words of the Task Force commander this is how the Army sees its role during the next few crucial months. The Minister for Defence did nothing to dispel this impression in the Parliament yesterday. The Government has a clear duty to direct the commander of the Task Force that in the remaining months in Vietnam, the Task Force should operate strictly on the defensive. It should shed immediately the aggressive patrolling role it sustained in previous years with 3 battalions and support troops. With only one battalion and with most of the support elements gone, it would be disastrous to continue this role.

The second point the Opposition wants clarified is the relative disposition of Australian and South Vietnamese forces in Phuoc Tuy. The Minister for Defence said yesterday that South Vietnamese regional and popular forces were already responsible for a considerable proportion of the province. According to the Minister the Task Force still maintained the responsibility for security and operations in some of the more remote areas. This hardly squares with the account of Australian responsibility given by the Minister for the Army. The Minister for the Army defines Australian responsibility as the security of approaches to populated areas and the base at Nui Dat. This is sufficiently vague to be defined in any way you want. In a sense approaches to populated areas and the Task Force base could be denned as the whole of Phuoc Tuy province. What is plain is that the area of responsibility defined by the Minister for the Army is not the more remote areas of the province as stated by the Minister for Defence. It would not be a breach of security for either of these Ministers to state to the Parliament just what areas the South Vietnamese are responsible for and what areas the Australians still secure. This is the only way of clearing up these flagrant contradictions between the Minister for Defence and the Minister for the Army. If the remaining battalion is still responsible for patrolling widely over the whole province as withdrawal is undertaken, then it is exposed to very grave risks.

The third point I want to raise on behalf of the Opposition is the security of the remaining forces during the 2 phases of withdrawal. These are the initial withdrawal from the central area of the province to the seaport of Vung Tau, and then the sealift from Vung Tau to Australia. The first phase will mean the withdrawal of the Fourth Battalion, remaining support units and a considerable amount of equipment through an area whose security is highly suspect. It seems that the Fourth Battalion is engaged at the moment in covering the Third Battalion as it completes withdrawal over the next 2 weeks. The problem remains of how to protect the

Fourth Battalion as it makes a similar withdrawal to Vung Tau, presumably in late October or early November. The Minister was far from clear yesterday on how this difficult evacuation is to be safeguarded. He said that every possible assistance would be sought and be given in the evacuation by the South Vietnamese and by the United States Air Force. He did not say whether the South Vietnamese assistance would be from regular ARVN units or the territorial units. The territorial units which are ostensibly responsible for a great proportion of the province were not engaged in last week's battle. When the elements of the Third Battalion were reinforced during this encounter, the reinforcement came from the Task Force, not from South Vietnamese provincial units.

On the details released by the Army it seems there are no regular South Vietnamese Army units on active operations in Phuoc Tuy province at the moment. If there are, the Minister should indicate what units are available and how they will be used to protect Australian withdrawal. To put it bluntly, there is no reason to think that the provincial and popular units have the capability to provide adequate protection for Australian withdrawal. There is no doubt in my mind that these units, despite the improvement claimed for them by this Government, have not the ability to cope with mainforce North Vietnamese units. Last week's battle indicated that these forces are re-entering the north of the province in some strength. In this situation it is imperative that the Third Battalion has the protection of the Regular Army of South Vietnam during this withdrawal.

There are other questions of security raised after the completion of withdrawal to Vung Tau. The Australian forces will not be as exposed here as at Nui Dat but grave dangers remain. The port of Vung Tau is dominated by the Long Hai hills which are still a Vietcong stronghold. The area of the Australian logistics base, which will be the nerve centre of withdrawal, is also vulnerable to enemy penetration from the sea and across adjoining marsh and sand dune country. A strong risk element will remain until the last man is shipped aboard off Vung Tau. In these final critical months, there is an obligation on the South Vietnamese Government to protect and facilitate Australian withdrawal. This protection should not be dependent on territorial or provincial units. I hope the Minister will give an assurance to the House that the support of regular ARVN units will be available during this decisive period.

In summary, all the present difficulties and anxieties about the Task Force as the commitment runs down stem from one crucial choice of Government policy. This was to spread the Australian withdrawal over a protracted period. Withdrawal began in December last year; by the time of completion it will have taken more than a year. The reason given for extending withdrawal over this length of time was the need to allow the territorial forces to develop and take over control of the province. On the evidence available the extension of the commitment has not achieved this aim. Certainly the Government should have planned for withdrawal of the last 2 battalions together. What should have been a concentrated withdrawal has turned into a piecemeal withdrawal spread over too long a time span. This has given the Communist forces in Phuoc Tuy province all the intelligence it needs about the Task Force's intentions and likely movements; punches have been telegraphed to the enemy long before the fight.

At a time when the bulk of American forces in South Vietnam arc acting on the defensive and in support roles, the Government should insist that the remnants of the Task Force relinquishes immediately an offensive patrolling role designed to find and destroy enemy units. For these reasons the Opposition has raised this matter today to allow the Government to clarify confusing aspects of its Vietnam policy, and to reassure the Parliament and people on the security of Australian forces during the agonising months of withdrawal ahead. Australian security must be imperative; our forces must not be influenced by projections of what could happen in Phuoc Tuy after Australian forces leave forever.


Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honourable member's time has expired.







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