The death of a decorated commando during his fifth tour of duty in Afghanistan has left Australia's top military commander questioning Tuesday whether Australia is asking too much of its elite soldiers in a protracted campaign.
Australia's 300-strong Special Operations Task Group is the third largest special forces contribution in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain.
Sgt. Todd Langley, 35, was killed by a shot to the head in southern Afghanistan during a joint Australian-Afghan special forces operation Monday. A second Australian soldier who has not been named was seriously wounded in the same battle, Australian Defense Force chief Lt. Gen. David Hurley said Tuesday.
Hurley, who became Australia's top military commander on Monday, said the deaths of several decorated veterans of multiple six- and eight-month tours of duty in Afghanistan raise the question of whether too much is being asked of them.
"I think that's a fairly natural question to ask," Hurley told reporters. "How frequently can we send these people there?"
"But they put their hands up, they volunteer, they want to go," he added.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the decision on when an individual soldier from an elite Commando or Special Air Service Regiment had done enough was not one that a government could make.
"This has to be a case-by-case assessment and decision and it's not a discussion I have as prime minister," she told reporters.
"I've met with a number of soldiers who have been to Afghanistan three, four, five times and they talk to me about their enthusiasm to go back again," she said.
"Now not everybody would feel like that, and that's why of course command has to respond to the circumstances of the individual," she added.
Neil James, executive director of the security think tank Australian Defense Association, said few Australian soldiers have served more tours than Langley, although he knew of one who had done eight. He said the association believes Australia's special forces are over-stretched.
"There's a very small part of the national family fighting our current wars, and the Defense Association opinion is that they're bearing a disproportionate national responsibility," James said.
Langley is the 28th Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan since Australia joined the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The special forces are part of a 1,550-member Australian military contingent which is focused on training an Afghan National Army brigade to take security responsibility for Uruzgan province. Australia is the 10th largest military contributor to Afghanistan and the largest outside NATO.
Gillard said Australia is on track to withdraw troops in 2014.