15 Jun 2013

Battle footage shows reality of war - minister

11:04 am on 15 June 2013

The Defence Minister says the unprecedented decision to release footage of a firefight in Afghanistan was to help people understand the conditions New Zealand soldiers were in.

The Defence Force on Thursday released a military court of inquiry's findings on two separate incidents last year in which five New Zealand soldiers were killed.

In a rare move, the Defence Force made public video footage of part of a firefight filmed by a camera on the helmet of one of the soldiers.

Lance Corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer were killed during the battle on 4 August 2012 and six other soldiers were wounded. The report found the two soldiers died after being shot by insurgents but two of the injured were likely to have been hit by avoidable friendly fire.

Four New Zealand patrols joined the battle with rebels in Bamyan province.

Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer (left) and Rory Malone.

Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer (left) and Rory Malone. Photo: NZ DEFENCE FORCE

The report considered whether the soldiers' training had focused too much on individual teams rather than the whole company responding together.

It found pre-deployment training was adequate, but could be stepped up to better prepare soldiers for the complexity and chaos of a real life battle.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme the release of the footage of the ambush was to help people understand the complex environment.

"The fog of war is a very real thing, things happen at high pace. It's easy to be wise after the fact, but people are putting in their best performance on the day in the context of a very difficult situation."

The inquiry also looked at the second incident, on 19 August last year, when Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris died when their Humvee hit an improvised roadside bomb in Bamyan.

Corporal Tamatea had also been the firefight on 4 August, and his mother says the video shows the difficult terrain the troops were working in and proves how well trained they were.

Lynne McSweeney told Morning Report the way the troops were able to take control of the ambush was testimony to their training and ability.

The Defence Force video below shows footage of the firefight on 4 August 2012.

Ex-army boss questions combat training

Former army chief Major-General Lou Gardiner says the combat training of New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan was focused too heavily on single patrols rather than several fighting together.

Major-General Gardiner says four years ago when he was head of the army, training was geared around single patrols and did not anticipate the possibility of four teams coming together in combat.

Defence Minister Johnathan Coleman says the Defence Force's training is adequate.

The director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, Professor Robert Ayson, says it's impossible to fully prepare soldiers for the chaos of battle.

"So while the (court of inquiry) report does talk about the importance of responding to this situation in terms of future training, it also points out that you actually cannot completely replicate the reality of battlefield situations in a training regime."

Minister rejects negligence claim

Mr Coleman has rejected an accusation it was negligence that led to a live grenade being returned from Afghanistan to New Zealand in the body of one of the soldiers.

The court of inquiry's report said the items, which were part of the soldier's equipment, could have been found only with a more thorough search or by x-ray. The more extensive search was against standard procedure and no suitable x-ray machine was available.

A freelance journalist who specialises in Afghanistan, Jon Stephenson, said the presence of the grenade was negligent and could have caused a tragedy if it had exploded in a pressurised aircraft.

Mr Coleman said the reality was a grenade was found in one of the bodies which had suffered a high impact explosion.

The Defence Force said the grenade's safety bail and firing pin were intact when found at Christchurch Hospital, but it was still a dangerous situation. It says it will do everything it can to ensure it doesn't happen again.

The inquiry said there are real gaps in the quality of the army's mortuary affairs training and it recommends that it be reviewed.