A secret squadron of Australian SAS soldiers has been operating at large in Africa, performing work normally done by spies, in an unannounced and possibly dangerous expansion of Australia's foreign military engagement.
The deployment of the SAS's 4 Squadron - the existence of which has never been publicly confirmed - has put the special forces unit at the outer reaches of Australian and international law.
The Age has confirmed that troopers from the squadron have mounted dozens of secret operations over the past year in African nations including Zimbabwe, NIGERIA and Kenya.
They have been out of uniform and not accompanied by Australian Secret Intelligence Service officers with whom undercover SAS forces are conventionally deployed.
It is believed the missions have involved gathering intelligence on terrorism and scoping rescue strategies for Australian civilians trapped by kidnapping or civil war.
But the operations have raised serious concerns within the Australian military and intelligence community because they involve countries where Australia is not at war.
There are also concerns within the SAS that the troopers do not have adequate legal protection or contingency plans if they are captured. "They have all the espionage skills but without [ASIS's] legal cover" said one government source.
In a comment relayed to government officials, one soldier said: "What happens if we get caught?"
Australian National University professor Hugh White, a former deputy secretary of Defence, said: "Such an operation deprives the soldier of a whole lot of protections, including their legal status and, in a sense, their identity as a soldier. I think governments should think extremely carefully before they ask soldiers to do that."
Despite the dangers, then foreign minister Kevin Rudd last year asked for troopers from 4 Squadron to be used in Libya during that country's conflict. His plan was thwarted by opposition from Defence Minister Stephen Smith and chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley.
Both Mr Smith and General Hurley declined to be interviewed about this story.
SAS 4 Squadron is based at Swan Island, near Queenscliff, a high-security defence facility that has doubled in size over the past decade, in part to accommodate the new squadron.
The squadron was formally raised in 2005 by the Howard government, but The Age has learnt that its new intelligence-focused role was authorised in late 2010 or early last year by Mr Smith.
The SAS is also at the forefront of gender reform in the Australian military, with six female soldiers being trained in the United States for their work with 4 Squadron.