Australian Army slams soldiers' site

A Web site containing reviews of military kit and weapons has come under fire from the Australian Army

The Australian Army is cracking down on a Web site believed to be run by a group of serving Australian soldiers that reviews military equipment and hosts an online forum.

An Army spokesperson told ZDNet Australia that it had directed members responsible for the Web site to "comply with their obligations" regarding release of information to the public, citing concerns over security, accuracy, copyright and legal liabilities.

A representative from My Secure Host, the Internet service provider that hosts the site, said Army personnel had called him several times in an attempt to locate the operators of the Web site. The representative said, however, the Army had not applied pressure to him to shut the site down.

Instructions from the Department of Defence, released in response to ZDNet Australia's queries, state that the "unauthorised release of information threatens our good standing in the community", and advise that any information obtained through a soldier's course of duty should be considered "official" and disclosure should therefore be authorised.

The Army spokesperson said "the army is disappointed that some members have chosen not to use the available reporting systems to advise their concerns regarding their equipment, and encourages them to do so".

However, the Defence instructions also state that information should be withheld generally only "when disclosure would adversely affect security or threaten the safety or privacy of Defence people".

In a series of emailed responses to ZDNet Australia, the Army spokesperson said the organisation had taken the measures on instruction from Australian Defence Force (ADF) administration. He added that the Army had not sought to stop individuals from accessing the site. However, users of the Web site, the Australian Defence Association (ADA), and the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) say the military is trying to stop its personnel using the site.

Neil James, executive director of the ADA, says the situation "as he's been told" is that the Department is "trying to stop people from using it". Similarly, Barry Billings, president of the NSW branch of the VVAA, says his understanding is that soldiers have been instructed not to visit the site and Vietnam veteran Glen Barry says that troops have been "warned off" the site and told not to participate in forums.

The Web site states its purpose is to provide an unbiased assessment of military issue and independently acquired equipment used by soldiers in the ADF to assist those who wish to purchase additional gear.

Barry Billings, president of the NSW branch of the VVAA, says the Web site is an educational tool for young soldiers to learn the "tricks of the trade", describing it as a 21st century means for diggers to communicate.

"They are well within their rights to talk about the equipment that they'll go to battle in, the Web site is just the way they're doing it now," said Billings.

Billings maintains that no subversive information has been published on the Web site, saying the whole uproar has been an overreaction on behalf of the Department.

"These guys aren't planning a mutiny, they're just discussing relevant issues and the army comes down on them like a tonne of bricks. It's censorship of the worst kind," said Billings.

The majority of content published on mil-kit-review involves discussion of the merits of various boots, packs, webbings and sleeping gear equipment (both military issue and other), with a small discussion section relating to weaponry. However, according to Vietnam veteran Glen Barry, the information about military weapons given on the Web site is mild compared to other sources.

"Information about weapons is very common on the Internet, have a look around, you can even buy them," said Barry.

Issues described by the Web site as "hot topics" include voting polls with titles such as "Are your feet standing up to the issued boots?" and "Would you like to be issued a bivi bag?".

The site claims that the ADF has, in the past, issued kit that is "far from the best money can buy", thus leading professional soldiers to amend their equipment with privately purchased items; a problem that Neil James from the ADA says has been occurring for years.

"The base problem is that the country doesn't spend enough on Defence, and one of things that is cut is equipment, because we haven't been buying the best stuff soldiers have been buying their own kit," said James, adding "We're talking basic things like boots and socks."

However, the ADF maintains that the "equipment issued to the army is amongst the best in world and has been proven on operations both within our region and in the Middle East", adding that "non-issue equipment has not been subjected to such measures and its use may place them or their mission at risk and is therefore discouraged."

Billings describes the Department's behaviour in relation to the Web site as "disgraceful", saying the VVAA will be demanding answers from the Australian Defence Force if the site is brought down.

"The diggers are the ones that will be doing the fighting, so they're the ones that will be doing the dying, that gives them the right to question the equipment they use, and in the 21st century the Internet is the way they doing it," said Billings.

For more coverage on ZDNet Australia, click here.