A coroner will consider whether a series of errors by senior members exposed troops to a deadly attack during a mentoring mission in Afghanistan.
The Australian army was criticised on Wednesday over the 2012 mission in Oruzgan province in which three soldiers were murdered by a rogue Afghan sergeant.
The inquest into the deaths of Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, 40, Sapper James Martin, 21, and Private Robert Poate, 23, heard a series of systemic failures contributed to them being gunned down as they relaxed within a shared patrol base north of Tarin Kowt.
The defence force was also accused of being too concerned with managing its reputation during closing submissions to the first ever civilian inquest into its overseas operations.
Counsel assisting the coroner, Peter De Waard, acknowledged rogue Afghan sergeant Hekmatullah killed the men but said the insider threat wasn’t taken seriously by mission command despite intelligence suggesting otherwise.
The 24-man unit at the patrol base wasn’t given enough troops to guard it and the soldiers – who were wearing gym gear on the night of the attack – should have had their weapons and armour close by.
“It is not our submission that any of these steps would have guaranteed safety to the Australians,” De Waard told the court. “Some residual risk would certainly have remained.
“However, in terms of the mitigation of that risk it is – in our submission – entirely clear that there were additional protective steps which might plausibly have prevented the attack or reduced its impact.”
Unit commander Major Travis Gordon displayed “seriously deficient” leadership in planning the mission, which should have been picked by the taskforce’s commanding officer Colonel Trent Scott, De Waard told the inquest.
Co-counsel assisting the coroner, Anthony Marinac, slammed an ADF’s internal investigation and accused it of laying blame on the platoon’s commanders: Captain Dominic Lopez and Sergeant Adam Burke.
“The view of the defence force is that nothing happened, nothing went wrong, nothing to see here,” Marinac told the court.
Both submissions by De Waard and Marinac were backed by the soldiers’ families, who were present in court.
Barrister Alan MacSporran QC, for Sapper Martin’s family, called the attack “a catastrophe waiting to happen” while the Poate family’s representative, Matthew Hutchings, said there had been denial by the army at every stage.
“Mr Poate and Mrs Poate are confident that the findings will reveal the systemic shortcomings,” Hutchings said outside court.
The ADF maintains it did nothing wrong. Commonwealth barrister James Renwick pointed out there was no causal link between the ADF’s actions and the soldiers’ deaths.
“Sadly, but inevitably, combat operations cause death and injury,” he said during his submissions.
Queensland deputy coroner John Lock is due to deliver his findings later this year.